Viola School District to implement four-day weeks in 2020-21 school year

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Viola School Board voted to implement a four-day week schedule for the 2020-2021 school year at its monthly meeting held Wednesday, Jan. 29. The vote came after months of research, discussion and most recently, two public meetings where parents and residents gathered to ask questions and receive more information about the schedule change.

During the public meetings, a draft of a school calendar for a four-day week was given out, and though it will be used to guide the official calendar, Superintendent John May said the district will be working to finalize a calendar. Mondays were chosen as the day school will not be in session. Viola School District will be in session Tuesday through Friday.

A tentative bell schedule was also given out at the meetings. “There may be a little tweaking to the schedule. There are some things [still in the planning stages]. For example, in the afternoon we are going to be looking at some option of feeding students through either a snack or supper program,” explained May. In the elementary, it is easier to implement such a program, however; in the high school, two to three minutes might need to be added. “We don’t know the details of how those things are going to work just yet.”

It was important to make the decision now, so all concerns have time to be addressed and a solution applied, whether it’s an issue to be resolved by the district or family. “Part of the reason we didn’t want to wait any longer to decide is because people need time to plan,” said May.

Viola’s current enrollment, kindergarten through twelfth grade, is at approximately 360 students, a number May hopes to see increase. “We are hoping to get an enrollment boost out of this. May 1 is the deadline for people to fill out their [Arkansas] School Choice application. If someone is interested in switching to our school, even if they aren’t sure, they can come fill out the School Choice form before May 1 … Say over the summer they change their mind, they can still go back [to the school within their district]. They would basically be giving themselves the summer to think about it,” he explained. If the form isn’t completed by May 1, students may still be transferred, however; the process involves needing the approval of both school boards.

An important aspect of the School Choice is the eligibility to play sports. If a student completes the form by the May 1 deadline and has not started the tenth grade yet, they will be allowed to participate in sports. If a student is going to be a junior or senior, he or she will most likely have to sit out for 365 days. “If they actually moved into our district, no matter the grade, they would be eligible to play. For people who want to stay in their house and say, ‘Well my kid is old enough to drive, I’ll let them go if they want to – if they are a junior or senior, they may be losing a year of athletic eligibility,” May explained.

If someone wants to fill out a School Choice form and doesn’t know how the eligibility works, they can go ahead and fill out the forms and that does not obligate them to attend Viola. “We would want them to of course, but it keeps their options open over the summer,” he added.

A top reason in making the schedule change is the district hopes families will get to spend more time together. Another added benefit will be the monetary savings.

“Obviously, and it wasn’t really our first thing, but the more we’ve talked about it, there are some savings and monetary benefits,” said May. With minimum wage and teachers’ salary increases, although it isn’t a huge amount, the savings will be helpful. “We are also very hopeful, from what we’ve seen at other schools, the enrollment will probably go up some.”

During the 2019 summer break is when administration learned Arkansas had several schools going to four-day weeks and there have been policies in place to allow schools to do so for more than 20 years. “There was talk that Kirby [School District] would be going to four-day weeks this year and so in asking around, we found out there was a law already in place and had been on the books for 20+ years that allowed schools to do four-day weeks. I think some schools in Arkansas had done this 10 or 15 years ago. I think some bigger schools had tried it and did it for a couple years...” recalled May.

Kirby is a 1A school district located in the southern part of Arkansas, in Pike County. Kirby is a school district very comparable to Viola in many ways. Enrollment numbers and a school-centered community are a couple of common traits the schools share.

Kirby High School Principal Jason Burns said the first year of the four-day weeks has been an adjustment – but successful and highly favored. “We have had absolutely very little to zero negative feedback. When we started, we had the community involved from the get go,” said Burns. The idea generated in October 2018 when community members saw a Facebook post about a school in Colorado going to four-day weeks. He brought the story to the attention of the school’s superintendent and the research began. After approximately six months of research, discussion and public meetings, Kirby School District decided to take a chance.

“Without our community’s support, we couldn’t have done it. The community was very involved with questions early on which allowed us to plan well and come up with solutions to concerns,” explained Burns. The only negative aspect Burns has observed so far is the month and a half between November and December when it gets dark earlier. Burns drives a school bus for his district and he said if all students on his bus route are riding, the last student gets off the bus at approximately 4:50/4:55. Burns also pointed out Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks are also taken during the shorter days, narrowing down the days students are getting off the bus at dark.

Kirby does not have school on Fridays, and two Fridays of the month, tutoring is offered from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. High school classes are approximately 60 to 65 minutes long. Burns said he has received positive feedback from teachers who say they are able to get further along in their units and are able to do more in the time allotted. Elementary classes are set up where literacy classes are taught during one half of the day and math and science classes are taught during the other half. “The elementary teachers like that and activity times (PE, art, music, etc.) don’t run into other courses.”

Kirby plans to continue the four-day week schedule next year. The school district expected to see cost savings, and are actually a little ahead of the projected savings.

Burns said it was imperative to involve the parents and community, who worked great with the school. “Anytime you make a decision like that for your district, you have to consider, ‘Do you think we will lose kids over this?’ When you are looking at 350 kids and you lose five, that is a lot of kids. If you are a 3A or 4A and lose five kids, you wouldn’t notice as much. It is a big jump,” added Burns. He was happy to report, 25 students were enrolled right off the bat with the schedule change. Last year, approximately 350 students were enrolled, compared to this year’s 391.

It is important to note Viola Head Start is not affected by the school’s schedule change. NADC operates the head start, which has approximately 35 to 40 kids enrolled. They will continue to go five days a week.

Parents of older children may feel comfortable allowing their child to stay at home on the day off. Other parents might not be comfortable with the idea, or have children who are not old enough to care for themselves alone for a few hours. May said the school district is waiting to see if someone from the community establishes an option for childcare on Mondays. If that does not happen, he said the school will very likely offer a program on Mondays. “We are going to give it a little bit of time because I think there might be somebody in the community who wants to do something that would work and we would love to allow them to do that. If nothing comes up, I think we are going to look at possibly hiring a person or two to cover the needs, at least in the short term.”

Another concern is combatting hunger. May said the school is looking into programs to allow more food during the day for all students, as the days will be a little longer. The Viola Backpack Program is operated by the high school’s FCCLA Club and advisor Kandie Walker. The program sends out a number of backpacks weekly with food. As students will have longer weekends next year, Walker said the group will add more items to make up for not being in session on Mondays. The concept is very similar to how backpacks are filled prior to Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring breaks.

The backpack program accepts donations of non-perishable food items in addition to monetary donations. If the pantry supply is running low, Walker will take her students to Dollar General where they will purchase needed items with the monetary donations. To help stock the pantry, a contest between classes at Viola will take place in March, the week before Spring Break. The competition will be divided between elementary and high school. The winning class from each division will win a pizza party.

Tara Williams is a parent in the Viola District and the schedule change has her full support. “I look forward to and support the four-day school week. I do not work and it will give me another full day with my children. I also believe that it will be a financial gain for the school district. My only concern was if it would adversely affect any faculty or staff’s income. I would have voted a hard core no if they would have had to take a financial hit for the school district to make a financial gain. I felt comfortable with Mr. May’s explanation of that particular issue, so my mind is at ease,” said Williams.

The 2020-2021 school year will be used as a benchmark and will follow the state rules and guidelines already in place. May said after the first year, the school district will review what worked and didn’t and apply solutions. “I am hopeful the longer days and shorter amount of time in the evenings for homework or family time, will be made up or get far more of, on that one extra day they aren’t coming to school … that it is more time to do homework things and more time to spend with family for sure.”

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