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Does the four-day school week work in Texas?

 Athens ISD launched a three-year pilot program in 2019 as it transitioned to a four-day school week. That schedule is now permanent, and the district isn’t looking back.
Bill Zeeble
Athens ISD launched a three-year pilot program in 2019 as it transitioned to a four-day school week. That schedule is now permanent, and the district isn’t looking back.

On Thursday afternoons, most kids are steeling themselves for the final day of the school week.

But on Thursdays in the Athens Independent School District, the weekend starts now.

Grandparent Maria Romero, while waiting in the carpool line, explained why she likes it.

"For me right now I’m ok with four days, because that way I can get more time with my kids,” said Romero. “I understand some people work on Fridays, and they want their kids to be in school. But for me, to tell you the truth, I like it better.

A few cars ahead in line, mom Brianna Kramer, shared why she disagrees.

"I don't like it,” Kramer said. “Because I have to pay for daycare for the fifth day for me to work."

Trying something new

Athens school officials knew they’d get some pushback when they first considered a shorter school week. But they also had big problems the schedule might solve. Athens ISD Superintendent Janie Sims, who managed the district’s HR for eight years before her promotion, put it bluntly.

“I would say we were roughly losing 20%, 25% [of teachers each year].”

Teachers were leaving for bigger, better-paying, nearby districts. And many teachers they did hire had little experience.

"We were getting a lot of the brand, brand new ones, which are great, but it also requires resources to train them and mentor them,” Sims said. “It requires our administrators to spend more time with them in development and that kind of thing."

So in 2019, Athens took a leap.

School officials launched a Monday through Thursday four-day school week. They offered free Friday pick-up lunches for low-income students, which is most of the district. They originally said the move would not be permanent.

"You really can't see a difference, a significant difference in under three years for anything,” said Sims. “And so we proposed to pilot it for three years and see what the public thought about it."

The public was wary but willing. After three years, every group polled, including teachers, overwhelmingly liked it. And one of the city's biggest employers, the medical device maker Biomerics, even added a Monday through Thursday option to make things easier for working parents and caregivers.

Happy parents, surging test scores

Superintendent Sims said polling revealed more than three quarters of school parents agreed the four-day week had a positive or mostly positive effect on students and families. What’s more, the latest state test scores were the best the district had ever seen. That’s despite constant disruptions caused by COVID-19.

And it turns out the new schedule was a big selling point for potential hires.

“The teachers we hired, to our surprise, were the teachers in that middle range of experience level, which we weren't even expecting that at all. That was a huge bonus. The average tenure of the teachers we hired was 10 to 11 years, which is outstanding,” said Sims.

Seventh grade teacher Adrion Smith was one of those experienced hires. The Athens native had worked for seven years in other districts. She had her first child just before COVID-19 started spreading, and because of the shut-down, was able to spend untold amounts of time with her new baby, while she taught virtually from home. Then, she got pregnant with her second child.

“I kind of panicked because I didn't know what I was going to do without that time with her,” said Smith. “And there's really no other way to explain it except for, if you're a parent, you want time with your kid. That first year is so important for you to be with them."

So she applied to Athens for that Friday off, and got the gig.

Now, Athens has ended its pilot and made its four-day week official for the “foreseeable future.” The schedule hasn’t solved everything or pleased everyone, but the district’s own, ongoing polling shows most folks like it. And the recent bump in student performance means it’s working for kids too.

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.
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