North Branch emerges from financial crisis that forced it to cut Mondays.
Tuesday isn’t just the last day of school in the North Branch district. It’s also the end of an experiment with a four-day school week, a controversial course that leaders took several years ago to deal with a financial crisis.
Come fall, the 3,100-student district, one of 11 in Minnesota that cut one day a week in order to save money, will be back on a five-day schedule, restoring classes on Monday. North Branch is making the move voluntarily, its financial situation eased by legislative action that boosts state and local funding.
Superintendent Deb Henton said she promised four years ago to return to a five-day schedule when funding permitted and she is keeping that promise, even though test scores in the district either improved or remained unchanged.
“There are some benefits on a four-day-a-week program, but we live in a five-day-week world,” Henton said. “It was hard for us. Some people looked at it as a loss of opportunity for our kids, but it didn’t hinder us. Our kids are resilient and they adjusted.”
At the same time, however, the state Education Department has directed several other districts to give up four-day schedules over the next couple of years, citing concerns that they haven’t seen adequate academic gains.
Two Minnesota school districts — Onamia and Clearbrook-Gonvick — had their applications to renew the four-day week denied and will revert to five days this fall. Five others have been granted a transitional year before switching back in 2015-16.
“We had teachers tell me with younger kids, it just didn’t work to have four days on and three days off,” said interim Onamia Superintendent Keith Lester. The schedule made learning disjointed. And there was an “exhaustion factor” with the longer days, Lester said.
“The scores are not moving up fast enough. They are too low. You can argue that point, but the department seems to be pretty convinced that they didn’t make the right kind of progress,” said Lester, a former Brooklyn Center schools superintendent.
In the North Branch district on the far edge of the northern suburbs, there wasn’t much left to cut by the time leaders made the decision in 2010 to go to four days. The district already had slashed teachers, principals, staff, sports programs and clubs while increasing class sizes.
Eliminating one day a week to save about $250,000 a year was the only feasible option left, leaders said. It was a move fraught with emotion and prompted warnings of plummeting test scores, spiking day-care costs and rising juvenile crime rates.
As it turned out, those predictions didn’t materialize. Standardized test scores actually improved in the district’s elementary school, and district-wide math, reading, writing and science scores remained largely flat, according to the most recent review. Officials also point out that instruction time didn’t drop. It was just redistributed into four longer days.
Now, as North Branch swings back to its old schedule, the community is again conflicted, with surveys indicating a split in opinion. Some parents welcome the return, while others say they’ll miss that extra day of family time.
The district will receive an additional $3 million in funding over the next two years, which will cover the cost of restoring the five-day week as well as reducing class sizes.
‘Spend your time differently’
Reflecting on North Branch’s four-day experiment, Superintendent Henton said it was the most misunderstood initiative she’s been involved with. “Even my colleagues didn’t understand you don’t lose instructional minutes. You just spread your time differently,” she said.
North Branch, 55 miles north of Minneapolis, is considered a commuter community. Hit hard by foreclosures and rising gas prices, voters have defeated eight operating levy requests, including one after the four-day week was in effect. That, coupled with what leaders called state funding inequities, created 11 years of cuts, beginning in 2003.
District leaders faced voters’ wrath for asking for more money and anger from parents for cuts to programs such as cheerleading, marching band and middle school sports.
“I had been urged to think outside the box,” Henton said.