From left, administrator Lance Stout and school board member Denise Fears are pictured at an Independence School District board meeting July 12 at the district headquarters. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)
From left, administrator Lance Stout and school board member Denise Fears are pictured at an Independence School District board meeting July 12 at the district headquarters. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Correction: The cost of Monday child care for a K-8 student has been corrected.

Jennifer Clark worries about how her son would handle a four-day school week. 

The 6-year-old student in the Independence School District has a gene mutation that causes disabilities. One of his challenges, Clark said, is “an inability to adapt to new things.” 

That means routine and structure are important. 

If the school district shifts to a Tuesday-through-Friday schedule, as its leaders are contemplating, Clark thinks the shorter weeks could be a difficult adjustment. The district would offer child care, enrichment activities and remedial education on Mondays, but that presents its own set of problems. 

“It’s a completely different routine, a different set of people you have to get used to,” said Clark, a structural engineer who also has a fifth grader in the district. 

She saw how a lack of structure can harm her son’s schooling when he had behavior issues during a child care program between summer school and first grade. 

“All of that anxiety transferred over to starting first grade,” she said. “He has issues even going into his new classroom.”

As Independence ponders becoming by far the largest district in Missouri to switch to a four-day school week, decision-makers must grapple with scenarios where families like Clark’s could suffer while others benefit. 

Clark addressed the school board about her concerns during the October monthly meeting. Later, in an interview, board member Denise Fears said she thought everyone in the room felt for the parent. 

In a follow-up email this week, Fears said she’s still examining whether the district has addressed the community’s concerns after an “unprecedented” amount of engagement. 

The board has received advice that families of children with disabilities or those who have only elementary-age students might struggle the most with a four-day week. 

“We have to make the decision based on what’s going to be the best for the biggest number of kids, but we can’t ignore those subgroups,” Fears said. “How can we try to make it work as best as possible for that subgroup, you know, or is it insurmountable?”

Challenges and benefits of a four-day week

Superintendent Dale Herl has described the potential switch to a four-day week as an effort to entice quality teachers to remain with the district and in the profession. 

Other positives could include more family time; flexibility for high school students to work, job shadow or take college classes; and the ability to offer professional development for teachers and academic support and activities for students on Mondays. 

The school board voted to approve two possible calendars — one for a four-day week and the other for a traditional five-day week — during its November meeting. 

The four-day week will likely be on the agenda for the next board meeting, Dec. 13, Fears said in an email. She has been researching “personal areas of concern,” particularly academic impact, and analyzing community responses. 

Four of the seven board members did not respond to The Beacon’s request for comment. Board treasurer Carrie Dixon responded but was not able to schedule an interview before publication. Board member Anthony Mondaine suggested The Beacon resend the email to the entire board for better “transparency and accountability” rather than sending separate messages. 

“You should get a response from the board president Eric Knipp,” he wrote. 

Of the more than 140 districts in Missouri — many of them tiny and rural — that have switched to a four-day week, only one has returned to a five-day schedule, said Jon Turner, an associate professor at Missouri State University who researches the four-day school week in Missouri

Reducing the week to four school days doesn’t usually save districts much money, and in Missouri there’s no conclusive evidence that it improves or worsens academic outcomes. 

But many small districts see the switch as an essential perk they can offer teachers to compensate for lower salaries than larger districts. And when Turner surveys parents after a year of experiencing the four-day week, about 70-80% of families typically support the change, he said. 

The enthusiasm isn’t as strong among families with young children or children with disabilities. 

In one study of several rural districts, about 33% of families with children who have special needs wanted to return to a five-day week, compared with 12% of other families. More than a third of families with only elementary students also wanted to go back to the five-day schedule. 

(File photo) Independence school board members and administrators attend a meeting July 12 at the district headquarters. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Turner — who presents himself not as an advocate for a four-day school week but as an expert who can advise on pros, cons, pitfalls and best practices — said it’s important to consider families who don’t appreciate the change. 

“Just finding child care in general is hard, but especially finding child care for those special medical needs,” he said. “… Families that have only very young children are the ones that are not only going to struggle to find child care, but maybe (struggle to) be able to afford it.” 

Turner participated in a public presentation on the four-day school week that was organized by the Independence district and took place Nov. 30. Herl appeared on a panel with him, as well as leaders of the Warren County R-III School District — a district of about 3,000 students between St. Louis and Columbia that is the largest in the state to switch to a four-day week.

Several questions from the panel audience focused on how the program might affect students with disabilities.

How Independence might support those who struggle with a four-day school week 

Part of the Independence district’s plan for a potential four-day week includes options for families who depend on schools supervising their children during the entire workweek. A district committee focused specifically on making plans for Mondays, when formal classes wouldn’t take place.

Options the district has announced include an invitation-only “learning league” for young students who are at least a grade level behind academically; programs for special needs students; makeup days and credit recovery for older students; child care; and enrichment activities such as field trips, tutoring, sports and clubs. 

Clark said she wasn’t fully reassured by the announcement. Though some of the options sound structured, there’s not enough information about how it would function, and it could still be a difficult adjustment for her son. 

Cost and transportation issues present another set of concerns. 

Of the Monday options, the district would only provide transportation to the learning league. It would also consolidate into fewer schools for the Monday activities, meaning they might not be available at the nearest neighborhood school. 

While many of the offerings would be largely free, Monday child care for a K-8 student would cost $30 per day if families use it regularly and $45 per day for occasional use. Some of the free enrichment activities wouldn’t span the entire day. 

In emails to the district shared with The Beacon, parents Arthur Smith and Brandi Pruente asked the district to consider the most “vulnerable” families in the district — including those who rely on school meals and for whom transportation and child care costs would be a significant burden — and to make greater efforts to educate and dialog with all parts of the community.

A survey sent to district families had only a 21% response rate.  

Slightly fewer than 10% of families who responded said they were concerned about school meals. Nearly a third said they were concerned about child care. 

“I will have an additional cost for Mondays for child care … our school is very small and most likely will not host kid safari, so this adds a commute for us,” Pruente wrote to Herl and the school board. 

“These are adjustments that we can handle. I’m not concerned about me, however just one of those changes I just mentioned can be much more significant for our vulnerable families and for the marginalized populations.” 

Turner said during the panel that it’s common for child care and school meals to be less prominent issues than expected in districts that transition to a four-day week. 

He told The Beacon in November that he’s seen many school districts offer child care when they transition to a four-day week, then find kids have stopped showing up by Thanksgiving when families find other arrangements. 

“Inevitably it (district-provided child care) almost always shuts down,” he said. 

But Turner said Independence might not be comparable to the smaller districts that have adopted shorter weeks, and it may need to continue offering care. 

In some districts, a single church or YMCA might be able to step up and fill the need for child care. In Independence, thousands of students could need care. 

“Even in a community the size of Independence, that would be a need that would be very large and would require a lot of infrastructure to fill,” Turner said. 

Fears, the board member, said considering how the four-day week may have a different impact in Independence is an important part of the decision. 

“You’re never going to make 100% of people happy,” Fears said. “But what is that tipping point to say there’s enough positive in this to do it? … I think that’s going to be the challenge to figure that out and feel good about that decision.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.