Southeast Alaska school district shifts to 4-day school week

The Southeast Island School District on Alaska’s Panhandle switched to a four-day school weeks, including picturesque Thorne Bay, but not at the request of kids hoping for three-day weekends. Instead, parents were behind the push for the compact schedule. (Ryan Miller /  Southeast Island School District / Alaska Dispatch)
The Southeast Island School District on Alaska’s Panhandle switched to a four-day school weeks, including picturesque Thorne Bay, but not at the request of kids hoping for three-day weekends. Instead, parents were behind the push for the compact schedule.(Ryan Miller / Southeast Island School District / Alaska Dispatch)
Ask most Alaska or Outside grade-school students if they would choose modestly longer school days in exchange for perpetual three-day weekends, and they’re likely to give unflinching support.

One school district on Alaska’s Panhandle recently made such a switch to a four-day school week, but not at the request of homework-weary kids. Instead, parents were behind the push for the compact schedule.

Nine out of 10 schools in the Southeast Island School District are moving from a traditional five-day school week to the shorter, four-day school week, though teachers are still required to work on Fridays.

Prior to the 2013-2014 school year, students attended school for six hours each weekday. Now, instruction for first graders up to high school seniors will go from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 in the afternoon, a total of seven hours. Kindergarten students’ schedule will increase from four to five hours.

The additional hour will be added to classes Monday through Thursday. Come Friday, Alaska kids get to run wild. Actually, not quite — families in tiny, remote Alaska towns often put their kids to work gathering wood, casting fishing nets or lines off the side of a skiff, and hunting for food like deer.

A tough roadblock: State approval

The majority of Southeast Island School District’s schools are located on Prince of Wales Island, the fourth-largest island in the country located in the heart of the temperate rainforest that defines most of the Inside Passage and northwest coast of British Columbia.

It would be inaccurate to call many of the towns on the island small. They’re tiny, much like the hundreds of other villages that dot Alaska’s mainland. Much like the other villages, too, residents are self-reliant. They carve lives out in the wilderness.

Still, convincing the state Department of Education that the area’s unique challenges warrant unique approaches to education was a tough roadblock to pass. Several years ago, parents in Prince of Wales communities suggested switching to the shorter school week, said district Superintendent Lauren Burch. Before the 2011-2012 school year, Burch submitted a schedule to the district’s calendar committee, and it was overwhelmingly endorsed, he said.

The Department of Education wasn’t as hot about the idea, and the state agency needed to approve the schedule. It said no.

Burch said the length of the district’s school week seemed like a local control issue. It’s a guiding principle for the district. Administrators and the school board have come to expect a high level of public input, from staff hires to changes in classroom lessons, he said.

After the initial effort to change the schedule, Burch spent the summer searching for legislative support. He got it, and an Alaska House bill was in the works that would kick off a test run in a few schools. Before the bill even made its way through the House, the Department of Education commissioner approved a new, four-day school week schedule.

More ‘face time’

Southeast Island outlined in its proposal to the agency a handful of ways the shorter week is a good fit for the far-flung schools:

• Struggling students can come in on Fridays for tutoring;
• Families can schedule doctors’ and similar appointments on Fridays, so students don’t have to miss school (appointments are hard to make, as many amenities common to Alaska’s urban residents are miles away, over land and sea);
• Teachers are participating in professional development meetings via video teleconferencing, discussing lesson plans and extracurricular activities;
• And teachers are also using classroom-to-classroom video to teach electives offered at the district’s larger schools but not available at smaller ones.

Students on sports teams are missing fewer days of class, too. “It’s almost a given that if you have students who are in sports, almost every Friday they’re gone,” said Rocky Near, the lead teacher at Edna Bay School. “They’re traveling to Anchorage, Ketchikan or Juneau. Some big town. Kids miss a lot of days, and this is a cool way to remedy the situation.”

Near has been teaching at Edna Bay for one year; he worked at Point Protection, another school in the district, for two years before coming to Edna. He fell in love with the town, located west of Prince of Wales on Kosciusko Island. He compared it to Mayberry, the fictional community that was the setting for “The Andy Griffith Show.”

The school, a “triple-wide” trailer-type building segmented into four rooms, accommodates 10 students, the minimum required to receive state funding. The students’ grades range from first to 12th. There are two fourth graders to keep each other company. Seven of the students live with Near — five of his own children, a Chinese exchange student and the young boy whose father is building a home in the town and working Outside.

Teaching all of those grades at once is challenging, Near said. He spends his Fridays planning out the school week. The shorter weeks, he said, “make me feel more responsible to knock out some amazing stuff every day, so I do a lot more research and planning.”

No guarantee of renewal

The video conferences grant Near time to ask questions of the district’s veteran teachers who are used to guiding kids at all grade levels. But the teacher at the one school in the district that opted out of the four-day week is getting less face time with the seasoned educators.

Shane Scamahorn, the lone teacher at Kasaan School, a former float house, works a traditional, five-day school week. He’s been in the town for only a month, since the school year began. The workflow is similar to his old job in Salt Lake City, but he doesn’t have the same opportunities to speak to other teachers.

“I miss out on some of the collaborative stuff among the teachers, and I feel that would’ve been very beneficial part of the four-day workweek,” he said. “But they adjust their schedules so I can participate in the conferences.”

Four-day school weeks are not guaranteed for future school years, Burch said. The state education commissioner needs to approve a new schedule each year.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at) Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms

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