Independence Superintendent Dale Herl
Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl is pictured at a school board meeting July 12 at the district headquarters. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Tuesday evening, the Independence Board of Education voted 6-1 in favor of switching the district to a four-day week. 

Board member Anthony Mondaine voted against the proposal.

Why is this happening and what does the switch to a four-day week mean for students, teachers and families? Here’s what you need to know.

When will this happen? 

It will go into effect in August 2023 at the start of next school year.

When will students attend class? 

Students will be in class Tuesday through Friday. Because Missouri requires a minimum amount of instruction time each year, the current plan is to lengthen each school day by about 40 minutes. The school year will also be a bit longer — less than a week. 

The plan avoids the need to cancel school for holidays that are observed on Mondays. Some Mondays will be designated as makeup days in case of snow days.

Why does the Independence School District want to move to a four-day school week? 

District leaders have said that a major motivation is improving teacher retention and recruitment amid a shortage of educators. 

The schedule may also allow for other activities on Mondays such as clubs, tutoring, sports camps and focused academic enrichment; family time; medical appointments; and chances for older students to work part-time jobs or internships, take college classes or do college visits and job shadowing. 

Superintendent Dale Herl has said the district does not anticipate saving money and will funnel any unexpected savings into programming on the day students have off. 

Jon Turner, a Missouri State University professor who researches four-day school weeks in Missouri, said that when he surveys families after their first year of a four-day week schedule, 70% to 80% typically support the change. 

What are some of the concerns with a four-day schedule? 

Concerns that district residents have expressed in surveys, public comments, social media and interviews with The Beacon include: 

  • Families being responsible for the cost of child care on Monday.
  • Difficulties arranging transportation to Monday activities. 
  • Access to free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches on Monday. 
  • Impact of longer days on children.
  • Impact on academics. 
  • Impact on students with disabilities who depend on consistency and structure, or on the medical care they receive at school. 

Turner said access to food and child care are often not as problematic as anticipated in districts that switch to a four-day school week. 

Many districts begin by providing child care but find parents stop sending their kids after a few months as they find other options, Turner said. 

However, some families struggle with the four-day week more than others, he said. 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.

What happens to families that need the school to provide child care five days a week? 

The Independence School District has announced a slate of options for Mondays including: 

  • Paid child care through the Kids’ Safari program.
  • An invitation-only academic “learning league” program for K-5 students at least a year behind grade level.
  • Programs for students with special needs.
  • Enrichment activities such as field trips, tutoring, sports and clubs.
  • For older students, college visits, internships and job shadowing. 
  • For older students, academic support including attendance makeup and credit recovery. 

At least one of the options, Kids’ Safari, will cost money for families. Most, aside from the Learning League, will not provide transportation. The district will also consolidate into fewer sites for the Monday activities, meaning they might not be available at the closest neighborhood school. 

What happens on Mondays to students who receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch through school?

The district plans to provide food to any staff member or student who needs it on Mondays but hasn’t yet determined how it will distribute the food, director of public relations Megan Murphy said in an email to The Beacon. 

Will the change mean less work for Independence teachers? 

Overall, teachers will work 11 fewer days than they would under a five-day-week calendar, but school days will be longer.

Teachers will also come in for professional development about one Monday each month and will each work one “floating” day per year to help cover Monday activities. 

Do we know how this will affect students’ academic achievement? 

Research on the question is mixed. Some studies have found slight improvements in achievement. Others have found slight declines. Others have found no impact. 

Has anyone tried a four-day school week before? 

Yes and no.

More than 140 districts in Missouri — many rural and very small — have switched to a four-day week. Only one Missouri district has ever gone back to a five-day week after making the change. 

Independence has also been in touch with comparably sized districts in Colorado that are on a four-day schedule, and other states allow it as well. 

However, Independence, with about 14,000 students, would be the first large suburban district in Missouri to switch to a four-day week. Currently, the biggest district in the state to be on a four-day week is Warren County R-III, with around 3,000 students. 

On Turner’s map of districts that have moved to a four-day week in Missouri, there’s a blank space around Kansas City

Some of the closest Missouri four-day week districts are in Clinton, Cass and Johnson counties. Lathrop R-II in Clinton County was the first four-day week district in Missouri. 

How did the Independence School District make this decision? 

Herl said during a panel event Nov. 30 that administrators have been exploring the idea since January. 

The district has reviewed research, spoken with four-day-week districts in Missouri and Colorado and brought Turner in for advice multiple times. 

In August, the school board voted to study the possibility, bringing it to the public’s attention for the first time. 

Independence then sent out separate surveys for staff, families and students asking about benefits, concerns and how they might handle a weekday with no school. 

Some respondents remarked that they didn’t have full information about how the four-day week would work when they filled out the survey. The district later released more details — such as a calendar approved at the November board meeting and a video describing Monday activity options

Board members have also received many emailed questions and comments. 

Board member Anthony Mondaine announced in a Dec. 7 Facebook post that he planned to vote against the switch to a four-day week and proposed that the community be surveyed again before a decision is made. 

On the same day, board member Denise Fears made a lengthy post detailing some of the research and factors she was considering as she made her final decision. Fears ultimately voted in favor of the proposal. 

Mondaine’s motion for a survey received a second but was defeated 6-1. 

What do Independence staff and teachers think of the four-day week? 

In general, the move to a four-day week is seen as a teacher retention strategy. Small rural districts in particular have viewed it as a way to prevent teachers from moving on to larger suburban and urban districts where they could receive higher pay. 

Herl said during the meeting that the district is working to reduce the negative impact on nonteaching staff such as bus drivers who could see their hours cut. Ideas include raising hourly pay and finding opportunities for them to do other work on Mondays.

About 56% of staff, including teachers, responded to a district survey. 

More than 80% of them said they would be more likely to stay employed in Independence if the district switched to a four-day school week. 

However, the survey took place before the district released the four-day week calendar

Teachers still had many unanswered questions after the survey closed, Sarah Nelson said in a Nov. 7 response to an interview request from The Beacon. Nelson is the president of the district teachers’ union, the Independence National Education Association.

Several teachers spoke in favor of the four-day week during the Dec. 13 board meeting, while a former teacher who recently moved to another district, Brandi Pruente, spoke against it. 

The board limits the number of speakers who can participate in public comment, so it’s not clear how many others wanted to speak. 

Pruente said during her public comment that other teachers she’s talked to aren’t enthusiastic about the four-day week. She suggested the district instead focus more on supporting and trusting educators. 

“There is zero chance that I would work for ISD just because they were only four days,” she said. “No thanks. I’ll keep my five-day workweek.”

Other speakers said they had heard positive views from other teachers. 

“I personally haven’t spoken to anyone who was not in favor of it,” Steve Cassity, a teacher at Truman High School, told The Beacon after the vote. “Even people in other districts that I spoke to are asking me a lot of questions. They think it’s a terrific idea.” 

What if other districts imitate Independence?

Independence could lose its hoped-for competitive edge in teacher recruitment compared to nearby districts if those districts shorten their school weeks as well. 

But schools aren’t just competing with each other for teachers; they’re also competing against other industries to keep teachers in the profession at all.

Turner said he knows of a Missouri district where many of the paraprofessionals — educators who assist students with special needs — left to take jobs at a Hobby Lobby that opened in town. 

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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.