ST. JOE — The Ozark Mountain School District has begun transitioning to a four-day school week that will begin at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. The rural consolidated school district has campuses at St. Joe in Searcy County; Western Grove in Newton County and Bruno-Pratt in Marion County.

Superintendent Kerry Saylors was hired by the school district last May. He said he would be focusing on strategies to ensure that the school district meets financial challenges that lie ahead. He graduated high school at Bruno-Pyatt in 1980, coached basketball at St. Joe from 1989-1994 and served on the school board during the 2013-2014 school year.

At last November's school board meeting Saylors shared the results from employee and student surveys, for which 70% of students and 89% of employees were in favor of the four-day week. Saylors said committees were developing potential calendars for the 2020-2021 school year and class schedule with seven periods. He reported he also had been visiting with a Missouri superintendent whose district implemented a four-day school week and their absentee rate (student and employee) decreased by 65% in the first year.

A public meeting was held last Dec. 8, at which Saylors made a formal presentation, answered questions and allowed time for a public discussion about the proposal. At the board's next meeting the members voted unanimously to move forward with the plan.

In a recent interview, Saylors talked about the plan, how it was supported and what needs to happen for it to be successful.

Saylors said discussions began last April after he looked at the school district's enrollment numbers from 2016 through 2018. It showed a loss of almost 44 students. The education department does enrollment projections. According to a summary for the school district, no significant enrollment increases are predicted. Enrollment will be flat at around 600 students for the next eight years.

Saylors said he sent out surveys to the families who left the school district during that period. There were no clear answers for their leaving. Reasons varied from changes in jobs to family separations.

Other problems the school district has is attracting and retaining employees and a high absence rate. The school district spent $90,110 for substitute teachers during the 2018-2019 school year.

Saylors said he researched the direction education is heading and observed that about 560 school districts in 25 states have gone to four-day weeks. He said he was aware of school districts in Oklahoma that went to four-day weeks and that some school districts in Arkansas, such as Kirby and Norfork, are following suit. He said he talked to some of those school districts' superintendents and they voiced excitement about it.

Indications were that four-day weeks attracted new students, attracted more applicants for job openings and lowered the number of absences of both students and staff members. If it is working for these schools why couldn't it work for St. Joe, Western Grove and Bruno-Pratt? Saylors thought. None of the superintendents said they would want to go back to five-day weeks.

He said he first had to find out what students and staff thought of what would be perceived as a radical idea. A student survey showed 70% approved. An employee survey was more positive with 89% in support.

Next, Saylors sent home a ballot to each family with a student enrolled in a district school and a public meeting was held. The results of the survey showed about 70% of families were in favor of a four-day week. Many more became sold on the idea after the public meeting, Saylors said.

Saylors said that the four-day week is not to save money. "I never promised that," he said. There may be some cost savings on fuel by buses only running four days a week, but all salaries in the school district will stay the same, he emphasized. Savings could be realized if absences are reduced. Other costs for energy, food services and some other resources might go down.

The three-day-weekend will be Saturday, Sunday and Monday. "No more Mondays," Saylors said.

Having Mondays off won't interfere with basketball games as they are scheduled on Tuesday's and later in the week, he said.

Class days will go from eight periods per day to seven periods per day with each period being expanded to a full hour of instruction time. This will benefit classes that have laboratory sessions. Core classes will have 30 minutes more instruction time per week. Saylors said that the school district already has solid test scores, but they should only be improved by the additional instruction time.

The seven-period day will start at 7:50 a.m. with the seventh hour ending at 4:12 p.m. Included in the schedule will be times for students to have a grab and go breakfast, a half hour for lunch and a grab and go hot snack in the afternoon.

Students riding buses will have to make adjustments, the superintendent admitted. He said buses generally run on time. But as some parents noted during the public meeting, students will only be riding the bus four days a week and no longer five days a week.

There will be increased family time for students. Families can take extended weekend trips to go places or camping. Such experiences are important to a child's overall education, Saylors noted from his own experiences growing up and being a parent.

Saylors said the hopes the four-day week increases morale of students, faculty and staff.

Anne Gallagher, student counselor for the St. Joe and Bruno-Pratt campuses, is also a parent. One child attends St. Joe School, another at Marshall where the family resides and one in day care. She said she has a concern for families of students who might not have a safe place to go on Mondays because both parents work. Since the plan was proposed, she said, the school district has reached out to churches and other organizations to find alternative programs for these families. The school district is also looking for federal dollars that may fund a limited child care program for one or more campuses. There has also been talk of employment opportunities for persons wanting to provide limited day care services or students wanting to become babysitters for a day. Training is available through the county extension service.

She said she feels certain things will come together for those students. She said the public, churches and other organizations just need to come forward and help.

Speaking as an educator, Gallagher said she believes the additional day off will rejuvenate and refresh overly stressed teachers who currently have to use part of their weekend to prepare their next week's lessons. "'I'll have a real weekend,'" Gallagher related hearing teachers say since the plan was approved. Better lesson planning will have an impact on student's learning, she added.

The four-day week may also open the schools' doors to home schooled students. Parents might use Mondays as a day for home schooling and then send students to school other days to participate in advanced placement classes, digital learning programs or extracurricular activities thus increasing the schools' enrollment numbers.

Gallagher noted that the dropout rate of students might also decrease.

Saylors said the four-day week will be another way of making going to school a better experience. Add to it free quality breakfasts and lunches for students (work is being done to provide free meals to teachers and staff) plenty of recess time, and snacks. He said the school district's board of education is always looking for ways to improve the schools' programs and more are in the works, some of which may be announced soon, Saylors said.

The most important thing needed to make the 4-day week successful is the trust that has been given to the school district by its patrons, Saylors said. As long as it is understood that everything is done in the best interest of the students, that trust should continue, Saylors added. There is good communication between the school and its patrons.

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