Murray Bishoff: 4-day school and the abyss
Government leaders who make bold decisions often receive praise in this space for bravely advancing new and different ideas. At the same time, extraordinary actions that don't measure up also deserve scrutiny.
That brings us to the Pierce City School Board's decision to go to a four-day school week.
Indications suggest school leaders labored over the decision. Patron surveys offer support. Some are even enthusiastic, like school boys loving their day to play hooky. Other issues point to alternative conclusions.
A school in a small town means a lot of things. Parents, especially those of young children, count on the resources of the school to not only motivate their children, but also to house them during the day. In a town with no daycare and no community center, cutting students free for an entire day creates new challenges that many families will not be ready to handle.
Like Monett, Pierce City has a high percentage of economically stressed students who qualify for free and reduced price meals, more than 62 precent of Pierce City's students. Parents come to count on the district to feed those children. There may only be 40 children receiving help through the backpack program, providing extra food for the weekends, but doubling the length of time between school meals makes a joke of the program.
Cutting school days is a more radical way to save money than cutting the number of teachers or asking for salary reductions by administrators. School board members, after all, don't want to decrease their competitive edge for top flight professionals and even see the reduction as an incentive to keep staff. One can't help questioning such draconian methods from school leaders who could not adequately persuade patrons to accept a tax levy increase last year and instead turn to this novel approach, rather than better defining their financial strategy.
On top of that, the school board chooses this time to make its move, in a year when no election will be held. Only two candidates filed to run, making no election necessary, insulating the board from any retaliation by patrons. State standardized tests are also in transition, so there will be no way to really know whether or not claims hold true that four-day school weeks will not negatively affect scores.
As the school year has progressed, the less clear it has seemed to patrons whether or not Monett High School's radical experiment into modular scheduling is truly working. As the architect of the plan, principal David Steward has not flagged in his enthusiasm for this undertaking. Steward has asked for patience and time. We should know a lot by year's end.
Pierce City's experiment will entail similar dynamics, including the idea that students who have put in their time should have their Mondays free of all school commitments. Monett students have found their time has been anything but free. Pierce City teachers will more than likely load up homework and self-study projects to take away much of this supposed new time away from studies. Pierce City students are likely to have a rude awakening, much like Monett students did.
Pierce City's school board and administration have not chosen to wait and learn from Monett's mistakes, seeing themselves in a different position. It will be hard to learn from Monett while faculty refocuses on repacking all its teaching into the four-day sequence. Relying for guidance on other districts that have shifted to four days may be enough. Yet in a time when education leaders talk of year-round school and a lack of competitive skills, compared to non-Americans, cutting school days looks like a step in the wrong direction.
We've heard teachers openly question the ability of young children to stay focused longer in the day. Working parents also face new daycare expenses, essentially a pay cut for them.
On the surface, it appears the Monett community may benefit the most from Pierce City's moves. Families will turn to the Monett Area YMCA as an alternative to Mondays, as well as Monett's daycare providers.
Taking the high school by itself to four days may have offered a way to get over some of the bumps. End-of-course exams appear to bear less risk, or carry less glory if students do well or just eke by.
There's something to be said for taking the plunge in its entirety, all grades at once. But historically, the biggest danger faced by school boards is to blindly follow school superintendents, and expecting to be led by the nose to decisions. Even though other schools districts have considered the same strategy, that does not remove the danger that this school board has answered the call, like lemmings, over the abyss.
School leaders will have a chance to prove the wisdom of their decision, just as modular scheduling has its chance. But in the face of not being able to pass a tax levy increase, not having the courage to try it again, and relying on surveys taken by no scientifically random method, avoiding any vote of confidence by patrons as a whole, it's very unclear whether these officials, elected or otherwise, could admit they're wrong.
We'll be watching.
Murray Bishoff has served readers of The Monett Times since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 417-235-3135