Can a Four-Day School Week Actually Help Kids Who Are Struggling?

With its innovative new school schedule, Olfen hopes to attract students from 45 minutes away in San Angelo, Texas, the closest major town.

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Last October, Texas voted to change the school year from the long-accepted norm of 180 days per calendar year to 75,600 minutes—hour by hour, roughly the same amount of instructional time, but now with more district-by-district say in how exactly those hours are distributed.

The first school to take advantage of this new flexibility is in tiny Olfen, a rural West Texas district with a single K-8 school serving about 60 students. Olfen announced last month that, starting in the 2016–17 school year, it would offer a four-day school week, with 25 more minutes tacked onto each day—so approximately 77,000 hours over 160 days. Fridays would be optional, a day when kids could come in, or not, to receive one-on-one tutoring or participate in enrichment activities.

The four-day school week is by no means a new concept, as a Schooled story found last year:

Madison School District in South Dakota used the schedule as early as the 1931–32 school year, offering academics on the first four school days and extracurricular activities on the fifth. The schedule didn’t gain national popularity until the 1970s, though, when high gas prices caused by the 1973 Arab oil embargo left school districts scrambling to curb their energy consumption. School districts in Maine, New Mexico, and Massachusetts all began experimenting with the four-day week, claiming the switch saved heating and bussing costs.

The trend continues to grow in popularity in Western states like Idaho, Arizona, and Colorado. Many of the districts that shifted to the four-day schedule did so initially for budget reasons, though there’s little evidence that four-day weeks generate real savings. There are also the studies showing that shorter weeks can improve academic outcomes. Other touted advantages are higher teacher retention (and more opportunity for professional development), reduced student absenteeism, and greater overall morale.

Olfen is making the switch for a different reason: to provide more concentrated help to the students who need it. Friday attendance will be optional, and instead of regular classes, struggling students can go to tutorials and get more individualized attention from teachers. “Instead of waiting to try to catch a kid up at the very end of the year,” said Gabriel Zamora, who came to Olfen as superintendent last year, “if you see a kid falling behind now, you can give that kid a whole day to work with the teacher every single week. You really can’t beat that.”

When asked about objections to the new schedule, Zamora said, “The one question that keeps popping up over and over is: ‘What am I supposed to do on that day?’ ” He said that he repeatedly reassures parents, “If you want to send your kids to school, nothing changes: We’re still going to have our staff there, and we’re still going to provide transportation. We’re going to offer all sorts of enrichment activities”: Various possibilities he mentioned include karate, tumbling, pottery, woodshop, Boys and Girl Scouts, perhaps welding for older kids.

The district, which is about 60 percent Hispanic, has been in the “needs improvement” category since before Zamora’s arrival—enough students hit proficiency benchmarks but struggled when it came to “post-secondary readiness,” which is why Zamora also hopes to use the extra day to provide support for the “upper echelon of learners” as well. “We can’t neglect the top kids, either,” he said.

Zamora hopes to pay for the cost of these programs with increased enrollment from nearby counties: “Olfen will always be a small school, but if we can raise our enrollment into the 90s, that will more than offset the costs of these new programs.”

Listening to him, I couldn’t help but think back to my sophomore year in high school, when a series of surgeries kept me out of school for well over a month. For the remainder of the school year, while still struggling with my health, I showed up early at 7:15 every day to catch up in geometry and took make-up history exams during lunch. What if I’d had a whole day every week to get back on track? Unimaginable at the time; would’ve been pretty sweet in retrospect.