She spent a year studying four-day weeks. When she found enough compelling research indicating that such a schedule would save money and not hurt performance, she pitched it to the school board, which approved it in 2010 after a series of passionate public meetings. The savings on bus routes, energy bills and reduced teacher absenteeism amounted to just under 1 percent of the district’s annual $30 million general fund budget.
Each year, the district submitted a report examining a variety of measures, including attendance and student achievement.
“It was purely a financial decision why we did it,” said former school board member and parent Donna Hubbard. “I know our town was in an uproar.”
Hubbard, who has three children, said a split board approved the week because its back was against the wall.
Four years later, she’ll miss it, she said, including the additional day without school. “Family time is so huge,” she said. “That is what makes your kids good little people.”
A long day
The four-day week meant more than an extra hour of school each day.
Many students caught buses at 7 a.m. and arrived home around 5 p.m.
For those in extracurricular activities, the day was even longer. Boys’ varsity hockey players got up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a bus to neighboring Lindstrom to get some before-school ice time.
Student athletes often missed afternoon classes to get to away games in neighboring districts.
And kids from neighboring districts knew North Branch was so cash strapped that it couldn’t afford Mondays, said eighth-graders Izzi Tetzlaff and Keeley Ertl. Still, the girls said they loved the shortened weeks despite the long days. Monday was a homework and project day and a chance to get some extra sleep.
Other teens said they used the day to do homework, work part-time jobs or spend more time at family cabins.
For teachers, rejiggering lesson plans took some time, trial and error.
“I was nervous originally. My wife teaches second grade too,” said middle school teacher David Gryte, who has two kids enrolled in the district. “It didn’t take long for everyone to adjust.”
Gryte said he doesn’t believe achievement faltered. He and others point out that the district’s one elementary school went from “needs improvement” to a “reward” school, the highest designation bestowed by the state education department, during the four-day week.
Gryte said he accepts the move back to five days but will miss the three-day weekends. He doesn’t think the compressed week hurt the district or its reputation. “We handled adversity really well. We came through this.”
High school teacher Marilyn Fagerness said that, like many in the community, she has mixed feelings about the return to a five-day schedule.
“There is an intensity to a four-day week. You are going constantly. That caught everyone off guard. You didn’t feel like you could breathe,” Fagerness said. “The energy was palpable.”