Fair-Mont-Egan (FME) School, which serves kindergarten through eighth-grade students in the rural area east of Kalispell, will move to a four-day school week beginning next academic year, making it the fourth school district in the Flathead Valley to switch to the modified schedule. FME Superintendent Brandy Carlenzoli said that the decision to move to a four-day week came after extensive surveys and meetings with teachers, staff and parents, who overwhelmingly supported the change. The district’s shift to a shorter week follows a growing national trend, as schools across the country, specifically rural districts like FME, have experimented with the reconfigured formula in recent years.
Carlenzoli, who is currently in her first year as the FME superintendent, told the Beacon that the choice to move to a four-day week came from a desire for added teacher training, a more flexible schedule for students, and what she described as a needed reinvigoration of energy into the district, an energy she said had been diminished during the pandemic.
The Fair-Mont-Egan superintendent first heard about the four-day school week from Trevor Dahlman, the principal of Olney-Bissell School, another small, rural elementary school in the Flathead Valley that switched to a four-day schedule in the fall of 2018. Carlenzoli said she brought the idea to her staff, and then to parents, and was met with positive feedback.
“It ended up being very, very popular for the staff,” Carlenzoli said. “To see a staff get so excited about something, I’m thrilled.”
The superintendent said that 87% of parents with students returning next school year responded to a survey about the schedule change, with 77% of respondents being in favor of the four-day school week.
With the new schedule, students will attend eight-hour school days, Monday through Thursday. Teachers will work nine-hour days, and will alternate between off days and professional development days on Fridays. Carlenzoli said that, currently, she has little time to meet with and train teachers, a problem she hopes to remedy by having two full-day development sessions per month.
“My goal is to have time with teachers to increase learning,” she said.
Fair-Mont-Egan, which currently enrolls 133 students, will become the fourth district in Flathead County to switch to a four-day schedule, joining Olney-Bissell, Pleasant Valley and West Glacier. Across Montana, there are 175 schools that operate under a four-day school week, including Linderman School in Polson and Seeley-Swan High School, which is part of the Missoula County Public Schools.
Carlenzoli said that despite the largely positive response, some parents expressed concerns about childcare access and student achievement.
For many parents in the Flathead Valley, childcare outside of school hours can be both expensive and difficult to find. A nationwide labor shortage and inflation have only made these problems more acute, making classroom time a lifeline for working parents.
To mitigate these concerns, Carlenzoli said the district will be running its before and after school program, the Bruins’ Den, on Fridays.
“Our board made it very clear that they want to ensure that there will be low cost childcare,” she said.
Regarding concerns about learning losses, Carlenzoli pointed to the growing body of research on four-day school weeks, which has yielded some positive, but generally mixed results.
According to the largest study to date on four-day school weeks by nonprofit policy think tank the RAND Corporation, teachers reported considering the four-day week a “job perk,” student achievement remained stable, families experienced greater flexibility and opportunities to spend time together, and administrators reported that students were more eager to learn and engage after a three-day weekend.
“The students will still be having that full amount of learning, and we’ll be doing it in a much more organized way,” Carlenzoli said. “We just think that the benefits will outweigh those concerns.”
She noted that the district will still meet the required number of classroom hours outlined by the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI). Currently, the district exceeds required hours on its five-day schedule.
Carlenzoli noted that while students in four-day school districts have shown initial academic improvements, data show that these gains can drop off, putting students behind those in five-day districts over time. According to the RAND report, three years after implementing a four-day school week, student achievement in English was between 0.040 and 0.096 standard deviations lower compared to students in five-day districts. Math achievement was between 0.069 and 0.140 standard deviations lower. The FME superintendent said the district will closely monitor students after the four-day schedule is implemented to ensure achievement does not drop.
“What I do know from the research is that you have to watch,” she said. “You have to watch carefully and make sure that the jump in learning that takes place in the first year keeps going.”
However, the RAND report noted that the four-day week was more successful in rural districts like Fair-Mont-Egan, which are often forced to navigate a unique set of academic and financial challenges. Students in rural areas are more likely to miss school, often on Fridays, for medical appointments and athletic competitions, given the long travel times, a problem that Carlenzoli hopes to limit with a four-day week. RAND also reported that shortening the school week helped some rural districts overcome issues hiring and retaining teachers, and allowed students to spend time with family learning skills that are not taught in the classroom, such as working on farms and ranches, hunting, fishing and spending time outdoors. “Our wonderful folks here are so family-oriented,” Carlenzoli said. “It’s more family time. It’s more time to do outdoorsy things. There’s more concentration on being able to get the kids here.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Fair-Mont-Egan will become the third district in the Flathead Valley to switch to a four-day school week, joining Olney-Bissell and West Glacier. Pleasant Valley school also operates on a four day week, making Fair-Mont-Egan the fourth, not third, school in the Flathead Valley to switch to the modified schedule.
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