June 16, 2024

Four-day school week plans hope to improve East Union

East Union has four gatherings over the next few weeks to inform the community of the plans for the district's future.

AFTON - With a 3-2 vote, East Union passed a proposed school calendar that would shift the schedule to a four-day school week, with the projected calendar using Monday as the day missing from the week.

The schedule change followed two months of public discussion, with two public forums in March and public survey data collected from staff, students, parents and community members to inform the school board.

Before the decision was made, school board president Adam Tallmon reassured those worried about the future of the district.

“I trust the board, you’ve done your research,” said Tallmon. “I think regardless of the outcome, we’ll make whatever work. I have full confidence in our administration and our staff to make five day, four day, work, whatever we tell them to do.”

Transition

With the 2023-24 school year over and East Union looking toward the new four-day schedule, the district isn’t expecting the change to be a drastic transition for students and parents.

East Union Superintendent Tim Kuehl shares his time as superintendent with another four-day school district, Murray. Initially when the proposal for a four-day school week for the 2023-24 school year was presented to Murray, Kuehl was apprehensive.

“I was reluctant,” he said. “It’s just outside what I would think of as the norm when I think of work. When I look at being fully staffed and being able to fill postions, it’s worth it.”

Kuehl saw firsthand how a four-day school week can bolster a school’s morale, especially regarding the main concern that comes from relieving staff of unneeded additional pressures. In February, when East Union announced the four-day proposal, they cited the main reason was to “improve teacher recruitment and retention.”

Murray had three vacancies in their teacher staff, which they were able to rectify with increased interest in the district from the four-day school week. They now have a full staff ready to teach students.

The four-day school week will also attract teachers that will fit the rural environment of East Union and Afton, according to curriculum director Jason Riley.

“The teachers that we’re going to attract are those who will want to work in a small school, in a rural community,” he said. “We’re not competing with West Des Moines, we’re competing with Murray and all these other schools who are making these decisions to the four-day week.”

Riley said it was important to stay ahead of the trend of rural districts moving to the four-day week in order to attract potential hires sooner. “We have to think about what our market is, and what the trends are in this market. Do we want to be at the front of the trend, or at the end where we’re following and everyone has already made that decision?” he said.

Struggle

During the first public forum, testimonies from teachers who were exhausted from the increasing workload they’ve received highlighted why the schedule change was needed.

Jean Kinyon, a teacher who has worked at East Union since 1998, spoke on why staff exhaustion was so important to mitigate during the second public forum. “Do you really want stressed and drained secondary staff covering and instructing our secondary students?” she asked.

Paula Barnett has been teaching at East Union for long enough to have taught most of the parents in the community forum room. “Whether it’s a four-day, five-day, I don’t care. I just need help,” she said. “I’m teaching two classes at once. I have a high school class and a middle school at the same time in my room.”

Social pressures became a source of exhaustion, with teachers feeling needed at the school to cover for other duties because of missing positions.

“This is the reason why a lot of teachers are reluctant to take time off because there’s a guilt piece,” said middle-school language arts teacher Deborah Aldrich. “If I have to go to a doctor’s appointment and I know that four other teachers are losing their prep period because I need to be gone.”

Riley estimated an average science teacher at East Union in the five-day system would teach five different classes during a school day. Newly hired teachers were being expected to do far more within East Union’s system than other schools.

“They have to prepare for multiple different classes, every single day,” he said. “You’re having to keep that up, keep that plan. There’s a lot of teachers that aren’t interested in doing that.”

Hours

The time available that teachers will have with students per day will inevitably increase because of the missing day of the week. About 45 minutes will be added to each day to make up for the lost time, from 6.5 hours per day to 7.25 for the four-day week, adding an average of five minutes per class.

The state of Iowa requires all grades have either 180 days of instruction or 1,080 hours of instructional time, which most schools in Iowa opt for, including East Union.

Kuehl estimated the school will have 1,090 hours of school time during the four-day school week, a slight surplus of hours. The four-day week’s diminished hours means, as Kuehl saw with Murray, the district will have to make up that missed time more frequently than they did with the five-day week.

The hours difference between the five-day and four-day schedule is minor according to Riley. “When we think about the course of the entire year, a difference of only 20-30 hours, it’s not that different of instructional time,” he said. “It’s how students will experience the instructional time.”

The missed day will also relieve students from increased scrutiny from absences. Schools are required to report absences regardless in students are excused or unexcused. For some students, this can lead to being declared chronically absent and receive punishment when they are undeserving.

“Attendance is better, we have kids who have to go to the orthodontist every month, or they have some health condition that requires them to go regularly,” said Kuehl. “They can use those on the Monday for their schedule, teachers can do it as well.”

Student focus

Even with the four-day week, the priority for East Union’s instructional schedule is making sure students are getting a quality education.

“We’re still getting the hours, we’re just making sure we’re maximizing what we’re doing with those hours,” said Kuehl.

Curriculum won’t change drastically under the new schedule, but extra attention will be made to make sure students are still receiving good instruction.

“We’re going to have to be really monitoring that, looking at how we’re going to be redesigning those pieces with the four-day week in mind,” said Riley.

Plans for curriculum shift regularly from year-to-year, which makes any changes to curriculum suited to an incoming generation of students. With the 2024-25 year, making sure the new schedule is not interfering with the instruction is another factor to consider.

Based on data collected by East Union, childcare for the younger, elementary students was the main concern for parents in the district. Plans have already been made to allow for school-age children to receive care with the ECC.

The ECC has proposed an idea for a “fifth-day kids club,” which would allow for younger students to receive additional tutoring on the fifth day, based on recommendation from either teacher or parent.

The additional activities should help provide kids with resources which will supplement their learning. ECC Director Peggy Hardy wants to make sure that these additional learning programs provide something different from traditional school learning.

“We want children to love learning, to know that they’re smart,” she said. “We’re all interested in different things and we can find out what those things are and continue to enjoy learning throughout life.”

The district has also set up a food pantry with A.S.P.I.R.E., a local community center that works with the school to help provide parents and students with support. Meals can be provided to families to help support those who needed the additional school day as a meal source.

These programs aren’t useful for families if there is no awareness of them. “I’m most concerned about making sure people know it’s available and helping them get in contact with that,” said Kuehl. “We know it’s underutilized in its current capacity.”

Expectations

The secondary side of East Union, which spans 6-12 grades, was where the four-day school would be seeing the most noticeable changes. Staff vacancies were more noticeable in these departments as teachers needed to cover more frequently, losing prep periods.

On the student side, the schedule change announcement has seen increased optimism from the student body the higher the grades go. Students in the high school would be able to use the extra day to work, either at a part-time job or at home. Kuehl gave an example of a student that was happy to use the extra day to work at their parent’s farm.

The hiring process for East Union was close to an end when the four-day school week proposal was approved, but increased attention from the decision allows for East Union to have a pulse on the teacher market and prepare for incoming teachers interested in the district.

“The first year, or even two would be critical if we’re going to make it work,” said Hardy. “We’re not going to stick with something that’s detrimental.

East Union’s culture of community outreach still continues, helping support families in times of need. “We do tend to pull together when needed,” said Kuehl. “We are a resource for all kinds of needs for families.”

Students and their education is always a priority no matter the schedule or situation in East Union. “We really do look at what these kids need, and how do we make sure they get it,” said Riley.

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.