IRENE, S.D. (AP) — When the nearly 300 students of the Irene-Wakonda School District returned to school this week, they found a lot of old friends, teachers and familiar routines awaiting them. But one thing was missing: Friday classes.
This district in the rolling farmland of southeastern South Dakota is among the latest to adopt a four-day school week as the best option for reducing costs and dealing with state budget cuts to education.
“It got down to monetary reasons more than anything else,” Superintendent Larry Johnke said. The $50,000 savings will preserve a vocational education program that otherwise would have been scrapped.
The four-school week is an increasingly visible example of the impact of state budget problems on rural education. This fall, fully one-fourth of South Dakota’s districts will have moved to some form of the abbreviated schedule. Only Colorado and Wyoming have a larger proportion of schools using a shortened week. According to one study, more than 120 school districts in 20 states, most in the west, now use four-day weeks.
The schools insist that reducing class time is better than the alternatives and can be done without sacrificing academic performance. Yet not all parents are convinced.
“The kids are going to suffer,” said Melissa Oien, who has four children in the school and serves as vice president of the parent-teacher organization. “Of course they will. They’re missing a whole day of school.”
The downsizing comes as schools in some larger cities are moving in the opposite direction. In Chicago, school officials hope to add school days so students will learn more and have better employment prospects.
Irene-Wakonda’s predicament, like those of many other rural districts in the Great Plains, is compounded by declines in population and enrollment. The two towns, which are eight miles apart, combined their school districts in 2007 to save money. Wakonda got the elementary school and Irene the middle and high schools. Farming is the largest share of their economies, though some people commute to jobs in Yankton or Vermillion.
Johnke, the superintendent, said the district will add 30 minutes to each day and shorten the lunch break to provide more class time Monday through Thursday. In elementary school, recess and physical education classes will be shortened.
The changes won’t entirely make up for losing Friday, Johnke said, but the district will still exceed the state’s minimum standard for class time and will teach all the required material.
“We feel they’ll get the same instruction. It’ll have to be done a little bit differently,” he said.
South Dakota’s Republican-controlled Legislature slashed aid to schools this spring by 6.6 percent to help close a $127 million budget gap. Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard said state revenue has not grown in three years while costs have risen for medical services for the poor.
He ruled out revenue increases. “I believe in shared sacrifice,” Daugaard said earlier this year. Education groups hope to put a tax proposal on the 2012 ballot.
Facing budget shortfalls in the sour economy, many other state Legislatures also cut public education spending this year — some, like Texas, sharply.