SHERIDAN - Clint Layng spent plenty of days away from his gym classes in the past few years.
As a physical education teacher and coach for two sports, Layng said he and the teams were often on the road getting to events and that meant time out of class. But after Sheridan schools a year ago switched to a modified schedule that has almost every Friday off, he said this year the teams have only missed one day of class.
"The kids are in school a lot more and we're here a lot more, too," Layng said this week while teaching an elementary gym class. "You get a lot more done."
The Sheridan school board last year opted for a modified four-day week. It made Sheridan one of more than a dozen school districts throughout Montana - mostly in rural areas - that made the switch.
Sheridan holds school Monday through Thursday, plus one Friday per month. The days were lengthened by about 20 minutes to get in the minimum number of classroom hours set by the state.
At the time, the decision was controversial, with some parents and teachers opposed to the idea. They said the longer days could leave kids tired in the classroom and would be a burden for working parents who would be forced to find child care on the Fridays out of school.
But the board went ahead with the decision, saying it was in part geared to cut down on absenteeism. Sheridan also implemented a Friday program with activities for kids to provide for parents who work on those days.
reasons for the switch was an effort to cut down on the number of kids missing school, said Kim Harding, Sheridan superintendent. In a small district, numerous students had to miss class to attend sports events, as well as the teachers like Layng who also serve as coaches.
Harding said the program is a new approach to improve teaching and
learning and said thus far the modified schedule has worked well.
"We also scheduled our activities on Thursday, Friday and Saturday so our teaching staff who are also coaches are now in the classrooms more, and so are the students," she said. "Attendance has improved immensely."
With that bump in attendance has come better academic performance, Harding said. The school is still waiting for the results of its required annual tests, but midterm test results from January showed improvement.
Harding said teachers are reporting that they're further along in their curricula than in past years, largely due to better attendance.
"Our biology teacher said he's a month ahead of where he was last year, because kids are in their seats, not away at sporting events or other things," she said.
Harding added the attendance improvement has an added benefit. Teachers often had to "re-teach" material on Mondays that half the class had received the previous Friday while other students were away. But that's been all but eliminated with the four-day week.
The change has had its bumps. Harding said they've found that the biggest drawback has been the irregularity of the schedule with those odd Fridays in school.
Those throw students out of their rhythm, something they've heard about from parents and teachers.
"They seem to be disappointed on the Fridays that they have to come in," she said. "They seem tired on those Fridays."
The board this month opted to change the schedule for next school year to eliminate the five-day weeks.
Teachers, many of whom said they were skeptical of the plan, say they've adjusted as well. Several teachers interviewed said they're ahead of their schedule on coursework.
Among them is Coleen Pack, who teaches sixth grade and said she was opposed to the change.
"I was concerned about being able to get in the academics, but we have," she said. "I've gotten further in my math than I ever have."
Rusty Bowers, a high school math teacher and coach, said as much as they tried in the past to make Fridays productive, often they weren't. This year the final day of the school week has been different.
"Kids know that on Thursdays, even though it's the end of the week, we don't slack off," he said.
And the change has worked for the younger kids, too, said Jenny Konopacki, kindergarten teacher. She said last year most of the elementary teachers thought the four-day schedule wouldn't work, but she's right on schedule for getting through the curriculum.
"The kids have more energy," she said. "They're more excited to be there."
But some parents say some students have struggled with the change.
Stephanie Kruer, a Sheridan lawyer who has two sons in Sheridan Elementary, said she was opposed to the change. But she's been willing to give it a chance.
That's why Kruer is disappointed that the school board is opting to switch schedules next year. The board is studying a schedule that would have only four-day weeks all year.
Kruer, who is part of a group called Sheridan Parents for Students, said by changing the schedule after a year the board won't have any solid data on how the schedule has worked.
"It's just so much more logical to keep this (schedule) for two years to get any sort of information," she said. "We mostly have attendance data and how things are working with their Friday program, but educational data: we have none."
Kruer said while the four-day week may be working for many kids, others haven't adjusted well. Some parents have reported that their children's school performance has dropped this year.
Sheridan could have opted to switch to the four-day week for its high school while remaining on the standard week for elementary students. Kruer said at those younger ages kids are learning the basics of reading, writing and math and need that consistent classroom time that's not made up by adding minutes to the day.
"Adding 23 minutes to the day is not the same as another full day in school, particularly for the younger students," she said. "We get a lot of feedback from the parents who complain that their kids come home tired - that they're just whipped."
Other parents have said the weekends are too long and therefore kids aren't retaining as much of the material. She questioned whether the school board is concerned about all the kids in the district.
"It really shouldn't be based on popularity, it should be based on children's needs," Kruer said. "You can't highlight the ones who are doing well with the four-day school week and ignore the ones who aren't."
Still other parents, however, say the change has worked out.
Kayla Ostler, who has three children in Sheridan schools ranging from second to seventh grade, said like many parents she had her doubts about four-day weeks. She's been pleased with the results.
"Usually by this time of the year they are so tired of school and they haven't even mentioned that school's almost out," she said. "They're not in school so much that they're just tired of it."
The Friday's off don't go to waste, either. Ostler said they often use that day to take care of doctor or dentist visits out of town. Those trips used to mean a day when a kid was pulled out of school.
Despite criticism, board members say they're committed to sticking with the change.
Jack Kaatz, a board member who had three children graduate from Sheridan High School, said he's been pleased with the results. He said the board studied the issue carefully and is committed to trying it for another year.
He said the district has saved some money by having fewer substitutes and other savings, but it's been minimal. And that was never a major consideration. Rather, the board looked at the high rate of absenteeism and decided the four-day week could help solve the problem.
"We have students in their seats with their everyday teacher," he said.
Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.