TAMPA, Fla. – With the nation's school districts strapped for cash, more are considering a schedule that delights students and makes working parents cringe: Class only four days a week.
By extending school hours and eliminating a day of classes each week, education officials say they could save busloads of money on transportation and utilities.
That's all fine by Layla Bahabri, a 10th-grader at South Florida's Charles W. Flanagan High School, who likes the idea of sleeping in and studying on the extra day off.
"We could catch up on whatever we want to do," she said.
Introduced by New Mexico during the 1970s oil crisis, the abbreviated school week is gaining fresh momentum in states and districts hurt by the economic downturn. Select districts in about 17 states already follow a four-day week and legislators in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Missouri and Washington have introduced similar proposals.
"It's happening primarily because of the economic situation," said Gale Gaines, vice president for state services at the Southern Regional Education Board. "Schools and districts are trying to work as efficiently as possible."
While there's still debate about how much districts will save, proponents say the shortened week can improve attendance and teacher retention. As for academics, studies have shown the four-day schedule does not hinder student achievement, and may even help improve test scores.
Some districts have even reported fewer disciplinary referrals and more classroom participation.
"It's hard to get to the why, of course, because so many things affect student achievement," said Andrea D. Beesley of Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Denver.
State laws govern how many days students must attend class each year. In places where four-day weeks are allowed, districts are required to hold an equivalent number of instructional hours. That typically means adding just over an hour of class each day.
Critics worry, however, about burdening working parents with extra child care costs, and question whether students — especially younger ones in elementary school — can handle a longer school day without getting tired.
Since the early 1970s, the four-day school week has primarily been adopted by small, rural districts that shuttle students long distances. By cutting one school day a week, they were able to save on transportation, food and utility costs. The actual amount saved has varied by district.
Schools in Cimarron, N.M., about 170 miles northeast of Santa Fe, made the switch more than three decades ago. It started as a way to save on fuel and heating costs, but soon yielded other benefits, too.
Superintendent James Gallegos said about 85 percent of the district's athletic events are scheduled on Fridays, so a Monday-Thursday school week means fewer Friday absences as students and teachers prepare for or travel to games. Gallegos estimates the district has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in transportation costs and said it's been a stellar teacher recruitment tool.
"It kind of gives us a little bit of an advantage in terms of hiring into rural areas," he said.
The idea has especially taken hold in the Mountain states; in Colorado alone, about 60 districts are on a four-day school week this year. A 2006 Colorado Department of Education report on the four-day week said the initial reason for making the switch has generally been financial.
In Oregon's Corbett School District, which moved to the four-day week more than a decade ago, Superintendent Bob Dunton said the schedule had become "business as usual," popular among parents and students alike.
"It has been a really great experience for the kids," said Michelle Rolens, who has two sons at Corbett Elementary. "Even though they go longer days for four days, they love having that extra day off. It's a great opportunity that they can get their homework done but still have the whole weekend that we can do things as a family."
Rolens said kindergartners get a rest time to make it through the longer day, and her sons get an extra recess.
"I would say that they are not as restless by the end of the week," she said.
These days, rural districts aren't the only one considering the switch.
In South Florida, the Broward County school district, just north of Miami, is considering the four-day week for its high schools. Broward, the sixth-largest school district in the nation, spends a whopping $63 million on electricity every year, Superintendent James Notter said.
With Florida schools expecting another round of budget cuts, Notter estimates a four-day week could save the district 10 to 15 percent in utilities.
Not all parents like the idea, though.
"My concern is that this is going to put, particularly in an economic downturn, an undue burden on parents scrambling for childcare or having to pay additional childcare," said Jeanne Jusevic, president of the Monarch High School PTA.
Others worry whether the high school students will use their free day wisely.
"That's the age kids are getting in trouble," said Ivonne Foulon, whose 16-year-old daughter is sophomore at West Broward High School.
Christine Gales, a Flanagan High senior, said she'd use the extra day to relax, but still prefers having a five-day week: "I'd probably lose interest since I'll be here longer and, like, I'll stop paying attention."
Florida state Sen. Evelyn Lynn who introduced the bill that would grant schools flexibility in determining the number of days they hold class, said the current economy demands creative solutions.
"I don't think we've ever had such a tight and challenging economy in the state of Florida," said Lynn, a Republican.
But the bill faces an uphill battle. Education Commissioner Eric Smith said he favors a five-day week and the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union, is skeptical of the change.
"This is just another shortcut that is being explored instead of properly financing schools," said spokesman Mark Pudlow, who questioned the impact of a four-day week on learning.
Officials in districts that have four-day school weeks caution that it falls short of being a magic bullet for school budgets. Dunton, of the Oregon district, said that while there have been many benefits, financial savings haven't panned out like one might expect. For example, he said, even though a school may be without students, utilities must be kept on because it's still a gathering place for the community and athletic competitions.
"I hope people don't bank on it too much," he said.