Last school year, the DeKalb Independent School District in East Texas struggled to recruit enough educators to teach its 800 students. Administrators hired eight teachers working to get certified, but there were still two positions that were never filled.
“It was difficult. We had a pre-K teacher position open all year. Because we couldn’t fill it, we had one pre-K classroom with 35 students last year,” superintendent Chris Galloway says. “We also had a chemistry position open half the year and ended up going through three different substitutes. It makes it difficult for students that need consistency.”
Right after the district announced that it had a new four-day schedule in April, applications started rolling in. The district was able to fill all 14 open positions for the upcoming school year before June, much earlier than usual. At least three staff members with over 20 years of experience came to DeKalb from other districts, mainly due to the four-day week.
Prior to the change, the district conducted a survey and found that 75% of students, 78% of parents and 100% of teachers were interested in the four-day week. An additional hour was added to the school day to make up for Fridays being off. The switch added more time to each class — over 1,800 minutes per class period.
Amid statewide teacher shortages, four-day school weeks are gaining popularity among small, rural school districts in Texas. Nearly 43,000 Texas teachers left their job in the last school year, according to a July report from the Texas American Federation of Teachers. And a whopping 66% of educators throughout Texas said they have recently considered leaving their jobs. On March 10, the state launched the Teacher Vacancy Task Force to address staffing challenges facing Texas public schools.
Twenty-seven Texas districts implemented the change for the 2022-2023 school year, hoping to attract and retain teachers. In 2016, Olfen ISD in West Texas became the first school district in the state to make the switch to a four-day school week. That was after a bill passed by the 84th Texas Legislature amended the Texas Education Code, no longer requiring 180 days of instruction. The only requirement now is that districts operate for a minimum of 75,600 minutes. To allow for a shortened week, the 41 school districts in Texas embracing the change lengthen the school day and/or the school year.
How working families would adjust to a schedule change was a driving force in the conversations at Everman Independent School District about adopting a truncated school week.
“How would it affect our families? That was the main driving force of why we’re not going to a four-day week,” said district Chief of Communications and Marketing Nikita Russell. “It wasn’t feasible for our families in our district.”
Everman ISD is located a short drive south of Fort Worth. It has 10 schools and 5,648 students. Most parents in the district work Monday through Friday, according to Russell.
“Our working families, they would have to find childcare,” she said. “Say if we did Monday through Thursday, they would have to find childcare for Friday. We didn’t want to put that additional burden on them.”
Teacher retention is important, according to Russell. Everman ISD has put in place incentives for new and existing employees that include competitive starting salaries and retention bonuses.
But going with the four-day school week would take some doing.
“Our board would have to approve it. They would have to get stakeholder input. It’s something that couldn’t be done in a year, it would have to be planned out,” she added.
The schedule change isn’t always successful.
One of the early adopters, Dimebox Independent School District in Central Texas, switched to the shorter schedule in 2019. After a few months, the pandemic made implementing the schedule a nightmare for administrators.
“We used our Monday that was off to try to do some unique and different things. The unfortunate thing is that we put it in the 19,20s. So as we were experimenting with it the first year, March of that year is when all schools closed,” said Nick West, who was superintendent at the time. “And then when we did come back in 2021, most of the things that we would have ever done with it were out the window, you couldn’t do anymore, because of all the restrictions.”
Teachers felt the kids weren’t getting enough time in the classroom, and students’ test scores declined. Childcare for the younger students was an issue, forcing elementary teachers to still have classes on the fifth day.
Two years later, the district admitted defeat, switching back to a five-day week.
Why Texas districts are making the switch
With three years of the shortened schedule under its belt, Athens Independent School District calls itself “Home of the 4-Day Instructional Week.” Superintendent Janie Sims says it’s helped the rural district compete with larger districts in Dallas-Fort Worth and Tyler. They’ve been able to keep experienced teachers and hire more. Twenty-four percent of the staff said they took the job because of the four-day week, and 53% said it’s motivated them to continue working at Athens ISD.
“We had been getting for several years a lot of brand new teachers, which does impact student learning, because it takes a brand new teacher a few years to get accustomed to everything and get their craft going,” Sims said. “So what we did find was that we were attracting the mid-range, the teachers we were attracting had 10 to 12 years of service, which is phenomenal.”
In April, the Pewitt Consolidated Independent School District board unanimously voted to transition to a four-day week starting the upcoming school year.
“It was getting to the point where it was harder and harder to find quality teachers,” said superintendent Melissa Reid. “This year, it has been a much easier hiring season, we’ve been able to get more certified teachers, we’ve been able to retain some of our great teachers, and they’ve said it’s because of the four-day.”
New Summerfield Independent School District in East Texas, with just over 500 students, is making the change starting Aug. 8. District leaders hope it will give them a leg up since they’re unable to offer teachers competitive compensation. The district hired 17 teachers this school year, about half after announcing the shorter school week.
“We’re a small district, we’re not as fortunate, just like a lot of other smaller school districts, as far as our pay,” superintendent Joe Brannen says. “There’s some bigger schools around our area here that have increased their pay scale. It’s just hard for us to stay on the same pace as them.”
Switching to a four-day week gives teachers more time to plan the curriculum and lessons, says New Boston Independent School District superintendent Brian Bobbitt, helping to combat burnout. Instead of spending the weekend preparing for the week ahead, they’re able to do so on the fifth weekday.
“Teachers typically teach six or seven hours a day, with about a 45-minute conference period,” Bobbitt says. “So you had basically six times the amount of actual work time as you had for your prep time.”
While most districts hope the change helps them hire and retain teachers, some Texas districts said they were motivated by increasing student enrollment.
Hull-Daisetta Independent School District superintendent Tim Bartram noticed they’d lost some students to three neighboring districts Devers ISD, Liberty ISD and Hardin ISD that switched to a four-day week. So he decided to follow suit starting this school year by adding 40 minutes to each day. A district survey found that 86% of students, 78% of staff and 68% of parents were in favor of the growing trend.
Through making the change just this year, Mineral Wells Independent School District has already been able to enroll 200 more students, from 3,245 to 3,436. The district also hired 50 staff members this summer after about 10% left the district, which superintendent John Kuhn said was the most turnover he’d seen in his career.
“We also feel like it’s going to help us with our mental health program for students,” Kuhn said. “They carry a pretty heavy load right now. And students across the nation are over-scheduled and busy. A lot of our kids work. And so we hope that this extra day off for students will help them.”
A few others said they hoped it would help with student attendance and achievement.
Before COVID, Hull-Daisetta had an average 95% attendance rate, then it dropped to 92% for elementary students and 89% for junior high and high school. And New Summerfield went from 98% daily attendance to 94% Monday through Thursday and 90% Friday. The districts said they will be watching the rate closely this year to see if the shorter week improves attendance.
While there are some concerns about the four-day week’s impact on test scores, Michelle Francis, superintendent at Silverton Independent School District, says STAAR scores have actually increased since the shorter week took effect last year.
“Teachers have said that they are able to get their curriculum covered better. We have some teachers that say before they were struggling to get the curriculum covered,” Francis said. “They have been able to get the curriculum covered and then be able to go back in for review because we’ve increased the length of each class, so you’re not wasting as much time in passing periods. You’ve got more class time. You have more time to give remediation during those periods also.”
In Athens, families have been satisfied with the four-day schedule, Sims said. Asked whether they want to continue for the fourth year, 76% of parents said the schedule has had a positive effect on their child and 65% said their child was as successful or more successful in school.
“Parents who aren’t working or can be off on Fridays are spending additional time doing things for their kids, they enjoy that,” Sims said. “The parents who are working say it gives their kids an extra day to sort of unwind from school and maybe more playtime.”
For one northeast Texas district, it was too much change too fast. In February, Clarksville Independent School District superintendent Kermit Ward pitched the idea to the school board to help with recruitment, and they voted against it. After implementing a 4% raise, Ward was still able to hire enough teachers for the school year. He is planning, however, on proposing the schedule for specialized positions the district is short on including speech therapists, physical therapists and diagnosticians.
How districts are easing into the new schedule
To help ease students, teachers and parents into the new schedule, several districts are providing meals, low-cost childcare and academic enrichment on days off.
While teachers can work from home most Fridays, the DeKalb, New Summerfield and Pewitt districts have periodical staff development days, where teachers collaborate on lesson planning. Also, students in those districts as well as New Boston and Silverton who need academic help can get tutoring on certain Fridays throughout the year.
“We’re excited about those days, because we’re going to be able to target some students that possibly need some extra help that in a normal setting they might not even be able to get,” Brannen said.
Every Friday, Pewitt and DeKalb students can stop by the school and get lunch, and they can participate in the Texas ACE after-school program. And DeKalb parents can get $60 a month child care on Fridays offered by First United Methodist Church. So far, 20 families have enrolled in the child care program. In Mineral Wells, there are optional instructional Fridays for elementary students, with 55 students signed up so far.
To address learning gaps, students at Hull-Daisetta have a half-day one Friday per month.
“We’re going to provide them with some instruction that’s not exactly the same as they get on a daily basis,” Bartram said. “We might do more hands-on that day, it may be team teaching where a couple of teachers are team teaching a small group. We’ve got a whole bunch of ideas that are going to take place on that, but it is going to be for all students.”
Some, like Happy Independent School District in the Texas Panhandle, are on a hybrid schedule, with four-day and five-day weeks. School days are slightly longer — from 7:45 a.m.-3:42 p.m. to 7:35 a.m.-4 p.m. Because some parents of elementary students are concerned that their children won’t be able to handle the longer days, the district will be monitoring student engagement and performance.
“Honestly, we go into it cautiously optimistic,” says superintendent Ray Keith. “There’s some things that we find that can be positive, but we also have our concerns too.”