By Madelynn Coldiron
Ten years ago, the Webster County school district attracted statewide attention when it launched a school-year calendar based on a four-day instructional week.
This school year, it’s back to a more traditional calendar for students and staff.
But, district leaders say, don’t leap to the conclusion that four-day weeks don’t work. For the calendar’s first five years or so, test scores rose and the system “saved a bunch of money,” said Assistant Superintendent Alan Lossner. The savings, much of which came from reduced transportation costs, was a driving force behind the unique calendar, along with increased academic expectations.
PHOTO: Students in sixth- grade language arts teacher Elizabeth Warren’s class at Dixon Elementary answer a question in class as the school year was wrapping up in May. These students have never known anything but the Webster County school district’s four-day instructional week calendar and are returning in August to a five-day schedule.
After that, though, test scores began to slide, Lossner said. “That was probably the biggest factor in rethinking the whole issue,” he explained.
“That caused the red flag to go up,” former interim Superintendent Pete Galloway agreed.
When the district initiated the four-day instructional week, in which teachers used most Mondays for professional development and planning, “There was that commitment from every stakeholder in our school district … to roll our sleeves up and really use those professional learning days in a way that was collaborative, that focused on continued student learning, that focused on the needs of the learners, that helped us make plans, look at their lesson plans, adjust, refine – all those things were in place, so there was continued growth,” said Dr. Rachel Yarbrough, who was assistant superintendent at that time and who recently returned to the district as superintendent.
But Yarbrough and other administrators say the momentum eventually was lost. With new staff coming on board, “those new people coming in don’t have the same vision or same understanding of the intent,” said special education and early childhood director Kim Saalwaechter, who also has served as assessment coordinator in her 20 years with the system.
A form of complacency set in, Galloway said, as if simply having a unique calendar would improve academic achievement. Board Chairman Jeff Pettit said the professional development days, which the board originally envisioned would be used by parents to schedule doctor’s appointments and the like, became “an abused convenience,” with parents reverting to making appointments on regular instructional days.
There were other contributing factors, Assistant Superintendent Riley Ramsey said. “It wasn’t one thing. It was budgets, it was test scores. And in the middle of it, we changed tests. It was a compilation of everything.”
Pettit said he and some other board members also heard from local business leaders over the past few years that graduates had, in effect, become accustomed to a four-day work week.
“It’s a mentality thing,” he said. “What kind of lifestyle were we putting in place for them that wasn’t necessarily reality?”
Saalwaechter said as the district tried to tweak the calendar over the last few years, more four-day weeks were replaced by five-day weeks. This was especially true when bad winters forced the system to use those Mondays for make-up days. That had its own set of complications, as some students, especially at the high school, felt entitled to stay home on what originally had been designated as a non-instructional day, Ramsey said.
The new model
Going back to a more traditional calendar is “a pretty big shock and a pretty big change” for parents, who mostly liked the four-day model, Pettit said. But he said the majority “are serious about education and felt it could make an improvement,” and he has heard “minimal” negative feedback.
Some students have grumbled, Dixon Elementary School fifth-grader Hunter McNaughton said. “It’s not fun. It’s a lot harder than going four days a week,” he said.
Like most students, many of the teachers, like Dixon fifth- and sixth-grade social studies teacher Katie Tate, have never known a traditional calendar. “I’m a little anxious to see what it’s like,” she said. But because teachers have still been working five-day weeks, Tate added, “it doesn’t really feel like it’s adding time. It will just be adding time for students, which is good.”
Dixon Principal Eric Wheatley expects the transition to go smoothly. “The district has prepared and the adjustment will be pretty easy,” he said. “The five-day week will allow us to get more focused on instruction, and it’s going to be more consistent.”
While the 2014-15 calendar is mostly traditional, it does have some shorter instructional weeks with the addition of five professional development days throughout the school year in addition to the four mandated days, Yarbrough pointed out.
Saalwaechter said unlike most of the old professional learning Mondays, these days will be structured and planned by the district and not by the principals in each building.
Yarbrough said the bottom line for her is student achievement and not the calendar. “It’s what kind of structures are in place around time, whether it’s time for students or time for the staff, what’s in place to make sure you’ve got a viable curriculum and that the school district moves forward and continues to get better on behalf of student learning,” she said.
BOARD VIEW: The board as catalyst
The Webster County school board’s approach was simple after looking at the district’s student achievement record, said Chairman Jeff Pettit: “We wanted to see improvement.”
“As a board, we couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was (that was causing the slide) or where it was, but I think we started driving the search among the administrators to figure out what we needed to do, what we needed to change, to get us from where we are today to where we wanted to be in that top 25 or top 10 percent of schools in the state of Kentucky,” Pettit said. “It wasn’t just the board – I think the board tried to work with the administrators and the staff to identify where we needed to make those changes and what type of improvement.”
Pete Galloway, then the interim superintendent, said the district also had received a letter from state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who expressed concern over the district’s performance and warned that his agency would not continue to approve the non-traditional calendar if the district failed to make progress.
Galloway – who was leading the district when the board began rethinking its calendar – noted that the board’s makeup changed two years ago with the election of three new members. With that change, he said, “I believe they would have demanded a traditional calendar whether we got a letter from Dr. Holliday or not.”
Even before that, however, the district had been trying to fine-tune and tweak the calendar over the last few years in hopes of seeing improvement, Assistant Superintendent Riley Ramsey said.
Pettit said input from some of the district’s newer school administrators and others indicated “they didn’t think the four-day calendar was working in their buildings for their students.”
“That made us all sit down and take a closer look at how the four-day calendar was affecting our classroom time and our expectations on the teachers, professional development and how it was being handled,” he said. “It just made you look at the whole picture.”