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And On the Fifth Day, They Rested

B.C. district rebels against four-day school week

By Francis Plourde 22 May 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Francis Plourde is on staff at The Tyee.

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B.C.’s north central coast

After seeing five schools close in 2001 and fearing more closures in the years to come, the Coast Mountains school district adopted a four-day school week for the 2003-2004 year to cut costs.

The district, which sprawls across 80,000 square kilometres in northwestern B.C., faced the same dilemma as many in B.C.'s shrinking interior: fewer people means fewer students, which in turn means less money from the province. Add in rising salaries and inflationary pressures and you have a recipe for shrinking budgets and closing schools.

For a while, the shortened school week did the job. The savings –- around three to five per cent of district’s budget per year –- prevented the closure of some schools. But even though they faced a potential $4.4 million deficit for the next year, the district has decided the savings aren’t worth the costs.

In a recent meeting, the Coast Mountains board adopted the four-day school week calendar for 2007-2008 while pledging to do all they could to return to a normal schedule as soon as possible. To do that, they say, they'll have to convince the province's Ministry of Education to change the way they fund schooling in the province.

More than curriculum

"The change of schedule has an impact on communities, it's why our school board decided to look at it," says Coast Mountains school district superintendent Bob Greenwood. "The district will do every effort to comply with the decision of the school board and to come back to the norm."

Erica Ball has been a teacher in Hazelton for more than 30 years. Some of her students have to commute by bus for three hours everyday, a problem made worse by the four-day week. "In winter, some travel in the dark in the morning and the evening," she says.

It was complaints like Ball's that convinced Art Erasmus, the school trustee who brought the motion to the table, that the four-day school week wasn't viable. "The teachers say the longer school day leaves them fatigued to a point there's no energy for extra-curricular activities," he says.

A retiree with 39 years of experience in education, Erasmus is not keen on the four-day school week. "I ran for the school board because I believe the four-day school week is not appropriate for a lot of kids," he says.

Erasmus believes that school is a safe place for kids to learn the curriculum, but to socialize as well. "School is more than learning skills," he says. "As a by-product, some kids who graduated and went to college said they couldn't stand the five-day school week."

Parents, who have to take care of their kids on Fridays, also raise concerns about childcare.

Inflexible formula

While the four-day school week has proven to be rather efficient cost saving measure, it still hasn't been enough for Coast Mountains. The district recently had to cut 29 more staff positions. Instructional services have also been targeted. More cuts are expected when and if they move back to a normal school week.

For Erasmus, that means the current provincial funding process needs to be reviewed. "I'm about addressing the distribution mainly equitably as opposed to equally," he says. "There are some districts where [the question of funding] is not an issue."

Since 2000-2001, the per-pupil grant in the province has increased by $1,716, to reach $7,932 per student. During the same period, enrolment has declined by about 42, 500 students.

A district like Coast Mountains also has to deal with a higher proportion of students with special needs, he says. This factor is not taken into account enough when the funding is awarded.

Currently, 81 per cent of the district's funding is based on student enrolment. Another 19 per cent is provided as a supplement to meet the costs of district-specific needs, including ESL students, Aboriginal and adult students. School districts with an enrolment decrease greater than one per cent in a year receive extra funds from the province. But that's not enough according to the Coast Mountains Board.

While the school board is aware the funding of the district is increasing while there's a decreasing enrolment, they argue you can't decrease the funding for infrastructure at the same rate as the decrease of children.

"A school bus that is half-full costs the same amount as a bus that is full. We closed a number of schools, but again, a school that is two-third used costs the same amount as a fully used one," says Erasmus.

According to the Ministry of Education it's the district's choice to implement a four-day school week rather than closing schools. The factors mentioned by the district are already taken into account, they say.

Mixed results for four-day week

Coast Mountains is neither the first nor the last district to thinker with a four-day school week. In B.C., the system was first implemented in the Boundary district, in the south central part of the province, after the government changed regulations governing the school year. Under the new rules, the year is measured in hours, rather than days.

A report released last month, five years after the implementation of the four-day week, in Boundary shows they have had a more positive experience than has Coast Mountains.

"We heard that the four-day school week is working well for our communities," writes Teresa Rezansoff, chair of the board of trustees. "We learned that some concerns that were voiced five years ago are now seen as strengths, such as long weekends, and extra time away from the school desks."

According to the report, no significant trend -- either positive or negative -- has been observed on student achievement. The report also states that the four-day school week has produced cost savings and has had a positive impact on reducing staff absenteeism.

The trend is consistent with what has been observed at the provincial level. "We are in constant liaison with these districts. They are accountable to us in case of bad achievement level, but no significant change has been observed," says a spokesperson from the Ministry of Education.

The Boundary school district switched to a four-day school week in 2001, after deficits between $176,000 and $640,000 were projected. Moving to the four-day schedule was supposed to save $207,000 annually.

When the provincial government changed the funding process in 2004-2005, the district's deficit problem disappeared. As a result, the surpluses generated by the four-day week were used for literacy initiatives, according to the report.

Despite the positive analysis of the schedule, however, some parents still raised concerns about the longer weekends and the long-term impact on students. For a lot of them, the four-day school week remains a sensitive issue.

The Nisga'a school district, which tried the schedule in 2003-2004, switched back to the normal schedule a year later. According to Superintendent Keith Spencer, the community wasn't very receptive to the new schedule. "There was a fair amount of concern from parents and the community. That was the basis for getting back to the normal school week," he says.

Across the country, the experience of Nisga'a school district has been the more common one. Alberta tried to implement the four-day school week in 1994 in some schools to reduce transportation costs. After a year and a half, the Rocky View school division cancelled its pilot program.

Although students and teachers were strongly in favor of the shorter school week, the parents were more divided. An independent evaluation also showed that students on the four-day week were faring worse than their counterparts on the five-day schedule. The study, however, remains one of only a few studies on the issue.

A recurring exercise

According to Catherine McGreggor, a professor in the faculty of Education at the University of Victoria, schedule fiddling has been a recurring policy exercise in North America.

From intensive scheduling to the length of the school day or year round schooling, a variety of alternative schedules have been tried for educational reasons. But overall, few studies have been made on the implications for learning under adjusted timetables.

"In my opinion, part of the reason is that we rapidly change our policy positions and options in order to adjust to contemporary economic or cultural contexts/demands," McGregor says. "So long term (or even short term) studies may be difficult to produce when changes are made relatively quickly on the basis of other policy measures."

For Erica Ball, though, the impact is clear. Reduced funds and the four-day week have had a direct impact on the classroom. While a large amount of money is put into bussing the students, there’s less money in education, she says. In the classroom, the cuts meant less choice in electives and fewer opportunities for extracurriculars.

In a community like Hazelton, where the major logging industry closed in 2001, this funding could be key to keeping the students motivated. “For a lot of kids who were planning to work in the bush, there’s not this possibility anymore,” she says.

These opportunities, she thinks, might have an important impact in their education. "I only hope in the future we will manage to provide activities outside of the classroom. Get back to the level it was 10 years ago, and go further than that," she says.

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