Students and teachers start to feel burned out as the school year goes on.
After 10 years in education, Wing Public School District Superintendent David Goetz began to notice a trend.
Students and teachers would begin the school year in August feeling refreshed and motivated to learn. But by the end of the school year, everyone felt burned out, and it was a slog to get through the remaining curriculum. He noticed this pattern recur as a teacher and as an administrator, in Kidder County, Gwinner and now in Wing.
"The first semester, the kids are learning. They really seem to be receptive of things. Then you take your second semester and it's just an extensive, long, drawn-out block," Goetz said. "This time of year is always such a dread."
He thinks North Dakota's long winters, combined with a lack of holiday breaks during the spring semester, contributes to low morale and results in student-teacher burnout. And while the weather is out of his control, he could do something about the schedule.
Wing Public School District is the latest district in the state to convert to a four-day school week, a concept common in Montana and South Dakota but something that is just starting to catch on in North Dakota. In South Dakota, 34 school districts, or 23%, utilize a four-day week, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Montana, 62 school districts, or 13%, are on a four-day week.
In the last year, the number of North Dakota schools on a four-day week for at least part of the year has doubled, from six to 12, 11 of which are public schools, The Bismarck Tribune reported.
The provision in state law allowing for four-day weeks has been around since at least 1999. But it wasn't until 2014 that East Fairview and Dunseith became the first school districts in the state to adopt it. A move by the 2019 Legislature made it easier for schools to implement a four-day week by shifting how yearly minimum instruction time is tracked, to hours rather than days. That gave schools more flexibility.
Proponents of the four-day school week claim it improves attendance, appeals to teachers who may not otherwise choose to work in that district, and can help cut costs. Opponents argue that longer school days may be harmful to students, and that finding child care for younger children on weekdays is difficult on families.
Wing transitioned to a four-day week in February, with Valentine's Day as the first Friday off.
"We're just trying to dabble into this, and we're trying to explore with it," Goetz said. "We'll see how it turns out here in the next couple of weeks."
The tricky part is balancing how to take days off without lessening instructional time too much, he said. He used a combination of new days off and existing holidays to cobble together Wing's first, mostly four-day-week semester. The last week of February will have five school days and the last two full weeks of school in May will have five days, too.
Because the change is only partial, Wing didn't have to lengthen its school day to accommodate for the days off. The twist is that students who are failing any classes are required to come in for individual study time on Friday morning. Teachers have to come in for that time, as well. Goetz is hoping that the three-hour block of individual study time will enable students to get the one-on-one instructional time they need to improve their grades. He also hopes it will motivate students to keep up their grades, so that they can have the entire day off.
Students Dustin Wintermeyer, 15, and Tristan Heimark-Leedom, 17, are excited about the change. They both plan to come in for extra help on some Fridays.
About a quarter of Wing's 75 students showed up to school on the first Friday the schedule went into effect, Goetz said.
Some teachers are excited, Goetz said, while some who live in Bismarck and commute to work every day are disappointed that they still have to come in on Fridays.
Sarah Sjursen, a 28-year-old social studies teacher at Wing, sees both pros and cons. She was concerned about how she was going to teach all of her curriculum with fewer days to do so, but also said she deals with anxiety and depression and already feels the burnout that Goetz talks about.
"It's hard to decide if I support it or if I'm against it," she said.
Parents are split, with some more used to a traditional five-day week and others desiring a whole year of four-day weeks. One issue that has been brought up is child care for elementary kids.
"I think all in all, it'll be good for everybody," Casey Quale said. Quale's wife teaches kindergarten at Wing, and his second grade daughter and kindergarten-age son attend school there. "Parents, if the kids got to have a dentist or a doctor's appointment, they can get it done on a Friday, and the kids maybe won't fall behind," he said.
He isn't worried about child care, saying that "there's always someone at the farm" that he lives and works at about 13 miles southeast of Wing. Goetz also addressed that concern, and said that many high schoolers would be available to babysit on Fridays, and that school organizations could use Friday babysitting as a fundraiser opportunity.
Goetz modeled Wing's schedule somewhat after the Alexander Public School District, which is on its second year of the four-day school week. That district has 286 students from prekindergarten to grade 12. Like Wing, Alexander utilizes Friday as optional study time for students, Superintendent Leslie Bieber said, but its four-day schedule is for the whole school year. The daily schedule had to be lengthened to do that, she said.
Alexander historically has struggled to attract teachers due to its location between Williston and Watford City, but Bieber said she's noticed a larger applicant pool when the district posts job openings.
Hazelton-Moffit-Braddock School District in Emmons County also is trying out the four-day week during the spring semester, but unlike Wing, the district plans to use the modified schedule for the entire semester. The district has 138 students from prekindergarten to grade 12. Their first Friday off was Jan. 17.
Superintendent Tracy Hanzal said he had to lengthen each class period during the week by six minutes, or 42 minutes each day, to make it work for the whole semester. It seems to be successful so far, he said, but he wants to see more data -- perhaps two or three year's worth -- before committing to it long term.
However, he has noticed tangible benefits with teacher retention. Hanzal said he "got an amazing teacher to stay" and also has noticed a larger job applicant pool.
The Billings County School District transitioned to a four-day week after its first six weeks of school last fall, adding 30 minutes a day in its new schedule. The district has 93 students enrolled at its schools in Medora and Fairfield, which are prekindergarten through eighth grade.
Assistant Principal Danielle O'Brien said the shorter week has coincided with more applicants for staff openings and has reduced travel days for students, some of whom spend as much as three hours a day on a bus in the rural, sparsely populated county.
The Billings County School Board this month approved its 2020-21 school calendar and will reapply with the state Department of Public Instruction to continue the four-day week next year, O'Brien said.
"And along with that is the proof and documentation that we've been keeping all year to show our students' academics aren't taking a hit or that they're not backsliding at all by the change in days," she said. Parent and staff surveys have so far indicated success, she said.
North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said her department hasn't conducted surveys on four-day schools to collect specific statistical information. But anecdotally, she has seen a "mindset shift" in education coinciding with encouragement from her and Gov. Doug Burgum's administrations for schools to innovate and improve.
"I think the mindset of people thinking outside of the box and shifting is agreeable to what families want," Baesler said. "They want a well-rounded experience for their students."
Four-day school weeks have become increasingly common throughout the past decade, especially in large Western states. Of the approximately 560 school districts in 25 states that have schools on a four-day schedule, more than half are in four states -- Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma and Oregon, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. No large-scale research has been done on the effects of the four-day school week on students, and smaller-scale reports on other states are inconclusive, so it's unclear if students receive an educational benefit from having a shortened week, according to the organization.
North Dakota school districts opting for a four-day week must apply by March 1 for a waiver from the state Department of Public Instruction, which Baesler oversees. The three-page application asks for goals and objectives, documentation of community input, a cost-benefit study and a plan for reconfiguring school hours, among other items.
"There's expectations of teacher support, community support, final school board approval, and the evidence that they have to provide in that report is intended to, again, take them through the process to make sure that they are doing it for the right reasons," Baesler said. "What are their student outcomes that they want, that they believe that a four-day school week would help them deliver?"
After their first year, four-day school districts can reapply for an initial 1-year extension by July 1. Afterward, they can apply for an additional 5-year extension.
Four-day school districts still have to provide a fifth day of support and services to students and meet time requirements for focused instruction. Billings County School District holds optional, monthly "discovery days" on Fridays for students to participate in STEM-focused activities. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
For example, EMTs, firefighters and police held "safety days" with students. Two chefs from Minneapolis came out and held a cooking competition, O'Brien said.
"The kids really liked that one. They thought that was really cool," she said, adding that about 80-85% of students have participated in the "discovery days."
Baesler said the division of her department that manages the waiver process has fielded an "uptick" in inquiry calls. Education associations also have held more sessions at conferences for sharing and learning about the four-day structure, she said.
"There's definitely an interest in it," Baesler said. "Time will tell."
She is planning to gather data on four-day schools' student performance in the 2020-21 school year. North Dakota in previous years had too few schools for a study, and the small number of students could result in "personally identifiable information," she said.
The next school year will have a large enough pool of students to study, but "seeing any trending results will take time," Baesler said.
Goetz hopes to discover more benefits to the four-day week as the semester goes along. Whether Wing will have a four-day week next year will depend on feedback from parents, students, community members and the school board, he said.
"It's kind of scary because you are taking a risk, especially in my role. My head is on the chopping block," he said with a laugh. "I do have great support from the community, but at the same time, you're always sticking your neck out on the line when you're doing these type of changes."