Class Act teaacher Angie Cole helps empower students at Tyrone Elementary
FORT VALLEY, Ga.--Two hours south of Atlanta, in Peach County, the schools are beyond looking outside the box.
"There's no box! We can't afford to buy a box!" School Superintendent Dr. Susan Clark said with an ironic laugh.
Like every school district in Georgia, Peach County was forced to cut their budget by 3-percent. Clark says she had only two choices that could save that kind of money: lay off 39 teachers, eliminating every art, music, and PE class -OR-something never seen before in Georgia, go to a four-day school week.
"What we did is not that hard. It just really isn't hard. What it takes is courage," Clark said.
Teachers now work four 10-hour days. The day for students is slightly longer than an average 5-day school day, but there's no down time. Non-instructional parts of the day have been cut out. Individual tutoring is widely attended before and after class. The number of instructional minutes for students is the same, in some cases even higher, than it used to be.
On Mondays, the schools close. Finding daycare was a big concern for critics of the plan. Clark responded, "The mission of this school district is not to provide daycare. The mission of this school district is to provide students with an education. And while we have had the luxury of providing daycare for the community five days a week, we don't have that luxury anymore."
Peach County parents found help from an unexpected direction: church. Byron Baptist Church was one of several that launched low-cost Monday programs.
Pastor Jesse Fortson said he'd wanted to start an out-reach program, so the four-day week was good timing. His program has maintained steady attendance, other programs shut down because of lack of participation. Most parents found a way to work around the shorter week.
"There was a big panic and rush, like 'What's going on?!' at first. But by a month into the school year, everyone was kind of in the rhythm on what to do," Fortson said.
Thad Parker, student pastor and father of two, says the four-day plan seems to be working. "The academic performances on the testing and on the grades the kids are getting, I think that illustrates that. I don't have any reservations about my child being in a four-day school week," Parker said.
Peach County expects to save $400,000. It's working for thebottom line.
But is it working for students? It's too soon to compare standardized test scores, but there are some positive indications: a 13% increase in students that passed the Georgia high school writing test, and 50% of students that had to re-take the graduation test passed (the state average is 22%).
Peach County is a rural county with 4,000 students. Superintendent Clark says what worked here could work in populated, urban areas, but it would be more difficult. She says the bigger problem is what comes next. She just got news she'll have to cut next year's budget by an additional 1.2 Million dollars.
"From a Superintendent's perspective, it appears to me, there is not a soul out there that is making decisions about public schools that really cares whether I have enough money to operate this school system or not," Clark sighs and slumps a bit. "And after forty years, I cannot tell you how disheartening that is. But I'll tell you this: we're going to reap the consequences of those decisions within the next ten years."