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Lincoln Consolidated School District trims school week to benefit mental health

A classroom sits empty, as Lincoln Consolidated School District's classes do on Mondays.
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli
A classroom sits empty, as Lincoln Consolidated School District's classes do on Mondays.

Across the country, teachers are choosing to leave the profession and walk away from their classrooms.

The National Institute for Educational Statistics reported over half of public school administrators found their buildings understaffed last year. Stan Karber has been the principal of Lincoln High School for 14 years, and he said the teacher shortage is especially prevalent in Arkansas:

“There are teachers getting out of this profession, at rates that we've never seen, early retirements or just not even worried about retirements," Karber said. "And then you're also talking about on the other side of that, it's some of the lowest recruiting we've ever had. Colleges across the state are reporting that we are having short classes when it comes to teachers and people that are going into education. So, if you're losing them faster, and you're not gaining them, well, then you're gonna start to suffer with the quality, and if you need to retain and you need to keep teachers, good, highly qualified educators and highly qualified human beings in the building, especially in small rural districts right outside of the mecca of education in this state.”

Lincoln High is part of the recently consolidated Lincoln School District, which covers a large rural area in Western Washington County. Students come from many small communities, including Cincinnati, Morrow, Cane Hill, Evansville and others. Karber said it has one of the biggest square mileages that school buses have to travel in the state to pick up students, but it’s still a smaller district despite its large coverage area.

With the high school’s modest student body of 370 and the district’s close proximity to large school districts like Fayetteville, Springdale and Bentonville, Karber said he and other administrators have had to get creative in order to convince teachers to not only teach at Lincoln but also stay there—their solution: A four-day school week.

The reduced schedule began this school year, and Karber said it’s going well so far.

"The benefits are that we don't work on Monday, we spend a lot more time with our families," Karber said. "In my opinion, we boost the economy- we're out shopping and eating more, you know, spending time out and about. One less day a week that we actually have to work. So there's always that added day of the weekend, which you know just as well as I do that three days a week boosts mental health."

Karber said Lincoln made improving the mental health of students, faculty and staff the paramount focus this year. He said the social isolation and mental strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic affected his students emotionally, and schools weren’t taking action to correct this problem.

"If you've got a bunch of kids who are not as mentally healthy as they should be, that's going to have a direct effect on the adults that are in the building sharing the room with them, just like it would if someone had COVID just like it would if someone had the flu or a stomach bug," he said. "So if there's a stomach bug going through our building, we take all these precautionary measures to go through and try to make sure that nobody gets it. We spray down desks, and we spray down hallways, and we all run around here and do the best we can with our Hand Sanitizer. But if there is a group of kids who are not mentally healthy, there doesn't seem to be a lot of action being taken.”

This extra day off can be used for professional development, parent-teacher conferences, or just rest. Karber said his students have already started prospering under this new schedule.

“Our attendance is at an all-time high," Karber said. "Not only our attendance, but our tardiness within the building from an hour to hour block to block schedule is better than it's ever been. And our discipline is at an all-time low. So those two things right there usually don't match up that well. But again, I think that is there's got to be some kind of correlation related to the fact that our teachers are in a better place. They are more mentally, just stronger human beings, in my opinion. And then our students can feel that.”

A 4-day week doesn’t mean less class time. The state requires schools to have classes for at least six hours per day or 30 hours per week. Lincoln adjusted their days to start at 7:35 a.m. rather than 7:53 a.m. and run an hour later until 4:05 p.m. So, kids at Lincoln are still in school for 34 hours every week. Furthermore, the district chose to cut Monday because that’s when most federal holidays occur, so children won’t miss out on an abnormally large amount of instructional time during those weeks.

Karber said the additional hour in the school day may strain the attention span of students. However, students are receiving a more enriching education from their teachers.

"If you tell me that I can get it done in 30 minutes, if I'm really concentrated on that effort, and I'm optimizing my time, and I'm putting in a laser focus, as opposed to getting it done in two hours, where I'm not as focused, and I'm not as optimized," Karber said. "Well, that's something that you could probably start to gravitate towards, especially in today's world, when everything is going faster, and the information is flowing at a speed we've never experienced. So, to say that, we need to hold on to a model that was always modeled for us without ever questioning that and saying, 'Are we talking about quantity? Or are we talking about quality?' Because when it comes to our students, overall health, educational, mental, emotional, physical, I would say that I'd rather put my own son, which I do, who is in my school, and my other son's in the middle school, through an optimal concentrated effort that is not based off the quantity. It's based off the quality. And in order to have a quality education, you have to have educators who are firing on all cylinders."

But how does a shorter school week actually affect student achievement?

Kate Barnes is a graduate research assistant at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform. She began conducting a research project on Arkansas schools switching to 4-day weeks after she noticed the trend rising last fall when the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 668, which allowed districts more flexibility in their calendars.

She said that while 4-day school weeks do often yield benefits, they can also have a varied, sometimes negative effect on student’s academic achievement. In Arkansas, most schools adopted the new schedule right after the pandemic, which skewed data drastically.

"So in schools that had adopted right after the COVID pandemic, there was a big decrease in student achievement, but it is trending the same way as comparable districts that are on five-day calendars," Barnes said. "And overall Arkansas districts the attendance or not the attendance rates, the achievement rates, declined the year following COVID. But since that point, we haven't really seen too much of a difference yet. Either positive or negative, which points to good signs

She said the aim for these changes is that you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a 5-day week school schedule and a 4-day week school schedule. Pretty much, they’re hoping everyone continues working like they did previously.

And that is pretty standard for other research that is out there. The RAND Corporation did a pretty extensive study with four-day school weeks, and they did not find any immediate differences in student achievement when districts adopted a four-day calendar. But, that study did find that those students were not growing as fast as comparable districts that were operating using traditional calendars. And in Oregon, there is a lot of research coming out of Oregon State from Paul Thompson. And they found that shortened weeks have detrimental impacts on student achievement, particularly for boys and particularly low income students. So overall, it's it's a little bit mixed."

There will be more data available on how Lincoln students’ achievement has been affected once the Arkansas Department of Education releases their test scores for this ongoing school year.

Now, two glaring questions remain: Where do students go on their days off, and what do they do? Barnes said these are questions school districts must consider before making the switch.

If districts are considering adopting a calendar, it really needs to be a good fit for their community," she said. "So, a big part of adopting calendars is getting community feedback from families and businesses and things in your area. So, though, that's almost more important. I feel like, yes, you might be able to recruit and retain more teachers and things like that. But if you don't have proper childcare, or maybe if your dentist's offices are closed every Monday, maybe adopting a four-day school week isn't great. If you're off on Mondays, because then kids can't go to the dentist, and then it doesn't help with the attendance."

Karber said that on their new day off, many high school students pick up extra job shifts, help out around the house more, tend to farm work or go do things for themselves. He said they take advantage of that day off just like students would on any other day off from school. And families are not having trouble securing childcare for younger students.

That was a community concern," Karber said. "And I'm a part of the community. I was in the board meetings. There was a community concern. 'What about kids? What about the little kids?' Traci Birkes is the elementary principal. She has been in this district. Both of her kids are in the high school. She is an incredible elementary principal. She met those concerns. We still run a pre-K program on Monday. So, our pre-K program is open. Those kids are here. And our daycares throughout the community, I'm sure that they have had an influx of enrollments. And I think it speaks high volumes to our community that once this went through, the rearview mirrors were taken off, and they all started looking for solutions to move forward. So we had aunts, uncles, grandparents, just like we did when you and I were in school, if the day is needed and someone needs to take care of those kids. Those kids are being taken care of. We run food services, and we make sure the kids are taken care of. As far as their needs, everything has gone smoothly."

The LEARNS Act that passed earlier this year set an annual salary minimum of $50,000 for teachers in public schools across Arkansas. While this may help rural districts recruit and retain educators, a four-day school week may offer rural school districts an additional perk that larger school districts cannot compete with.

Plus, recruiting and retaining strong educators — regardless of the school district — can play a part in helping students succeed.

Take a moment to think about a teacher who impacted your young life. Whether it was an English teacher who took extra time to help you work through writer’s block on an essay or a chemistry teacher who stayed after hours to tutor students who had trouble understanding difficult concepts– educators are a fundamental part of a student’s journey. And administrators like Karber hope that this remains true at his school district as well.

What if you never got the chance to connect with that teacher because of where you went to school? That’s the reality many rural school district administrators are attempting to correct.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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