Board votes 7-0 to return SH schools to 5-day week

Sean C. Morgan

The Sweet Home School Board Monday evening voted 7-0 to return the district to a five-day school week.

The district is in its fourth year with a four-day school week. Sweet Home switched to a four-day week in 2013-14 primarily as part of around $1.7 million in cuts that included furlough days in the 2012-13 school year.

The School Board opened discussions about a return to a five-day school week last month while discussing falling student achievement and asked Supt. Tom Yahraes to return this month with additional information.

Noting that the district cannot show the four-day week correlates or caused student achievement to slip, Director of Student Achievement Rachel Stucky told the board “research about the effectiveness of the four-day or five-day is inconclusive.”

General guidelines, she said, is to look at the needs of the specific district. She told the board that of 83 districts with enrollment of more than 1,000 students, four have four-day school weeks, including Sweet Home.

She said that Sweet Home students have less contact time with teachers than other districts in the region. In elementary schools, they have 28 hours per week, while the average of the area has 32.5 hours. Junior high students have 29 hours and high school has 31 hours compared to an average of 35 hours of contact time in surrounding districts.

Comparing Hawthorne Elementary School, with 1,043 hours of contact time in a year, and Sublimity Elementary School, with 1,100 hours, Sublimity has 57 more hours per year, Stucky said. Held constant from kindergarten to graduation, that’s a loss of two-thirds of a year of instructional time.

Business Manager Kevin Strong said the four-day week was expected to save around $400,000 per year. At this point, it is saving about $275,000 per year, including $190,000 in labor costs.

The district has added back classified time since the inception of the four-day week, and other costs have increased.

That will be the cost of restoring the five-day week, Strong said, but revenues have increased as well since 2012. Among the factors, the state grant has increased, and enrollment has increased in the district and decreased at the Charter School. The revenue increases are offset by increases in staffing levels.

Total, the district has about $511,000 in new revenue since 2012 when the board voted to begin the four-day week, Strong said, so restoring the five-day week would allow the district to address other needs.

In transportation, said Cheryl Hicks, transportation supervisor, said a five-day week would help the district retain bus drivers, who haven’t been able to work full time.

The four-day week offers maintenance workers the chance to complete projects two Fridays out of the month when students and teachers are not working, said Josh Darwood, maintenance supervisor. On the other hand, people tend to want them to do most of their projects on those two Fridays.

He said his crew will manage with whatever the board chooses to do.

Jennifer Sedlock, director of student services, told the board that a five-day week would be beneficial to Sweet Home’s disadvantaged population. Sweet Home is 70 to 85 percent economically disadvantaged, and 19.5 percent of students are in special education, the highest rate in the state. Some 10.75 percent are homeless, the fifth highest rate in the state.

Poverty, generational poverty, leads to poor academic readiness and causes behavioral issues, which take up instructional time, Sedlock said.

On Fridays, the Boys and Girls Club has 19 to 25 students, Sedlock said. The High School may have 50 to 100 on campus depending on the time of year. She did not have a breakdown on what they were doing, whether it’s athletics or academics. The Junior High has 12 to 15 students, and the Sweet Home Public Library hosts five to 20 students from a population of nearly 2,300 students.

Maybe the four-day week isn’t best in a low-income district, she said. “The five-day week does support and assist a disadvantaged student, which is the bulk of our district.”

Lisa Canaday, president of the teachers union, told the board that two-thirds of the teachers she surveyed preferred the four-day school week, while one-third supported the five-day week.

In the survey, they ranked their preferences in nine areas where they thought the district ought to spend $275,000. She presented them to the board as a weighted average.

The most important priority was decreasing class sizes, Canaday said. Second, they thought the money would be better spent hiring specialists, like music, art and PE teachers, and on higher salaries and benefits.

Of the teachers, 40 percent listed the five-day week as their bottom priority, while 20 to 30 percent ranked highest smaller class sizes, hiring specialists and salaries ranked as the most important items.

Comparing the five-day week to each of four of the other priorities, just 17 percent to 28 percent of teachers prioritized the five-day school week.

“Make an informed, well-thought-out decision,” Canaday told the board. “When you make this vote, we want you to know what it is you’re voting for and what you’re voting against.”

She told the board to consider the long-term sustainability of funding a five-day week, worrying that in just a few years, the district might have to go back to a four-day week to save money. She asked the board to consider the impact of grading days, preparation time, teacher meetings, parent conferences and professional development on the calendar, the students’ day and the teachers’ day.

Even now, she said, elementary teachers are asking for more prep time.

“Districts around us don’t go to school five days a week every week,” Canaday said.

Board member Chanz Keeney said that when she conducted her survey, she didn’t ask teachers what was the cause of Sweet Home’s horrible test scores.

Canaday said that other steps would address them.

For example, she said, PE and music are good for the brain, and class sizes impact scores.

“To ask teachers what’s the cause of this,” Canaday said. “It’s such a broad question.”

If the district had an unlimited budget, she said, she’s sure that teachers would support a five-day week in addition to reducing class sizes and hiring specialists.

Classified President Velma Canfield said 76 percent of the classified employees she surveyed supported a five-day week to help students achieve their academic potential.

The four-day week is bad for children, she said, noting that some have a hard time reading when they come to her library at Foster School.

The hours in a five-day week would help employees too.

She told the story of one woman excited to have 15 minutes added to her daily schedule because her paycheck would be more than $25 after withholding and the insurance premium. She said four employees reported earning a paycheck of less than $100 per month after insurance and withholding.

Thinking of Foster School’s homeless rate of nearly 25 percent, she told the board about the children she sees walking around Sweet Home on Fridays when they should be in school getting fed.

“Where are my kids (on Friday)?” she asked. “Why can’t we be helping those kids?”

Board member Carol Babcock said she appreciates the teachers’ concerns.

“I do think we can work on this together,” she said. “The case is made. We need to start working on a longer school week.”

“I think Lisa had some good points,” said Jason Van Eck, board member. The schedule is something the district can work out. The prep time, professional development and other issues are part of the business.

He said he would like to go back to a five-day week and then work out the rest, such as class sizes and getting more help into classrooms.

Neither Babcock nor Van Eck were members of the board when the district moved to a four-day week.

The four-day week was something intended to be temporary, said Jenny Daniels, board member. She was among those who voted to switch to a four-day week.

Keeney said he never supported the four-day week. He is the only one who voted no who remains on the board.

“The four-day has run its course,” Keeney said. He remains concerned about the effect of a longer, earlier day on students. By the next budget, the school district’s finances were improving, and they’ve continued to improve.

Chairman Mike Reynolds agreed about the concerns for economically disadvantaged students, although there’s no guarantee funding will be there in five years.

“In the long run, the five day is the way to go,” he said.

Reynolds voted for the four-day week.

“My concern is this isn’t a light switch,” said Jason Redick. “You can’t turn it on or off.

“This is not going to fix those low test scores,” Redick said, although he found the recommendation from Yahraes to switch to a five-day week compelling. He said the district needs to stick to it one way or the other.

Redick was chairman of the board and voted to switch to the four-day week.

“There’s pretty compelling evidence that the five-day is better in places affected by poverty,” said Debra Brown, board member. She was not on the board when it voted on the schedule.

“I recommend a five-day week,” Yahraes told the board. “Education gives kids a chance to be all they can be, to engage in the American Dream. My instructional and programming expectations are higher for our students than what we are able to offer during our current four-day week.”

The data are clear, he said. Most of Sweet Home’s students are disadvantaged.

The homeless students and children living in poverty need education, Yahraes said. “It is the great equalizer and extends the opportunity to achieve. It’s a chance to level the playing field between the banker’s kid and the homeless kid, the student of poverty. Currently we are underserving in instructional time the underserved. We need to change that and flip this on its head. And we can serve all kids more.”

“One more day of school will be just that, a fifth day of school, potentially 20-plus days for kids a year.”

Students will benefit from breakfast, lunch and transportation to the Boys and Girls Club for dinner and shelter and from daily structure, love, care and positive adults; opportunities to build character, teacher values, cultivate talents, inspire dreams and instill purpose.

None of these things have to do with a specific test, he said, but they are absolutely connected to learning.

“These things we know, statistical data show, are related to learning,” Yahraes said. “It gives us one more chance to close the achievement gap.”

It will help students avoid the three-day instructional slide from long weekends, Yahraes said. It prepares children for the workforce, which is generally a five-day week, and it best serves the community in regard to working families and attracting families to the community.

“I would like the opportunity to work with staff, community, parents and stakeholders to rebuild the five-day instructional week, best start and ending times for kids, incorporating professional development, preps and planning times, while serving the best interest of all kids, families and the community,” Yahraes said. “What drives me is giving every student every chance, every day to become a thriving citizen. Currently we are able to do this only four days a week. Why not offer them five days?

“This is not a conversation of five days versus salary or adding more teachers or lowering class sizes. We may indeed be able to accomplish many of these things, not at the exclusion of the other.”

Yahraes will ask the teachers to begin bargaining in January to address contract changes necessary to switch to a five-day week. The classified contract is less complicated, although when the district switched it did have to bargain some details with the classified union.