As school budgets shrink, so does the school year

Grappling with steep budget cuts, school districts throughout Georgia are slashing days — and in some cases full weeks — from their school calendars to keep costs down.

A handful of small, rural districts in the state have even taken the extreme step of shortening the school week to four days.

The shift to fewer days runs counter to calls from a growing number of academic and policy experts to move in the opposite direction. The U.S. Department of Education is backing a pilot program to add 300 hours of instructional time to 40 schools in five states. And advocates continually point to the success of students in other nations, like Japan, where students are in the classroom more than 12 weeks longer than the U.S. benchmark of 180 days.

Data examined by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show that for each of the last three academic years, roughly two-thirds of the Georgia’s districts have trimmed the total number of instructional days to fewer than 180.

The state requires that schools offer between 810 and 990 hours a year in instructional time for students, depending on the grade level. Districts say they’ve largely made up the lost hours by tacking additional time onto the remaining school days. Packing the required hours into fewer days saves money on transportation, maintenance and substitute teachers.

But some experts argue that, academically, it’s not an equal trade.

“Not at all the same,” said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center for Time and Learning, a Boston-based non-profit that advocates adding instructional hours for students.

“Unless you are exceptionally good at planning, 10 or so minutes more a day is going to be lost time,” Davis said.

Georgia lags behind much of the nation on a variety of academic measures and has been struggling to catch up.

Studies have shown that logging more time in the classroom can help. That’s especially true with poor kids who don’t have access to the same array of extracurricular and academic enrichment activities as their wealthier counterparts when school is out.

A study by Roland Fryer, a Harvard University economist, examined charter schools in New York City to identify what had the greatest impact on improving academic performance. His findings: Intensive tutoring and instructional time of at least 300 more hours a year made the biggest difference.

Others caution that when it comes to learning, quality matters as much as quantity.

Eric Wearne, an education policy expert at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said simply adding days doesn’t guarantee success.

“There is some research that suggests that shorter school years have a small negative effect on student achievement,” Wearne said. “But you need good teachers and a strong curriciculum. Time itself is not enough.”

Calls for additional instructional time aren’t new.

In 1983, the landmark report “A Nation at Risk” painted a troubling portrait of the nation’s schools. Assembled by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, the study warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

The commission recommended states lengthen their school years to between 200 and 220 days.

That’s a tall order for many districts. A Georgia State University analysis showed that, overall, spending per pupil declined by $1,200 from 2002 to 2012.

Stewart County Schools, located along the Alabama state line, is one of many districts in Georgia struggling financially. It is in one of the state’s poorest counties.

Last school year, the district adopted a four-day week to cope with budget cuts.

Floyd Fort, a 24-year veteran in education who served as superintendent when that decision was made, called it “the toughest decision I ever had to make in my educational career.”

Fort, who resigned in a dispute with the board earlier this year, said the district was facing another $430,000 in state budget cuts, and the school board had already raised taxes by four mils in less than a year.

To cope, the district had cut physical education for elementary school students, eliminated a media special position at one of its schools and the jobs of curriculum director and director of federal programs.

“People told us they didn’t want the calendar cut, but they said they’d rather cut the school (week) than cut any more programs,” he said.

Stewart added an hour to the school day Tuesday through Friday. School days begin at 8 a.m. and end at 4:15 p.m.

Fort said the district saved about $247,000 in the first six months. It’s too early to tell what impact the change had on student performance. Test scores are up, but firm trends only become clear after several years.

Parents, teachers and students have quickly warmed to the idea of a shortened school week, which the district will adhere to again this year.

“I love it,” said Joan Jones, an English/language arts teacher at Stewart County High. “That Monday is like a planning day.”

John Hamilton, Stewart County High’s principal, said his son, a senior at the school, also liked the shorter week.

Still, Hamilton said he thinks students, particularly young students, would get more instruction and be better-served if the district returned to a five-day school week.

For now, though, “We’re going to make the best of whatever structure we have,” Hamilton said.

By and large, most districts in Georgia have made more modest adjustments to their calendars.

Clayton County has adopted a 175 day calendar for the last three years and plans to do so again when classes start up Aug. 12. The district had been offering more than the minimum number of hours a year, so didn’t need to lengthen the remaining days.

Cobb County students will be in class 175 days this coming year. That’s two days fewer than the year before.

Atlanta and Gwinnett have stuck to a 180-day schedule.

Meanwhile, in Wilcox County, students are again embarking on a four-day school week. For elementary school students, that means eight-hour days Tuesday through Friday.

Superintendent Steve Smith said the community and teachers have been supportive, and grandparents have called him, thankful they get to spend time with their grandkids on Mondays. He said teacher and student attendance is up, and there’s been a drop in referrals for disciplinary problems.

Even so, when circumstances allow he wants to go back to five days.

“I think our students deserve better, but we are in a budget situation where we don’t really have any other choice,” he said. “I feel like we could do even more, if we just had more time.”

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