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Cayuse Prairie School prepares to switch to four-day week

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | April 21, 2024 12:05 AM

Cayuse Prairie School is moving to a four-day week next school year to balance its budget.

Located on Lake Blaine Road, Cayuse Prairie is the fifth rural K-8 school to go on a four-day school week in Flathead County.

Fair-Mont-Egan wraps up its first year on a four-day schedule in June. Olney-Bissell made the move in the 2018-19 year. Prior to that, West Glacier and Pleasant Valley were the only districts in Flathead County on a four-day week. 

Across Montana, 222 schools were on four-day weeks in the 2022-23 school year, according to the Office of Public Instruction.

The school day will be about 55 minutes longer to meet state accreditation standards for the 2024-25 school year. Students will attend Mondays through Thursdays. School will start at 7:45 a.m. for grades fourth through eighth and 7:55 a.m for grades kindergarten through third. Dismissal will be 3:45 p.m. If there are closures, due to weather for instance, school will be held remotely.

The decision affects the more than 300 students who attend the school.

Superintendent and Principal Amy Piazzola said the motivation for the schedule change is financial.

“We were looking at cutting $30,000,” she said, which would have been a reduction of a full-time reading and math intervention paraprofessional.

The district did cut a part-time technology specialist position.

“Teachers felt they could integrate technology into their normal classroom work,” Piazzola said. 

The school will not fill a special education paraprofessional position following a resignation. She said the student who needed the paraprofessional no longer attends the school.

Cost savings will be realized from hourly-paid positions. Cayuse Prairie employs about 17 non-certified employees — paraprofessionals, maintenance and kitchen staff — who are paid hourly. A portion of savings may also come from utilities.

“As much as we’d love to be funded 100%, we understand people’s budgets are tight. It’s just not a good climate to ask taxpayers for money, even if people want to say ‘yes’ [to a levy],” Piazzola 

As to the 26 salaried certified staff — mainly teachers — the district plans to enter into a memorandum of understanding in the first year.

“So we don’t have to change their contract until we live it for a year,” Piazzola said.

LOOKING AT the bigger picture, Piazzola — like administrators from Fair-Mont-Egan and Olney-Bissell — cited a four-day school week as a means to attract and retain quality teachers to rural districts.

“I feel like education is in a crisis right now with the amount of teachers coming out of the university and colleges,” Piazzola said, combined with the high cost of living.

“Of course, we’ve had good retention at Cayuse, but I’m a little nervous speaking for the future when my teachers decide to retire,” she said.

“My main focus right now is to be able to provide and continue the quality education we’ve been doing thus far,” Piazzola said.

Fair-Mont-Egan Superintendent and Principal Brandy Carlenzoli said a four-day week may also attract new students.

“I was hired with the directive to increase enrollment. So the staff and community came together with a whole list of things to accomplish,” Carlenzoli said.

However, she said the issue has arisen where families with multiple children have some attending school five days a week, which can put a wrench into parents’ schedules. A longer day also affects some student’s ability to participate in extracurriculars.

As a former teacher, Piazzola taught at a school in Noxon for seven years on a four-day week schedule. She said that was done because of a budget deficit.

When measuring learning, Cayuse Prairie looks at progress. Academic progress is measured by testing throughout the year, which will continue.

“That will be an indicator if our kids are making progress,” she said.

Staff from Fair-Mont-Egan and Only-Bissell schools shared their experiences with Cayuse Prairie as it explored the proposal.

“We did something called a pre-mortem before the school year,” Carlenzoli said. “We said, ‘How will this die? How will this not work? Then we came up with the solutions to make sure we didn’t make those mistakes.”  

“It took a massive amount of pre-work,” she emphasized.

For Fair-Mont-Egan teachers, a top concern was fitting a year of curriculum into the condensed weeks. Another concern with a longer day is students’ attention spans. 

First-grade teacher Ayla Larkins has taught at Fair-Mont-Egan for four years. She echoed Carlenzoli’s statement about putting in extra work ahead of time, including readjusting how skills and lessons were sequenced. 

“It’s really worked very well with the extra time. Even though it seems it might be harder on the students, especially since I teach first graders, it allows for deeper thinking, more comprehension,” Larkins said.

Teachers need to be intentional in their teaching and mindful that each instructional minute is important, Carlenzoli and Larkins agreed, which is why Larkins incorporates learning into “brain breaks” with students. 

“We move and speak and sing. At the same time, we’re accessing skills we’re working on that day, maybe counting and jumping, or working on syllables, while getting the blood flowing,” she said.

Before going to the longer days, “There were many times I wished I had just an extra five to 10 minutes in the day,” she said.

Carlenzoli said Fair-Mont-Egan is still figuring out how to incorporate the “fun things” not tied to instructional minutes like a class party or an assembly. 

Larkins and Carlenzoli agreed that a three-day weekend is a plus and see the difference in mood among staff and students.

“We find students come back to school on Monday rested and ready to go learn through Thursday. That break is huge. We’re able to recover and rest and are excited to be at school,” Larkins said.

A portion of Fair-Mont-Egan staff attends school every other Friday for professional development. Cayuse Prairie may implement a similar system.

According to results from a February survey, families and staff remain supportive of a four-day school week at Fair-Mont-Egan.

One of the drawbacks of the four-day week has been student absences, Carlenzoli said. While the hope was to see a decrease in absenteeism and tardiness with an extra day off, it is still an issue. 

“We still struggle with absences and tardies. The same folks who were tardy before are tardy this year, and we’ve had a significant number of absences,” Carlenzoli said. 

The opposite is true for staff.

“The number of days we need substitutes has gone down dramatically. You’d think 20% is not a lot because of the extra day off, but it’s huge,” Carlenzoli said.

Carlenzoli said Fair-Mont-Egan is keeping tabs on academic progress with an assessment every 10 to 12 weeks “to make sure we’re on track.” 

“We’re definitely on track as we were last year in meeting our goals,” she said. 

She said it will take about three years of data, whether assessments or absences, to start seeing trends.

For working families and single parents, a top concern is often child care.

Fair-Mont-Egan approached this concern by offering a Friday program at the beginning of the year, but only had a single student attend for a few hours twice, and then no one showed up. The program was discontinued. In many cases, she said extended relatives such as grandparents step in to care for their grandchildren if needed, and some parents work four days.

Cayuse Prairie does not have an after-school program but is open to exploring options if there is interest, according to Piazzola.

“I think with Covid, and having that experience has allowed people to have more flexibility in their jobs,” she said.

“We have a great staff, a very cohesive staff, who will be doing things differently in the classroom. I think my staff have expressed that it’s exciting and it’s scary all at once. I think we’re going to do what’s best for kids like we always have been,” Piazzola said.

DISCUSSIONS ON moving to a four-day week at Cayuse Prairie began in December 2023. 

“In 2016, we did put the feelers out there if parents were interested in exploring a four-day week. I think only 25 were interested, so we didn’t explore it further,” Piazzola said.

That changed this year during parent-teacher conferences where she said more than half of the families showed interest in exploring the proposal further when asked.

“That’s why we proceeded forward with that as a way to balance the budget,” she said.

Results from a survey of parents and teachers were presented at a March 19 board meeting. Of the 137 responses from families, 30.7% “would keep the five-day school week” and 69.3% “would go to a four-day week.” Twenty out of the 21 members of the Cayuse Prairie Teachers Association also voted on the proposal with 17 backing a four-day week.

These results were presented to school board members along with comments from people preferring the five-day school week. Comments included concerns about academic impact (lacking time for interventions/changing back to five days in high school); the effect on young children’s attention spans; finding child care and the added expense of it; people who work five days a week; and that it’s a temporary budget solution to a long-term problem.

The school board approved the recommendation in March in a 3-2 vote, with board Vice Chair Susan Horner-Till and member Kyle Heinecke in opposition.

In a letter to parents alerting them of the change, board Chair Tyler Hash said the decision was not made lightly and was arrived at with “input from the school administration, teachers, parents, neighboring districts with a four-day week, and national research on the subject.”

“The board recognizes that this change does come with challenges for many families. Concerns about the increased school day length, child care for working parents and scheduling extra-curricular activities are valid issues brought up by parents. As Cayuse Prairie moves forward, we will strive to work with families, teachers and the broader community as equal partners to navigate this change. We will take the time to ensure we are planning deliberately for the coming school year. We welcome input as we navigate this change so that we can make the most of the opportunities it provides. We will not get everything right but as a learning organization we will continue to assess how we educate and improve wherever we can. We owe nothing less to the kids in our charge,” Hash stated later in the letter.

During a phone interview, Heinecke said he voted against the recommendation because it was too extreme for the problem presented.

“The comparison I have is getting a splinter in your finger and amputating your arm,” he said. “I don’t take the opposing vote lightly at all.”

“I felt like we needed more time to hear from the public,” Heinecke added. 

Heinecke said that outside of teachers and parents, the wider community was underrepresented in surveys and input presented.

“I know we worked hard to get information from parents, teachers and other schools. … But I felt we did not have the data on the taxpaying public on their views,” he said. “I want to ensure the people who elected me have a choice in deciding what’s happening in the schools.”

At the end of the day, Heinecke said he respects the outcome.

“I really do trust [Piazzola] and the teachers,” Heinecke said. “It’s one area we don’t see eye-to-eye, but I will continue to support [Piazzola] and the staff. This is a great school. We’re going to have a great new school year.”

Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.