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Oklahoma Schools Condensing Schedule To Save Money, Attract Teachers

Alvin Trusty

For a lot of schools in Oklahoma, juggling flat budgets with increasing costs means a bumpy road ahead for district superintendents. And getting teachers to work for the meager starting salary is also a struggle.

So how do they make it work? Some districts in Oklahoma pay teachers in time – four days a week, instead of five.

Ask a kid from Asher Public Schools—where they’ve been doing it for five years—and they’ll tell you it’s the best. But for parents—there are a lot of questions.

Of course the number one concern is childcare,” says Locust Grove Public Schools superintendent Lori Helton. “What do we do with our children?”

Helton spent the last few months answering that question- and many others—because next year her district will begin a four day school week. She says the switch is not an attempt to win over students, or freak out parents—but is really an experiment in recruiting and retaining teachers.

Obviously teacher pay is not where it should be in Oklahoma,” Helton said. “And when you’re talking about not being able to give someone an increase for the work that they do, you have to find other ways to make the job worthwhile.”

Helton saw how the teacher shortage affected other districts last year—many of which went all year without filling their open positions.  And the fact that she had eight teachers leaving worried her. 

But last March, when her school board voted to make Monday part of the weekend—things changed.

“As soon as that became public—we had not posted any job openings yet—and the resumes started coming in,” Helton said.

She had no trouble filling her positions, and hasn’t heard any complaints from the teachers already on staff, either. Helton said the change puts more pressure on teachers to use each minute wisely--but says her staff is already making plans to do so.

“Especially at the elementary level, having just that little bit of extra time at the end of each class to be able to work with those kids individually – having that additional time for reading intervention, for math intervention,” Helton said.

The new schedule makes each day one hour longer—and individual classes will last an extra 10 minutes, which Helton says adds up to the same amount of time in school.

She admits she’s a little nervous about the shift to the four day week—and says if they don’t see positive changes in test scores, student discipline, and attendance like they hope to—then they’ll go back to the 5 day schedule.

Other schools are switching to the four day school week next year as a way to deal with budget cuts.

“Small schools, all schools really, are having to do whatever they can to keep their head above water,” said Josh Sumrall, the superintendent of Coyle Public Schools.

Sumrall’s district will save 8-10 percent of their budget by chopping that one day off their school week.

He says savings on things like diesel fuel for busses, energy costs, and substitute teacher pay could add up to a full-time teacher salary. He thinks they could actually recruit with the shortened week.

“I’ve hired three teachers this summer, and all three said they applied here because we’re going to the four day week,” Sumrall said.

Asher Public Schools also made the switch five years ago -to save money. Terry Grissom, the district superintendent, says they now pocket an extra $20-30,000 a year because of it.

He’s received multiple calls from superintendents this year—seeking advice about childcare, test scores, and wanting to know how the kids dealt with the change.

“There was an acclimation time,” Grissom said. “It took them a little while to get used to it, but it doesn’t seem any different now.”

He says his district’s science scores have gone down a bit, but their math scores shot up. But says that could be the result of so many different things.

Grissom says—for Asher—childcare hasn’t really been an issue. And thinks 90 percent of the community loves the four day week. If anything, they’ve just heard compliments.

Grissom admits he doesn’t think the change is suitable for all communities—but says it’s a good fit for his.  

He also says switching back to a five day week is kind of impossible at this point—and says if he did, he would have a teacher revolt to deal with.

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