Hope Redhawk leads a rather unique life for a high school kid.
Nearly 6 feet tall with flaming red hair, she's highly active in her school's chapter of the Future Farmers of America. She plays volleyball (but not basketball), and a couple of years ago, she won the Class 1A state championship in the long jump.
And during the school year, she spends every Friday working on a ranch, because her school—Elfrida Valley Union High—is on a four-day school week. The school day runs from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., with seven class periods. The 60 percent or so of the students who participate in interscholastic athletics, and therefore practice after school, get home well past dark, no matter which season it is.
Elfrida is a small farming community about 25 miles north of Douglas. The high school itself is on the main drag, U.S. Route 191, the north-south highway that connects the border town of Douglas with Interstate 10 right around Willcox. (For decades, the road was known as 666 before the God-fearin' folk got the state to change it.) Valley Union has always been a good-sized rural school. A few years back, the school's enrollment was bumping up against the 200 mark, but has since declined to its current 155.
That decline, coupled with savage funding cuts by the state Legislature, forced the administration to consider several cost-saving measures.
"We looked around and did a lot of research," says outgoing Valley Union High principal Rusty Taylor (whose real first name is, indeed, Rusty). "The (concept of a) four-day school week can be kind of jarring at first, but the transition went really smoothly. Obviously, the most important thing to consider is how it is going to affect the students academically, but that has also turned out well."
Test scores at Valley Union actually went up in the first year, but then declined in the most recent year, matching a statewide trend. "Obviously, we don't have enough data to tell where things are going to go in the long run," says Taylor, "but we didn't have this huge drop-off in student achievement that some people feared."
Another big fear was that parents—especially those who work traditional five-day weeks—would rebel.
"That was a major concern," says Taylor, "but the complaints have been few and far between. People understood why we were doing this, and the community has embraced it."
Hope Redhawk says there are trade-offs that must be made.
"We do a lot of FFA stuff on Fridays, and the school tries to schedule a lot of our away games on Fridays so we don't miss any school. But then, if a coach schedules a practice on Friday, it's hard for a lot of kids to get there.
"As for school, the school day doesn't feel that much longer than before, but the teachers have to cram more stuff into each period. You just have to stay focused in class and make sure you get your homework done. Some teachers let you do some of your homework in class; some don't assign homework until the weekend; and some give homework every night. And that extra day off can be used for a lot of things, (activities) both in school and out."
Hope works at a horse-training ranch on Fridays and Saturdays, doing everything from bailing hay to training horses to keeping the tack room clean. The extra day comes in handy, as she needs to work to pay for gas and insurance for her car.
(Odd fact that I learned while talking to Hope: Valley Union offers classes in Russian.)
Principal Taylor said that the district hoped to see significant savings in budget items like transportation and energy costs. However, "Frankly, the savings weren't that big, especially in energy. We were, however, able to make significant savings in the amount of money we pay to classified personnel." Classified workers generally include janitors, secretaries, cafeteria workers, school monitors, etc.
One area where Taylor really finds the four-day week to be advantageous (besides the ability for him to get a lot of paperwork done) is in professional development for teachers. Written into each teacher's contract is a proviso that teachers will spend every other Friday on personal and professional improvement. "We went from 12 hours to 90 hours (of professional development) under the new system. Teachers were able to attend workshops and seminars on everything from improving reading comprehension to learning CPR and first aid. It's been great."
Taylor's last day of work at Valley Union was June 30, as he left to take an administrative position in the Bisbee Unified School District, which also uses a four-day school schedule. Amid concerns over student achievement, the Bisbee school board recently voted to keep the four-day week for at least another two years, citing an estimated $150,000 savings when compared to a five-day week. School board members agree that the savings is not particularly significant, but in these budget-slashing times, that figure could mean the difference between finishing the school year in the red or at the break-even point.
There was talk of having the Greenway Elementary School go back to a five-day week after some parents complained that the system was getting young students off to a bad start in terms of learning habits. In the end, the board decided that it would be too much of a distraction to have the district split, with some schools on a four-day week, and others on a traditional five-day week.
For the past couple of years, Bisbee High School has failed to meet the state-mandated AYP (adequate yearly progress) standards and is using the four-day schedule in an effort to remedy the situation. Students who are struggling are brought to the school on Fridays for extra work to help bring them (and the school) into compliance.
Rusty Taylor isn't sure whether a four-day school week would work in a city like Tucson.
"There are different dynamics at work in big cities. What I do know is that it has worked well for us at Valley Union," he says.