By Jennifer Palmer, Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma requires one of the shortest school years in the nation, in terms of instructional days.
But that hasn’t stopped a growing number of districts from ending their school year early this year or moving to four-day weeks to deal with cutbacks in state funding.
Oktaha, Ada, Bixby, Canadian and other districts are shaving days in class from their semesters by cashing in unused snow days, so they will still meet the minimum instructional hours required by the state. In a normal budget year, they would have taken advantage of that extra time in the classroom, school officials said.
The cost savings are minimal, realized when schools are able to shut off the air conditioning and park buses for a day. But superintendents say they are in survival mode, and must make choices that run contrary to what they believe is best for students.
Just a year ago, state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister was promoting a plan to add five days to the minimum days required for all school districts — a plan that has not progressed.
The unexpected days off could present both practical and academic problems.
Working parents could find it difficult or costly to arrange for more child care or adjust job schedules. Students living in poverty who depend on free or reduced-price meals at school could face hardship.
There are also potential detrimental effects on academic performance, including a longer “summer slide,” in which students often forget what they’ve learned and have to spend time in the fall catching up, if they ever do.
“As educators we like to think we’re trying to be productive every day that we’re in school, so it’s not going to help,” Pat Harrison, superintendent of Ada City Schools, said of the loss of school days. “How much it hurts is yet to be seen.”
Effects on Rural Schools
Ending the year early and shortening weeks are being implemented most often in smaller rural districts, although Tulsa Public Schools is considering shortened weeks for next school year.
When schools close for a day, the cost savings are not large. According to the Education Commission of the States, school districts using four-day weeks all year save an average of between 0.4 percent and 2.5 percent of their total budgets.
But in a budget crisis, even a little savings is significant, some school officials say.
Ada will save an estimated $5,000 per day by not opening its doors. The district, which has six schools and 2,700 students, announced March 23 it will cut six days from the remainder of the school year — three Fridays plus the last three days of school.
“We can save $30,000, which more or less, is a beginning teacher’s salary. We need to do that,” superintendent Harrison said. “If we are going to lose $1 million to $1.5 million next year, which is the projected amount for us, then we’ve got to start worrying about that right now as opposed to showing up in August and saying, ‘Now what do we do?’”
Harrison said he hasn’t heard any complaints from parents yet, but the school just started sending notices in late March.
Ada has also eliminated its elementary summer school program to save money and will offer an abbreviated version of summer school for middle and high school students.
Oktaha Public Schools stands to save even less by eliminating Fridays through the end of the school year – $10,000, according to Superintendent Jerry Needham. But the district is using the opportunity to try out four-day weeks, which it may continue next year for added cost savings. (Another school district, Catoosa Public Schools, decided recently to shift to a four-day week starting in the fall.)
Needham said he’d also like to push the first day of school until after Labor Day because the district spends about $1,000 a day on electricity in August due to cooling costs.
He said he’s concerned about how parents and students will react to four-day weeks, and whether grades and test scores will suffer. He’s also concerned about the students who depend on school for a decent meal each day.
“But being concerned and surviving is not the same thing,” Needham said.
Expand and Contract
For some districts, the canceling of school days is a reversal of efforts to expand classroom time.
In 2010, Bixby Public Schools opted to extend the school day by 30 minutes, adding the equivalent of six-and-a-half days to the school year. Those gains are being undone this year. Schools in Bixby, which is about 20 miles southeast of Tulsa, decided to release students for summer six days early because of the decline in state aid.
“It has been our goal, and the reason we changed our calendar, was to add more instructional time. (There’s) disappointment in the sense that this step has to be taken now because of finances,” Bixby Superintendent Kyle Wood said.
Bixby High School scored an A on its latest state report card, and an A+ the two years prior. All schools in the district consistently score As or Bs. Wood said he believes the added time in school and academic performance are correlated.
This is the first time the district has opted to take off the extra days at the end of the year. It will save an estimated $100,000.
What Research Shows
Research on how time in school affects academic performance is mixed.
A 2014 study by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance found increased learning time improved math and reading achievement, although the effects were small. In that study, the greater learning time came through summer school, extended days or year-round school calendars.
The study also found that additional time improved the literacy achievement of low-performing students and the social-emotional skills of students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
A 2015 report focusing on four-day school weeks found little evidence that schools switching to a four-day week harms student performance. The analysis by Association for Education and Finance and Policy looked at fourth and fifth graders in Colorado, where students on a four-day week scored slightly higher on math and reading achievement tests than five-day-a-week students.
In Oklahoma, districts must meet an annual minimum of 1,080 instructional hours, but 30 of those hours can be used for professional meetings and staff development.
That’s equivalent to a 175-day school year, one of the shortest in the nation. More than half of states require 180 days or more, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Some charter schools pride themselves on extended time in school, viewing it as central to their strategy for advancing learning.
The KIPP national network, which includes schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, lists “More Time” among its five operating principles, which are known as “pillars.”
“KIPP schools know that there are no shortcuts when it comes to success in academics and life,” the KIPP website states.
At the KIPP middle schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, students have a nine-hour school day (except on Wednesday) but a traditional year from mid-August to mid-May. Students at KIPP Reach receive about 1,350 instructional hours per school year, well above the 1,080 required by the state.
Nevertheless, time in class alone doesn’t guarantee academic success, as measured by the state. KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory received a letter grade of D- last year, compared with A+ for KIPP Reach College Preparatory in Oklahoma City.
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is a proponent of adding days to the school year. After taking office in January 2015, she touted a five-year plan to phase in $5,000 teacher pay raises to bring teacher pay to the national average and five added instructional days to bring the state to the national average of 180 days. The plan was to cost $150 million the first year, and a total of $362 million over five years.
Due to the state’s budget realities, the plan, while still needed, has been put on hold, said Steffie Corcoran, a spokeswoman for the Education Department.
Education experts say that regardless of the approach a district takes with its calendar, student learning is more effective when more time is invested in teachers through professional development and training.
Largest Districts Wary
Oklahoma’s largest districts, which serve many struggling low-income and minority students, are resisting shortening the school year.
Oklahoma City Public Schools will only consider four-day weeks as a last resort, Superintendent Rob Neu has said.
Many of the district’s students depend on the meals served at school, with 84 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, according to Education Department data.
Oklahoma City broke from a traditional calendar in 2011 when it implemented a “continuous learning” school calendar with a two-month summer break. Classes begin the first week in August and run through the end of May or early June. Two-week breaks are taken in October and March, plus about three weeks in December for the holidays.
The district is coping with the budget crisis in other ways. Neu announced March 23 that more than 200 teacher positions are being eliminated, and class sizes will increase as a result.
At Tulsa Public Schools, Superintendent Deborah Gist has proposed cutting more than 100 administrative positions to save money. In early March, she sent a letter to staff saying the district is considering four-day school weeks, but so far that hasn’t been implemented.
The Tulsa district is short $4 million because of midyear budget cuts and expects a shortfall of as much as $20 million next year.
In a written statement to Oklahoma Watch, TPS spokesman Chris Payne said every cost-saving option is on the table, including cuts in transportation, health services, security, fine arts, athletics, larger class sizes and moving to four-day weeks with longer school days.
“Our priority continues to be the best interests of Tulsa students, and we will do everything possible to protect our teachers and students,” Payne said.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content about public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.