By MARJORIE CLARK
KETCHIKAN — Eight of the nine schools in the Southeast Island School District have moved to four-day weeks, starting this school year.
Superintendent Lauren Burch said the change had been talked about for a few years, but the district administration didn’t give the idea much thought. During the 2011-12 school year, Burch petitioned the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to make the change, but the department refused the idea.
A bill was passed during the 2013 legislative session that allowed the school district to serve as a pilot program for the four-day school week. As a result, SISD was able to make the change and is required to submit an annual report to the Legislature to show the progress of the program in the rural school district.
The choice to change schedules was left up to each school and its advisory school committee. With the exception of Barry Craig Stewart Kasaan School, the majority vote moved to make the change. Kasaan’s ASC president, Kelly Trussell, said the community met to talk about the change, and decided it was not something they wanted to do.
Burch said the transition to the new schedule this year has gone smoothly and credits its success to students and parents.
According to the school district’s proposal to DEED, students attending first through 12th grade attend 16 more hours at school through the year during a four-day school week schedule than during a traditional five-day week. Kindergarteners attend 38 more hours through the school year.
Students attend class from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and teachers work additionally from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Friday. James Hughes, a teacher at Howard Valentine Coffman Cove School, said the new schedule gives him more time with the students to cover individual concepts, and student attendance is up.
“We have a lot of kids that miss for hunting, gathering firewood and fishing, and now that’s not happening,” Hughes said. “I have better attendance because they can plan doctor visits and sporting activities on those Fridays that we don’t have school.”
He said that even though his students aren’t required to attend school on Fridays, he frequently has six to 10 students in the classroom getting extra help or catching up on their work.
“I really enjoy the Fridays that I come in,” Hughes said. “I can do lesson planning and grading, and I have a lot of kids that take advantage of that. They come in and get extra help.”
Hughes is one of three teachers at the Coffman Cove school. Between the three of them, they teach 28 students, ranging from pre-kindergarten through 11th grade. Hughes credits the small school district for the success of the new schedule.
“It’s not designed for every school situation, but in a rural area like this it’s pretty optimal,’ Hughes said. “I’ve taught in bigger districts with a lot more kids, and I don’t think it would work as well as this situation.”
Burch said he is expecting to see teacher attendance to be up as well.
“If you go to the doctor that’s not here on the island, which is more limited, you need two or three days to go to Ketchikan,” Burch said. “When you have a Friday to do that stuff, you don’t have to miss a bunch of work.”
He said the extra free hours on the weekend contribute to a positive frame of mind for teachers as well.
“I’ve been in the trade quite awhile, and if people don’t have time to take care of themselves they tend to get sick,” Burch said. “If you can build that in, where they have some mental health time, then they tend to not get sick as much either.”
Burch said there were a few parents who objected to the change, citing the need to have childcare on Friday when they wouldn’t have needed it previously.
“In a lot of small communities, the people that are working are working at the school. Even the parents,” Burch said. “Maybe we had three parents in the entire district that were pretty adamant that they didn’t wanna go that way. Otherwise everyone was pretty supportive of it.”
At the end of the school year, Burch said the district will need to provide information to the Department of Education on how it did in regard to attendance and proficiency scores in order to have the commissioner sign off on the next year’s schedules.
“They’ll want to see statistics on how it’s gone,” Burch said. “(The commissioner) could after the year decide he doesn’t like it and decline to accept the calendar. But I don’t really see that happening.”
Burch said he was concerned about how teachers would accept the change of schedule. One of the main comments he heard was in concern of teachers needing to work during the weekend, but he said that, in his experience, teachers do that anyway. With this schedule, he said teachers are able to take Friday off and work Saturday if they choose.
“You’re not gonna have good weather all weekend,” Burch said. “If you have a good-weather day, you can go out and do something with the family.”