VANOSS — The question of whether Oklahoma schools should adopt shorter schedules returned to the spotlight earlier this month, when Gov. Mary Fallin said she thought schools should find other ways to cut costs.
“I do think it’s unacceptable for Oklahoma to have any schools that have four-day school weeks,” she told the Oklahoma City-based News 9. “And so, schools need to step up and look at their expenses and look at their operations and help us go, certainly, to five-day school weeks.”
The governor’s comments came during an interview about the recent failure of State Question 779, which would have added one cent to the statewide sales tax. If voters had approved the measure, some of the proceeds from the tax would have been set aside to give teachers pay raises. The rest would have been divided among public schools, colleges and vocational education programs.
Vanoss Public Schools officials know what operating on a shorter class schedule is like, having adopted a four-day school week in 2015. And so far, they are reporting positive results.
The district has cut jobs and programs to save money over the past several years, but officials knew they needed to take additional steps to trim spending, Vanoss Middle School/High School principal Charles Hill said Thursday. With that goal in mind, officials started thinking about switching to a four-day week in 2015.
“The reason behind it was, we were already experiencing some severe budget cuts and were being told that more severe budget cuts were on the way, which did come,” Hill said. “We saw very difficult times coming for all Oklahoma schools.”
After their research, the district surveyed parents in the spring of 2015 to find out what they thought about moving to a shorter school week. Officials found that 87 percent of participating parents supported the change.
Next, the district hosted a community meeting to gauge support for the proposed change, Hill said. Some people were concerned about whether employees would have to take a pay cut, while others worried that parents might not be able to find someone to care for their children when school was not in session.
Hill said the change did not affect teachers’ pay, and other employees were allowed to work extra hours to ensure they did not lose pay.
Armed with information from the survey and the meeting, officials decided to try a shorter school week in the 2015-16 academic year. The district alternated between closing school on Mondays and Fridays that year.
At the end of the year, the district conducted another parental survey, which showed that support for the change was even stronger.
Based on that survey, the district is using a four-day schedule again this year. Instead of alternating between Mondays and Fridays, schools are open Monday through Thursday and closed on Friday this year.
Hill said it was difficult to gauge exactly how much money the district has saved by using a shorter schedule, because so many variables — including the price of fuel and utilities — are in play.
“The best that anyone’s been able to figure out is, we’re running around 5 percent savings,” he said. “It may be as high as 8 percent.”
Hill said Oklahoma law requires students to be in class 1,080 hours a year, but school districts can decide how to arrange their time to meet that requirement.
“So whether you’re going five days or six days or four days or three days, you are in school 1,080 hours,” he said. “So Vanoss and Ada and Byng go to school the exact same amount of time. We simply have rearranged our time to where we’re doing it in a four-day week instead of a five.”
To meet the 1,080-hour requirement, Vanoss students start their school day five minutes early, stay about 18 minutes later in the afternoon and take a slightly shorter lunch break.
The impact of a shorter schedule is showing up in other places besides the bottom line.
Vanoss High School received an A-minus on this year’s A-F report card, up from a B-plus in 2015, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. The school was one of 48 high schools across the state to receive an A grade on its report card, which is designed to give parents and students a snapshot of how their schools are doing.
Vanoss Elementary and Middle School also saw better report card results this year, according to the Department of Education. The school received a C this year, up from a D in 2015.
Hill said the state uses a variety of statistics in calculating a school’s letter grade, and Vanoss’ grade indicates the district made the right decision in going to a shorter week.
“My belief now, after a year and a half of doing this, is it’s not the five-day week or the four-day week,” he said. “It’s whether you have teachers and community and students that buy in and are supportive of the school and want to succeed.”
Hill said two experienced teachers have left the district since it started using a shorter schedule, but they departed because they had taken higher-paying jobs in another field.