The employees of Athens ISD knew something important was in the air Monday afternoon as they gathered at the Athens High School auditorium following student dismissal for a districtwide meeting. After greeting those gathered with some light humor, Superintendent Blake Stiles jumped straight to the heart of the matter.
“A four-day instructional week,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.” Before he could continue, applause broke out.
Over the next half hour, Stiles, joined by Deputy Superintendent Dr. Janie Sims and Assistant Superintendent Jami Ivey, explained the key components of the proposed new calendar — stressing that the Monday-through-Thursday instructional week remains only a proposal at this time, and, if implemented, it would be launched as a three-year pilot program. Any school calendar must be approved by the seven elected members of the board of trustees. A survey soliciting input will be sent to employees, parents and secondary students of Athens ISD on Wednesday.
Under the plan being considered, students would begin the 2019-2020 school year on Aug. 5, with the last day of instruction being May 28 and graduation on May 29. In order to comply with the state’s requirements for a minimum number of instructional minutes during a school year, the instructional day would increase by 50 minutes. Under the proposal, elementary students would start the day at 7:45 and end at 3:55. The expanded school day, among other benefits, allows for longer recess times, which is proven to be particularly beneficial for young children. For middle school and high school students, the day would start at 8 and end at 4:25. The later start time for secondary students is also in response to research, which clearly indicates teenagers perform better academically later in the morning.
Deputy Superintendent Sims explained that information gathering and investigation has been a six-month process to date, involving hundreds of hours total in discussions with district leadership in other states that have long implemented a four-day instructional week, as well as surveying existing academic literature on the topic, discussions with the Texas Education Agency and UIL officials, and extensive meetings with the leadership teams of all five campuses to troubleshoot and problem solve.
According to research and the experiences of districts already using such a calendar, the four primary benefits of a four-day instructional week are:
- recruitment and retention (a four-day instructional week would encourage top teachers and staff to not only come to AISD but remain there when nearby districts may offer higher salaries);
- student learning (having and retaining the best teachers directly benefits students’ academic performance);
- school culture and reduced absences (studies of the four-day instructional week indicate it reduces behavior referrals and, in some cases, is correlated with increased graduation rates);
- and preparedness (instructional and support staff have more time for professional development and classroom preparation).
What is not being considered as a factor is cost. While there may be some savings in energy and fuel, there could also be new expenditures in other areas, making the proposal “revenue neutral.”
“The number-one concern we have and that we share with others is childcare,” said Sims. “We know childcare on Fridays will be a challenge for some of our parents, and we don’t minimize the seriousness of that. We looked into providing accommodations on Fridays, and it simply isn’t viable for us right now. We have to trust our parents to arrange for childcare as they do during holidays and summer break.”
In comparing challenges against potential benefits of the modified schedule — which AISD is able to propose as a result of being designated two years ago as a “district of innovation” by TEA — the district leadership team has determined the benefits to be great enough to merit serious consideration.
“A vast amount of research indicates the single greatest factor in the academic success of a student is the teacher, bar none,” said Sims. “We believe this could help us compete with larger school districts and offer our employees a quality-of-life incentive that would be one-of-a-kind in Texas. Having the best teachers means having the best classroom instruction.”
“We have a history in this district of being bold, and it’s served us well,” said Superintendent Stiles. “… This could be a phenomenal game changer for Athens ISD. We know there will be some hard questions. But if we believed this would have a negative impact on students, we wouldn’t be thinking about it.”