Schools out on Fridays as AJ students adjust to four-day school week

The Apache Junction High School band practices after school on a Friday afternoon. School administrators said activities such as football and band practice have not been affected by a four-day school week with school closed on Friday. (Photo by Alejandro Barahona/Cronkite News)

APACHE JUNCTION – One year after a southeast Valley school district switched to a four-day school week, some parents and students still grapple with longer days and child-care schedules while others have embraced the new model.

Anahi Lopez, 16, a junior at Apache Junction High School, at first liked the idea of a four-day school week.

“My reaction at first was, I thought it was going to be a good idea because we would have more time to spend with, like our family, or more free time. But after they told us that we would be having to go in earlier, I kind of changed my mind,” Lopez said.

-Cronkite News video by Alejandro Barahona

She finds longer school days are tiring.

“After they told us that we would be having to go in earlier, I kind of changed my mind because from having to wake up at seven, to waking up at five was a big change,” she said.

The Apache Junction Unified School District, in a move to retain and attract teachers and save money, switched in August 2015 from a five-day school week to a shorter, four-day week of longer days in the classroom. More than a dozen districts in Arizona now hold classes Monday through Thursday, although none of the larger districts in the Phoenix area have switched to the shorter school week.

Struggling to change

Some Apache Junction parents and students are adjusting but others say it’s difficult to handle classes that go from 6:50 a.m. to 3:07 p.m., to schedule child care and outside school activities, and to learn in more crowded classrooms.

-Cronkite News video by Alejandro Barahona

Denisse Rosas, whose children are 17, 14 and 9, lives in the district and said too many children are crammed into a class.

“I think it is hard for the teacher to pay attention to every child when there are more than 30 kids in the room,” Rosas said as her children did homework in their rooms.

The greatest challenge has been parental acceptance. Many in the community insist that a four-day week means less academic time, said Dana Hawman, district spokeswoman.

District leaders were initially concerned about a drop in students’ academic performance, but students are doing well, Hawman said. But she did not provide data on mandatory test results to compare academics before and after the schedule change.

Arizona schools switched from the AIMS tests to AzMERIT standardized tests in 2015. The percent of elementary and high school students in the Apache Junction district passing math for 2015-16 varied by school and grade level, ranging from 13 percent to 81 percent, according to a searchable database by The Arizona Republic. In English/Language Arts, the percent of those passing ranged from 22 percent to 49 percent, according to the searchable database.

Sandy Lorance, a chemistry teacher at Apache Junction High School, said test scores have remained about the same in her classes and that student absences have decreased.

She found the change tough at first because each class is now 12 minutes longer than the previous 56-minute classes. It took time to adapt her teaching. Now, she finds she has more time to explain lessons and answer students’ questions.

“Now that I’m used to it, I’m not sure I’d go back,” Lorance said.

Teacher Sarah Harrison, who has taught in the district for nine years, agreed.

Adjusting to change

Larry LaPrise, principal of Apache Junction High School, said parents and students have told him they feel good about the change. He said some students are working and earning money, while others are spending time with their younger brothers and sisters.

“Now that everyone is used to it I don’t think – at the high school level, I can’t speak for elementary – I don’t see it as a problem,” LaPrise said.

LaPrise also said staff and student attendance has improved, but did give specifics. District officials did not provide attendance information.

More than three dozen Arizona school districts have changed to four-day schedules since 1985 to save money, according to , joining other schools across the country. Two Arizona districts changed in 2015 and Peoria Unified School District, one of Arizona’s largest districts, considered but later rejected a shift to a shorter week.

Chad Wilson, superintendent of the Apache Junction district, said a $ 2.7 million budget deficit spurred the change. It was a difficult decision because it meant families had to search for child care that fit their work schedules. And the schools still have Friday activities like football, band and drama practice.

“Parents that at one time told me they had no idea what was going to happen with their children have come back to me and said it has been great,” Wilson said. Parents have coordinated weekly schedules to rotate care, he said.

Rosas said because she has a flexible work schedule, so she is able to help her fellow parents with child care on Fridays.

It is too early to determine whether money has been saved since the change happened, Hawman said.

Money is still an issue, however.

The district has closed three schools in six years. It may sell one or more buildings that are no longer used so it can replace old buses and repair buildings.

Deciding whether to change again

And a traditional model of a five-day week could return. It will be considered for the 2018-2019 school year, based on considerations such as AzMERIT test scores, and absence or attendance rates, Hawman said.

In the meantime, there are other considerations.

LaPrise said he now has more time on to spend with his son and go to the football games.

“I personally like Fridays off,” LaPrise said. “We love it.”