The weekend will start a day early for children in a West Texas school district that's adopted a four-day week, a move seen as the first of its kind in this state since lawmakers gave schools greater leeway in setting their calendars.
The upcoming change to a Monday through Thursday school week in Olfen, a rural town northeast of San Angelo, was spurred by ongoing problems in setting aside tutoring and extra help for children, Superintendent Gabriel Zamora said. Many kids travel long distances by bus and the lengthy commute cuts into time that could be spent on helping struggling students.
But Zamora is frank in explaining another reason: The new schedule, which starts in the fall and extends the school day by a half-hour, may prove attractive to parents in surrounding towns, and the district would benefit from the valuable $6,000 to $7,000 in state aid for each new student who enrolls. Olfen has about 70 students and only one lives within the district boundaries; the rest transfer in from other districts.
"I'm not advocating that the four-day school week would work for everyone," Zamora said. "But here for us, the advantages outweigh the negatives."
While Olfen appears to be the first in the state to make the move, the four-day week has a 40-year history in other places, according to a 2009 study by the University of Southern Maine. Researchers at the time found more than 120 districts across the country — in Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico and elsewhere — have used the model, usually as a cost-saving measure. The study determined the switch didn't necessarily harm student achievement or test scores.
Texas had for years required that public and charter schools provide 180 days of instruction, but the Legislature approved a measure last year that changes the way instruction days are recorded. The move was prompted for various reasons, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said, but a prominent one was that the school year often extended late into June because of cancellations and classes that didn't start until late August.
The state now requires at least 75,600 minutes of instruction, which Callahan said gives schools greater flexibility with scheduling.
"We always support local control and we are firm believers that the 1,024 school districts and 195 charters do know what's best for their students," Callahan said. "Especially when it comes to scheduling."
The news in Olfen isn't so rosy for all students — those struggling in the classroom will still be required to show on Fridays, but they'll receive individual tutoring and there will be "enrichment activities" like karate and pottery. Parents who don't like the four-day plan or will run into trouble with child care still can choose to send their children to school on Fridays.
The status quo wasn't working for students who continued to struggle year after year, says Frank Ortega, who has two daughters in the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade district. A fresh approach was needed, he said.
"Kids won't be as stressed out and I think it's ultimately going to help them," he said.
Olfen fourth-grade teacher Cathy Cavazos said instructors will still work full-time schedules. One benefit is that she won't have to work as often on the weekends to prepare for the coming school week because more of that can be done on Fridays, she said.
Zamora says other districts have come calling inquiring about Olfen's approach.
"The flexibility has allowed districts to look at what's best for them," he said. "Who knows best what's better for the school district than the people who are there and know firsthand?"