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.
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."
She's said the programing and staff cuts were more devastating than any schedule change. She's relieved that the budget crisis is over after a decade of cuts.
Fears of idle children and teens creating trouble also did not materialize.
"There were some people that were predicting our call load would spike on Monday when the kids were out. We did track that. We've just never saw any of that," said Police Chief Dan Meyer. "It was pretty much status quo."
Concerns over day-care expenses turned out to be a mixed bag. District spokesman Patrick Tepoorten said while some families may have experienced increased costs on Mondays, others saw savings the rest of the week because the longer days eliminated the need for before- and after-school care. The district did offer community education programming for children on Mondays.
Despite the initial outcry, subsequent parent and community polls showed opinions evenly split about the four-day week. A telephone survey of 300 voters found 49 percent of the community supported the four-day week. An online survey of families found 56.4 percent supported it and 70 percent of staff were satisfied.
Parent Barb Hensch, whose children are in high school, said she worried younger children may have lost focus during such long days.
"They kept good on their promise to go back which was awesome," Hensch said. "I am sure it was a very tough decision to do it both ways."