FORT VALLEY, Ga. – During the school year, Mondays in this rural Georgia community are for video games, trips to grandma's house and hanging out at the neighborhood community center.
Don't bother showing up for school. The doors are locked and the lights are off.
Peach County is one of more than 120 school districts across the country where students attend school just four days a week, a cost-saving tactic gaining popularity among cash-strapped districts struggling to make ends meet. The 4,000-student district started shaving a day off its weekly school calendar last year to help fill a $1 million budget shortfall.
It was that or lay off 39 teachers the week before school started, said Superintendent Susan Clark.
"We're treading water," Clark said as she stood outside the headquarters of her seven-school district. "There was nothing else for us to do."
The results? Test scores went up.
So did attendance — for both students and teachers. The district is spending one-third of what it once did on substitute teachers, Clark said.
And the graduation rate likely will be more than 80 percent for the first time in years, Clark said.
The four days that students are in school are slightly longer and more crowded with classes and activities. After school, students can get tutoring in subjects where they're struggling.
On their off day, students who don't have other options attend "Monday care" at area churches and the local Boys & Girls Club, where tutors are also available to help with homework. The programs generally cost a few dollars a day per student.
Experts say research is scant on the effect of a four-day school week on student performance. In fact, there is mostly just anecdotal evidence in reports on the trend with little scientific data to back up what many districts say, said University of Southern Maine researcher Christine Donis-Keller.
"The broadest conclusion you can draw is that it doesn't hurt academics," said Donis-Keller, who is with the university's Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation.
Many districts that have the shortened schedule say they've seen students who are less tired and more focused, which has helped raise test scores and attendance. But others say that not only did they not save a substantial amount of money by being off an extra day, they also saw students struggle because they weren't in class enough and didn't have enough contact with teachers.
The school district in Marlow, Okla., is switching back to a five-day week after administrators decided students were not being served well by attending school only four days. The 440-student district tried the shorter week the spring semester this year to save $25,000 in operation costs.
"It was harder on the teachers. We were asking the kids to move at a quicker pace," said district Superintendent Bennie Newton. "We're hoping the four-day week won't come into play next year."
The move by Peach County in Georgia gets mixed reviews.
Parents like Heather Bradshaw worry that their children are getting shortchanged on time with teachers.
"I don't feel like they're having the necessary time in the classroom," said Bradshaw, a single mother with a fourth-grade son at one of the county's three elementary schools. "The schedule has slowed him down."
Other parents prefer the shorter schedule and don't mind the hassle of finding a babysitter one day a week.
"It makes the children's weekend a little better, so they get more rest," said LaKeisha Johnson, who sends her fourth-grade daughter to the Boys & Girls Club on Mondays.
The trend of four-day school weeks started in New Mexico during the oil crisis of the 1970s and has been popular in rural states where students have to commute a long way. Other districts have used it as a way to try to fix schools with a long history of poor student performance by shaking up the schedule and giving children more time to study outside of school.
Georgia, Oklahoma and Maine have changed their laws in the last couple of years to allow districts to count their school year by hours rather than days, allowing for a four-day week if needed. Hawaii schools were off every other Friday this year for schools to save money, giving them the state with the shortest school year in the country.
From California to Minnesota to New York, districts — mostly small, rural ones with less than 5,000 students — are following the trend, hoping to rescue their bleeding budgets.
For Peach County, the four-day week was enough of a success that the school district is trying it again next year, Clark said. The move saves $400,000 annually and is popular among teachers and students because they get extra rest, she said
"Teachers tell me they are much more focused because they've had time to prepare. They don't have kids sleeping in class on Tuesday," she said. "Everything has taken on a laser-light focus."
Peach County Schools: http://www.peachschools.org/