WEST GLACIER – The kids in West Glacier might be ditching a lot of school days next year, but they would be doing so with the principal’s permission.
School officials here have proposed changing to a four-day school week next fall and adding a junior high program.
As enrollment dwindles, West Glacier’s coffers are also shrinking and threatening to force cuts in staff and programs. The four-day schedule and added grades would cut some costs while simultaneously boosting funding from the state, school officials say.
At an informational meeting last week, the proposal received a largely positive response from the dozen or so community members in attendance. West Glacier’s teachers and staff are supportive of the changes.
“I like the idea, because it means I’d get to spend more time with my family in Montana, where we like to fish,” Scott Brown, a grandparent of a fifth-grade West Glacier student, told the school’s staff and board at a meeting last week.
“And everybody knows the best fishing is on Fridays,” chimed in another parent.
West Glacier’s enrollment has plummeted in the last decade. After peaking at 66 students in the early 1990s, the school’s enrollment was at 52 in 1999. Ten years later, the school has 24 students, a 58 percent decline.
West Glacier Principal Cortni King says the school’s enrollment has mirrored changes in Glacier National Park, where a federal commission in the late 1990s and technological advances have meant that fewer park employees live and work there year-round.
“There was a dramatic impact when housing at Glacier National Park fell out,” she said.
Adding to those changes are the typical cyclical shifts in demographics and the availability of affordable housing in West Glacier, which is typically higher-priced than its neighbors further down U.S. Highway 2. “It’s certainly not a community that lends itself to young families moving in,” King said.
Since school funding is largely determined by student numbers, averaged over three-year spans, the enrollment declines represent budget decreases. When West Glacier’s three-year average is updated at the end of next year, the funding number may drop by as much as five students, or about $23,500, for the 2010-2011 school year.
Next year’s projected budget is about $213,000. “Next year we can cinch up our belts and continue, but if we don’t see changes by the next year we will be looking at (cutting) teachers,” King told the crowd.
In the search for funding solutions, King began researching the effects of a four-day school week and the addition of junior high grades.
West Glacier currently “outsources” its seventh- and eighth-graders to the Columbia Falls School District. Since the junior high there begins in the sixth grade, many of West Glacier’s sixth-graders also opt to make the transfer.
If West Glacier added its own seventh- and eighth- grade classes, King said she didn’t expect students already attending school in Columbia Falls to return. Instead, the program would likely grow on a three-year cycle as students currently enrolled in lower grades progressed through the program.
Retaining the school’s older students would increase enrollment and, consequently, state funding. The state allocates approximately $6,000 for every seventh- and eighth-grade student, as opposed to about $4,700 for lower grades. In addition to per-student funds, the school would also be eligible to receive the state’s base rate for those grades of $60,000 if at least two students enrolled.
Meanwhile, the four-day school week would decrease some costs, King said. Energy expenses and the school’s classified staff budget, such as custodial fees, would decrease slightly, while a larger savings would come in 2011 when the school renegotiated its transportation contract.
With the new calendar, the total number of hours West Valley students spend in class each week won’t change much. Instead, each of the four days of instruction will be lengthened by about an hour to keep the district well above state accreditation standards.
“At the elementary level, from a developmental standpoint, it’s probably not prudent to have them in a structured class until 4:20 p.m.,” King said, noting that those students may have an early out time or spend the end of the day in a Montessori-style, structured play time.
King said she hopes to make arrangements with another school district to jointly provide extracurricular activities like athletic teams for the older students.
The change would have a nominal effect on local levies, increasing annual taxes on a $100,000 home by about $2. An audience member at last week’s meeting noted that, if the school was to close and Columbia Falls absorbed its students, West Glacier’s taxes would triple.
West Glacier is part of a growing number of schools considering a shorter week as they try to work as efficiently as possible given budget crunches and the economic downturn.
Select districts in about 17 states already follow a four-day week and legislators in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Missouri and Washington have introduced similar proposals. About 20 schools in Montana follow a four-day schedule. Earlier this month, the Arlee school board voted 3-2 to adopt a four-day school week, starting this fall.
The movement isn’t likely to gain steam in Flathead County, where superintendent Marcia Sheffels said she didn’t know of any other schools seriously considering the change.
Sheffels said she understands the reasons for considering a four-day week, but also worries the trend is a move in the wrong direction for schools. “I think the thrust of this country needs to be looking at optimal education time for youngsters, not whittling away,” she said.
Schools may benefit from the change in the short term, Sheffels said, but she questioned what the long-term results might be. Other considerations, she added, include how much schools would actually save and how the move would affect student’s transitions into high school here, where they’d return to a five-day schedule.
In West Glacier, however, school officials feel their school is uniquely suited for the change.
Many students’ parents are seasonal employees who might appreciate the extra day with their children. The day off could be used for travel for appointments or students involved in extracurricular activities.
Proponents, nationally, say the shortened week can improve attendance and teacher retention. As for academics, King said studies have shown the four-day schedule does not hinder student achievement, and may even help improve test scores. Some districts have even reported fewer disciplinary referrals and more classroom participation.
“If it was just a fiscal thing, and I didn’t think we could continue to offer phenomenal programs for our young people,” King said, “I wouldn’t propose it.”
The West Glacier school board is scheduled to vote on the proposed changes at its regular meeting April 21. The school will hold a second informational, community meeting to gauge public support on April 16 at 5:30 p.m.
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