Cayuse Prairie School Moves to Four-Day Week

The small, rural elementary school district will become the fifth in Flathead County to adopt the reconfigured learning schedule

By Denali Sagner
Cayuse Prairie School in Creston on April 9, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A small, rural elementary school east of Kalispell will move to a four-day school week next year, becoming the fifth school in Flathead County to adopt the contracted learning schedule.

The Cayuse Prairie School District earlier this month announced that it would move to a four-day school week beginning next fall, citing a more flexible learning schedule for students, additional collaboration and preparation time for teachers, and cost savings. The district joins the Fair-Mont-Egan, Olney-Bissell, Pleasant Valley and West Glacier school districts in moving to the reconfigured schedule. The Cayuse Prairie school board adopted the measure in a 3-2 vote last month.

“We felt that we had some opportunities to gain in flexibility,” Cayuse Prairie school board chair Ty Hash told the Beacon this week.

Cayuse Prairie is a rural elementary school district that serves approximately 300 students in grades kindergarten through eighth. The district stretches east of Montana Highway 206 and south toward Jewel Basin Road.

In a letter sent to families earlier this month, the Cayuse Prairie School Board said that the decision came out of numerous conversations with teachers and parents who saw the four-day week as a method to limit distractions in the classroom, offer students time to recharge, and cut down on spending as schools across Montana face dire budget shortfalls. 

“This decision was not made lightly. The Board sought various input from the school administration, teachers, parents, neighboring districts with a 4-day week, and national research on the subject,” the letter stated. “The conclusion seemed clear that adopting the 4-day week was in the best interests of the school, the community, and most importantly, our students.”

Sixty-nine percent of 137 Cayuse Prairie families surveyed supported moving to the four-day school week. Of 20 teachers’ association members surveyed, 17 voted for the implementation of the four-day week.

Parents who voted against the four-day week cited concerns over finding childcare on the fifth weekday, requiring students to sit for longer school days, and increasing learning losses.

With the adoption of the four-day week, students at Cayuse Prairie will be in school from 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. for four days per week, increasing the length of the school day by 55 minutes. Over the course of 151 school days, kindergarten through third graders will received 1,032 hours of instructional time, fourth graders will receive 1,082 hours, and fifth through eighth graders will receive 1,087 hours. This will keep the district within the state-mandated 720 hours of instruction for kindergarten through third graders and 1,080 hours for fourth through eighth graders.

Any school closures, such as snow days, will be remote learning days.

Hash said that by increasing the length of the school day, educators will be able to limit transitions between subjects, helping students focus on learning. The new format will also make it easier to pull students out for extra support and targeted interventions, according to the school board chair.

During the fifth weekday when students would have traditionally been in school, teachers will likely alternate between time off and professional development sessions.

According to the letter, the district hopes the four-day week will offer students “greater opportunity to rest and refresh over the longer weekend, increased time blocks for subjects allowing for more time spent on content, and more flexible time for one-on-one interventions for students falling behind in subjects,” as well as “space for kids to just be kids in an increasingly overscheduled and overstressed environment.”

Given concerns about childcare availability on the fifth weekday, Hash said the district is exploring options such as contracting with a private childcare provider to run an on-site or off-site program. However, the school board chair said, rural school districts such as Fair-Mont-Egan that have offered childcare on the fifth weekday have reported that little to no parents utilize the service.

With the convergence of inflation, the expiration of pandemic-era federal funding and the difficulty of passing local levies, school districts across the Flathead Valley are facing unprecedented budget crises, forcing layoffs and program cuts. Cayuse Prairie expects to save about $28,000 annually by adopting the four-day week. Without the four-day week, the district would be forced to cut staff, starting with aides who work with high-need students. The switch will cover the nearly $30,000 budget deficit the small district was facing for the 2024-25 school year.

“Making sure that I was fully staffed, as the person who’s in charge of what’s going on here, was really important to me,” Cayuse Prairie Superintendent / Principal Amy Piazzola said.  

Lori Robin’s first grade class at Cayuse Prairie School in Creston on April 9, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The four-day school week has become popular for small, rural schools across the country as teacher recruitment has become more challenging and budget concerns have increased. In Montana, 31.5% of schools have adopted a four-day week.

The impacts on student outcomes are still unclear. According to a study of early elementary students in Oregon, researchers found “minimal and non-significant differences” in the test scores of third grade students who attended kindergarten on a four-day and five-day schedule. The study saw no statistically significant evidence that a four-day school week had a detrimental impact on learning outcomes for low-performing or disadvantaged students, but did find, however, that above-median and gifted students were most negatively impacted.

Per a large-scale study by nonprofit policy think tank the RAND Corporation, student achievement at four-day schools remained stable, families experienced greater flexibility, and administrators reported that students were more eager to learn and engage after getting more sleep and having more time to recharge.

The RAND study found that student achievement dropped between 0.040 and 0.096 standard deviations in English and between 0.069 and 0.140 standard deviations in math after implementing a four-day week.

Piazzola said that following the pandemic, learning loss in the classroom “has never been greater,” making it even more critical to retain the support staff that would have been laid off had the district maintained a five-day week.

Hash said that the district understands it will have to navigate a number of changes, including reconfigured curriculums, teacher training days and childcare concerns.

The school board chair said that while the district is “not pioneers on this,” Cayuse Prairie is an “early adopter.”

“As Cayuse Prairie moves forward, we will strive to work with families, teachers, and the broader community as equal partners to navigate this change. We will take the time to ensure we are planning deliberately for the coming school year,” the letter states. “… We will not get everything right but as a learning organization we will continue to assess how we educate and improve wherever we can.”

Following revisions to Montana’s out-of-district student enrollment policies, any nonresident family can apply to attend Cayuse Prairie, or another public school in the Flathead Valley, starting in the fall of 2024. According to Piazzola, Cayuse Prairie currently has availability for the 2024-25 school year in kindergarten and fourth grade. More information can be found on the school district’s website.

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A hallway at Cayuse Prairie School in Creston on April 9, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon