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Four-day school week popular at one Minnesota school district -- Frazee-Vergas takes a look

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In what started out as an economic move, the MACCRAY School District switched to a four-day school week. That move is now seen as a benefit to education foremost and an economic benefit secondly.

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Frazee-Vergas is considering following the lead of the MACCRAY district, which is located in west central Minnesota. It is a consolidation of three communities: Maynard, Clara City and Raymond.

"The interesting thing is that every school I talk to goes into it for the reason of economics," said MACCRAY High School Principal Gary Sims. "And once they're in it, they find out that economics is the second reason. The first reason is the benefit to education. If the kids are in school more and the teachers are in school more, the education is going to go up."

The Frazee-Vergas School District brought up the issue of four-day school week, and is planning to look into how the process is working for MACCRAY.

The decision for the MACCRAY district evolved from economic desperation and thinking outside the box.

In the past two years, Sims said the district had cut about $1.25 million from the budget.

"When you have a $7 or $8 million budget, there's not a whole lot left," he said.

Now add the fact that the school was about to lose some electives in the high school, "and you start to damage the integrity of the school." Therefore with those cuts, it would damage the district even more so because of the loss of students. Because family sizes are much smaller than they used to be, the district has lost that many more students as well.

"One of the areas we looked at was a four-day school," Sims said, who actually researched and proposed the idea of four-day weeks. Sims knew just the place to start researching, too. His hometown of Custer, S.D., had switched to four-day weeks in 1996.

When he first brought the proposal before the school board in 2005, "I got about 35 seconds at the board meeting before they called it the most stupid thing they've ever heard of."

Last year, a school vision committee formed and the request came up. Sims once again brought it before the board, and the board told him to go to the public with the idea.

"When we started this, the four-day week was about No. 4 on the list of options," Sims said. "By the time it was over, it was No. 1.

"Between a five-day and a four-day, we're going to save, right off the top, $65,000. That's without the gas escalators. So that's a minimum. You factor in everything else, and we think we can get $100,000 or a little over $100,000 savings. Basically, it was out of desperation. We've done all the other things already. It's the only thing left."

One parent who likes the change is Jean Santjer.

"I was in favor it, just because of the way they were structuring the schedule," she said. The Santjers have a preschooler and a first grader, who both like the new schedule as well.

For little kids, she said, it's harder to sit and stay focused, so the school schedule includes doing math and reading in the morning, and afternoon is for music, physical education and health to get kids up and moving around.

"My kids love it. We have a preschooler who does all-day, everyday (school) two days a week. The bus picks them up at 6:40 and get home at 4:45, so it is a long day. She has rest time during the day. My first-grader loves it."

The duration for extra curricular activities after school has been limited to not push the day back that much further.

"They limited the time they could have practices. They have to be done by 6 p.m. On Wednesdays, no later than 5:45. But they have Monday practices because there's no school that day," Santjer explained.

"I'm delighted with it, though. I think it's just great," she said. "I have heard nothing negative out of it."

While the school year has remained the same in length, the time in school each day has increased to make up for the shorter week. Kids now attend school from 8 a.m. to 4:04 p.m.

One concern of parents has been daycare and what to do with kids on Mondays. Santjer said that while it was a concern, it's actually turned out for the better. Rather than having to take kids to daycare every day after school, they are now just taking them for the full day of Monday, the day the district has decided to close its doors.

With the extended days, the there is more teacher-student time as well. That's where the education benefit comes into play. Kids are liking the change and teachers are as well.

Sims said he surveyed the parents at recent parent-teacher conferences, and received about a 6:1 ratio in favor of it thus far.

"We just haven't heard anything. Very few complaints," he said.

The MACCRAY district has a three-year approval with the state and then will have to reapply for the four-day week status.

The switch to four-day weeks isn't a surprise for Sims, who said he always knew it would work.

"I didn't think it would be this smooth. It's been very positive."

There are 16 other states in the U.S. doing four-day school weeks.

Although MACCRAY is the only district in Minnesota to go to four-day weeks, that doesn't mean it's going to be the only one for long.

"I just see other schools doing it because legislature isn't going to come up with any money. Schools, there's nothing else they can do. They've about exhausted about everything they can do except shutting down buildings. So, I think other schools will be looking at it," Sims said.

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