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The 4-day dilemma - is it helping or hurting Oklahoma students?

Project Oklahoma is a long-term investigation into Oklahoma's educational system. The project is a joint venture by FOX 25 and KTUL.

Nearly one out of every five school districts in Oklahoma are now only going to class four days a week. The number of schools moving to shorten the educational week is often pointed to as a symptom of the educational crisis in Oklahoma.

However, some districts say four-day weeks have been part of the cure for what ails education.

“We were cutting field trips; we were making students pay for field trips,” said Jay Thomas the superintendent for Little Axe Public Schools.

Little Axe is one of the many rural districts hit hard by cuts to education funding. Presiding over those cuts has meant Thomas was forced to make difficult decisions and even the smallest cut in funding was a stab in the heart of the small community.

“I’m sorry but you are not going to have a job next year,” Thomas recalled saying too many times. “And then they ask all the same questions I’ve been trying to figure out an answer to; what am I supposed to do?” Thomas said he would tell each faculty or staff member he had to lay off that he would do his best to rehire them as soon as possible, even though sometimes fulfilling that promise was not possible.

Little Axe joined the growing number of districts saying ‘No’ to more cuts and ‘Yes’ to fewer days in school. There are more than 200 schools in 91 districts on a four-day schedule.

The four-day-a-week calendar added time to each day to make up for missing the fifth day. For Little Axe, it was not a decision based around just saving money. Money in a school budget equals people. Little Axe saved the positions of three teachers by moving to a four-day week.

“We have to offer our kids the most opportunities we can while they are in school,” Thomas explained, “And in cutting more teachers we are cutting more opportunities to our students.”

While the initial motivation was financial, Thomas said the rewards have proved to be much more than just a balanced budget.

“Test scores are going up; our student attendance is going up,” Thomas said. “[Attendance] is going up significantly because the students know they can handle four days a week.”

The praise for four-day weeks is far from universal.

“It's too risky,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. “There hasn't been enough time to measure which direction student academic performance is headed”

Superintendent Hofmeister sees four-day school weeks as an experiment using children as the test subjects.

“We don't get a do over year for children, they don't even get a do-over day,” Hofmeister said.

There is not a lot of research on the effects of four-day school weeks. What research exists is split on whether it helps, hurts or has no effect on school performance.

Hofmeister believes one district's four-day week decision can have a cascade effect on neighboring schools. If one district makes the move it could attract qualified teachers away from a district that chooses to remain at five-days.

“I think if we see competitive teacher pay we would see a reduction in districts on a truncated week on four-day school week,” Hofmeister said.

However, for some districts on a shortened week there may be no going back even if the state provides the money needed to fully fund classrooms.

“The benefits of a four-day week way out weigh just the five-day week,” Thomas said.

Hofmeister said she does not rule out the possibility that four-day weeks could be effective for students in some districts, in certain circumstances. However, the potential positive benefits would only be clear if there was proper study and careful implementation. She warned desperation on the part of districts should not drive policy decisions that could impact children for the rest of their lives.

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