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Sherman School Board discusses four-day week proposal with teachers

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Burnout, turnover concerns main topics of work session

Jessica R. Wheeler

The Sherman County School District Board of Directors met Wednesday in a special work session to discuss moving to a four-day school week for the 2022-23 academic calendar.

The board heard a presentation prepared by staff and teachers at Sherman, many of whom said they are overwhelmed and facing burnout.

Teachers shared data and information on a new proposed four-day week, followed by some questions and discussion by the board. The meeting ended with a handful of testimonials from teachers or staff, gathered anonymously and then read aloud for the board.

Health teacher Jessianne Miller kicked off by presenting the board with some data comparing details of the current 4.5-day school week with two different proposed four-day schedules.

First day of school would be Sept. 6, same as with the 4.5-day week, and the year would end approximately June 14. Holiday breaks such as Thanksgiving, winter and spring break also would remain mostly the same. She said that total instructional hours did not go down under the new plan — in fact, they went up in both cases.

“Both of the four-day proposal schedules actually have an increase in instructional time,” Miller said.

“I want to make it clear that Sherman County staff really does want what is best for kids. We do. We’re in this for a reason,” Miller said. “But after the last two years, it is really difficult.”

Miller said she’s thankful to work with such “amazing colleagues,” but acknowledges they, too, are facing challenges. She paused, her voice cracking with emotion.

“And when we go through and talk about this year, staff members are really struggling, and trying to voice that in a positive way,” she said. “The burnout is huge, and people are really trying. They want to be there for the kids. But it’s becoming too much.”

Speech Language Pathologist and special education teacher Kalie Rolfe said retaining existing teachers while also attracting new ones will be key to student success in coming years.

“Not only have we been asked to make a lot of changes, but students have been asked to make a lot of changes, and they haven’t been easy changes,” Rolfe said. “We would like to implement a change that would be positive. We feel as though a four-day week would have a positive impact not only on maintaining the current staff we already have, but attracting new staff to our district.”

Rolfe told the board about a recent trip she made to Oregon Career Fair on behalf of the district in an effort to recruit teachers and staff, maybe even a new principal — a role the district has been hoping to fill for the coming academic year.

Average attendance for applicants at that career fair in past years was about 3,000 — this year, that number was closer to 800, Rolfe said.

“Only 26 percent of the educators who would normally show up were there, because they’re either getting recruited straight out of school, or they’re leaving education altogether,” she said, adding it’s one of the few job forecasts that has a negative growth rate this year, at negative 16 percent.

“A lot of people don’t get into education for the glory and the money,” Rolfe said. “You get in it for the kids. And ultimately who’s going to suffer if they don’t have a teacher? Our students.”

Of the more than two dozen staff members initially polled, the majority were in favor of the change. A few were neutral, and two were against.

“If we have longer days, perhaps we can gain back some of that connection with our kids. Perhaps we can add in some more interventions for our kids,” Rolfe said. “Because there was some lost learning over Covid, and we all know that.”

Miller added that losing even another one or two teachers come fall could be devastating to staff.

“I think something people need to realize is, with gas prices and lots of people here who commute in — teachers are being poached, and it’s an open market,” Miller said. “In the past two years, staff members have taken on a lot of extras and have also been substituting — being pulled from one class on their prep time to cover another class. This is contributing to burnout that people are feeling, because you’re losing your prep time to walk in and cover, sometimes multiple times a day.”

Under the proposed four-day schedule, Fridays would become a full-day teacher workday, perhaps with additional interventions and enrichment activities for students.

Sherman parent Becky Hilderbrand spoke as a visitor, raising concerns about lengthening an already-long school day — especially for rural kids who have a long bus ride and very early morning pickup. She stressed the importance of decompression time for kids.

“My children will be on the bus before 7 a.m. every morning, and will be off after 4:30 p.m.” With nine hours of sleep and a long day of school, she said that leaves just four hours free time for homework or reading, hobbies, food and personal needs.

Hilderbrand was worried that some kids younger than hers would be picked up even earlier. She agreed half-day Friday is probably not hugely beneficial, but said that while four-day schedules might work well for other districts, most aren’t as spread out as Sherman, with long bus rides for young students.

“I understand it’s only four days a week, but that’s a long time for kids to be away from home,” Hilderbrand said.

Results of the survey put to members of the school community were released this week. Of 235 responses, more than 52 percent were from current parents, 18 percent from current students, 9 percent from community members, 8 percent from staff without students in school, and the small remainder evenly split between past parents of Sherman students and current staff who also are parents.

Of these respondents, more than 68 percent favored transitioning to a four-day week, and another 15 percent were undecided or had no preference. About 16 percent of respondents were opposed.

Among the concerns reported in the survey were number of instructional hours, longer days, food accessibility and child care availability. However, more than 50 percent reported they had no concerns at all about the proposed four-day schedule.

Superintendent Wes Owens said he was still taking in all the information presented and that he could not yet comment on the proposal, other than to ask: “Is there a schedule structure or calendar that will better serve our students, staff and community that supports our mission statement?”

Most board members had some questions for the group.

“There’s so many questions in my mind and I don’t know what to ask,” Kristie Coelsch said. “I’m not willing to jump into something until I have more facts, and I don’t know how to get them.”

“I am a person that likes to base everything on fact, and especially kids education stuff, I really want to base that on fact,” Coelsch said. “If you guys have ideas on how to find that info so that we could move forward that way — because that is the thing that weighs the most heavy on me right now. How do you find the data to know what’s best for kids? I can tell you what’s good for my kids, but it’s not good for everybody’s kids. Or I might think something’s good for my kids, and really it’s not.”

Rolfe said it all comes down to quality over quantity.

“You could go seven days a week, and if you didn’t have a quality instructor, it wouldn’t matter. Or you could go four full days and have a quality teacher teaching, and that makes the difference,” Rolfe said. “But I don’t know where the data is for that, or if anybody could even find that.”

Board chair Jesse Stutzman said he understands the staff at Sherman is pretty much maxed out, and that’s true at other schools as well, across the state and nationwide.

“Like Kristie, I see a lot of pluses in this, and I’m completely open-minded,” Stutzman said.

But he brought up a question for the group: What about that segment of the school community, however small, for whom this plan does not work? What if on Fridays, parents work and nobody is home, so kids will be in daycare or home alone, perhaps with limited access to food?

Board member Jeremy Lanthorn also had some questions for the proposal. He wanted to know more about how it has affected staff retention at similar districts with four-day weeks; how it affects student learning and test scores; how it affects graduation rates; and how the busing system would be impacted.

Coelsch made it clear this would not be a quick process.

“I hope that people are patient with us, because this is a big ask to make this decision in a month or two, in my opinion,” she said. “I don’t think that we have enough information at this point, for myself, to make a decision one way or the other.”

“My hope would be that we can get a committee together, mixed with people we haven’t heard from, and community members, people that are on other boards, to get some information for us and help us decide. I don’t think that us five want to, or should be, making this decision for the whole entire school community. I think we need a lot more input.”

Stutzman echoed that sentiment.

“I agree, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said, referring to a quick decision.

He said there would be a lot of logistics to put this plan together and it would take time.

Lanthorn asked about a timeline regarding when a decision would need to be made. Historically the calendars are typically set by March or April, Owens said. This is to give staff and students the chance to make their plans for next year before summer.

Coelsch asked if there might be other options or solutions they hadn’t considered yet.

“We are hearing you — I am hearing you. I don’t want you guys to walk away defeated, because that is not at all what my goal is here,” Coelsch said.

The board will revisit the discussion at its next regular meeting, set for 6 p.m. Monday, April 11.

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