MURRAY — Amidst a host of new challenges for school districts including a teacher and support staff shortage, Murray Community School District is looking outside the box for a solution.
The district hosted a forum on a proposed four-day school week Monday, Mar. 6. Invited to speak was Cardinal School District Superintendent Joel Pedersen. Located in Eldon, southeast of Ottumwa, Cardinal was Iowa’s fourth school district to make the transition last year as they removed Monday from the school week.
“We went on this journey four years ago, and four years ago, it was a pretty divisive topic at our school district,” Pedersen explained. “There were a lot of meetings, and a lot of people were struggling and frustrated.”
A year ago, the topic was broached again with less hesitancy. “We talked about this a year ago, people said it’s the right thing to do,” Pedersen said. “The board said it’s the right thing to do.”
Since then, the board has heard no feedback, positive or negative, about the transition.
While Pedersen said some districts have seen the four-day week as a cost-saving measure, it was a priority at Cardinal for staff to remain fairly compensated.
“We try to treat people right. Our support staff didn’t lose any money,” Pedersen explained. “What we did is we raised their hourly rate. I think it’s the right thing to do. Some people see it as a way to save money, but those people are the backbone of your organization.”
Childcare was one of the biggest concerns leading up to the change, but hasn’t been an issue since.
“We had a church step up and offer daycare and a local YMCA in Ottumwa to offer this,” Pedersen said. We had very few people sign up even though we offered it. Even though daycare will come up over and over again, it is almost a non-issue with us right now.”
Data compiled and shared by Murray teacher Devin Vander Molen showed positive responses from parents of a Missouri school district after their first year of a four-day school week. There were very few negative responses for childcare.
“We struggled to retain people. It’s just the nature of rural Iowa,” Pedersen said. “There was a time that teachers would come to Murray and stay 30 years, and that’s a great thing. The problem is, many teachers are coming that don’t necessarily see themselves in rural Iowa for very long.”
Murray has openings for high school English and science teachers, middle school special education as well as several support staff positions. Teach Iowa lists nearly 6,000 openings throughout the state.
“We probably need to fill 12-14 positions for next year. We have filled all of them but two, and it’s March 6,” Pedersen said. “We’re talking three special ed positions, TAG, elementary positions, ELA at the high school. And last year, in June we were filled. People do apply and they do notice it. We do other things to recruit people too, but our principals are amazed knowing every day that passes, we’re going to have a harder time finding teachers.”
Vander Molen’s data showed no statistical correlation between a four-day school week and teacher retention amongst surveyed teachers in Oklahoma; however, interviews with the teachers supported the change.
“If you guys don’t think differently at Murray, I can tell you that you’re going to continue to have challenges keeping and recruiting people. You have to think differently. That doesn’t mean the four-day week is the perfect choice, but you have to continue to innovate.”
Presented by Vander Molen, a nationwide survey of students from school districts in both five and four-day school weeks found both positives and negatives from the change.
The four-day week was associated with improved student engagement, decreased substance use, decreased non-school screen time and increase physical activity. However, it was also associated with a reported increase in bullying, decreased sleep and a decrease in breakfast consumption.
Pedersen said they’re seeing kids enjoying the shorter week. “The number one factor on student success is the teacher — above everything else,” he said. “If we can treat people right and treat our families and our kids right, we keep teachers and we coach them up, then student achievement is going to go up regardless of whether you go to a four day week or not.”
Murray middle school math and science teacher Sandy Carson said she doesn’t see a ton of change going from five to four days. “We’re not going to miss any content,” she said. “I don’t see a negative impact on it, and I know what I would do.”
Over the last 13 years, Pedersen said Cardinal has nearly doubled in size. “Our district is a district of about 1,000 kids. We have 435 students that open enroll into our school district. That’s $2.7 million in revenue,” he said. “I’m not here to tell you that’s all from the four-day school week, but I can tell you we didn’t lose anybody when we went to a four-day week. We have more kids open-enrolling. So if you’re worried about people leaving, that’s not what we’ve experienced.”
Murray Superintendent Tim Kuehl said the four-day week won’t fix everything. “However this ends up, we’re going to continue to do our very best all the time,” he said. “We saw a nice jump in student achievement last year, we hope to see one this year and would expect to see one next year whichever way this thing goes.”
“I could show you data over and over again why we think going to a four-day school week was good for us,” Pedersen said. “It’s been accepted well. I think you’re going to see this happen a lot in the state of Iowa.”
While concerns were raised about fitting more students into the already full kindergarten and first grade classrooms, Pedersen said that’s another discussion.
“The babies being born aren’t going up. If we didn’t have open enrollment, we would be slashing,” he explained. “That’s a good problem to have; you guys can figure that problem out later.”
The school board will approve a calendar in their March meeting to present for a public hearing and approval in April.
“You have to continue to think differently because the bottom line is, there’s not people on the bench,” Pedersen said. “If you don’t keep people, there’s not people to replace them.”