February 15, 2023 553 PM
MARFA — Starting next school year, Marfa ISD will break from the traditional five-day instructional week and instead operate on a four-day week spanning Mondays through Thursdays. Fridays will become flexible work days set aside for tutoring, parent-teacher conferences and more — out-of-classroom aid that proponents of the plan believe will benefit both students and teachers.
The decision was made at a well-attended board meeting at noon on Monday, where teachers gathered to voice their support for the new schedule, and district administrators emphasized largely positive feedback from surveyed parents. Marfa ISD leaders have argued the schedule change, by giving teachers more preparation time and students the opportunity for more individualized instruction, would address some of the district’s challenges: declining enrollment, low attendance rates and teacher retention and recruitment.
As it stands, teachers are spending time grading on nights and weekends in order to keep up with the pace of the school year, said Junior High and High School Principal Luane Porter.
“I guarantee every single teacher that we have wants to do their very best — they want to provide the very best education for their kids,” said Porter. “They do it for the love of the kids, and they take pride in what they’re doing. When do they get this extra time to plan, prepare, grade, do everything else that they need to do? In the evenings, before the bell rings, on the weekends.”
The board first considered the change in November, then moved to survey parents, teachers and students in fifth grade and up. In total, 94 parents responded to the survey. The district’s current enrollment is 233 students, but a number of families have more than one child in the schools, explained Porter in a follow-up interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, leading administrators to believe over half of parents responded to the survey.
73.4% of those 94 parents who took the survey were in favor of the four-day school week, with 16% voting against and 10% voting maybe. Parents were also surveyed on what childcare methods they were most likely to use on Fridays, with 56.4% reporting no childcare was needed, 21.3% reporting they would use other family members and 8.5% reporting they would opt for a paid childcare provider. 87.5% of the 72 students surveyed were in favor of the four-day week schedule, and 86.5% of the 37 staff members surveyed — out of a total of 59 district employees — supported the plan.
Surveys were distributed solely in English. Staff members assisted some Spanish-speaking parents in filling out the survey over the phone and in person, said Aguero.
The district will still meet its state requirements of 75,600 minutes of instruction time for students, and will likely opt to extend school days by 30 minutes. The new schedule will not affect teacher salaries, and the district does not anticipate saving a significant amount of money, since facilities and buses will still be up and running some Fridays, said Aguero in a follow-up call with The Big Bend Sentinel.
Other rural districts across the state have recently adopted the four-day model as a means to attract and keep more teachers. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association estimates over 40 districts across Texas use a four-day week, and that around 27 made the switch this school year.
The move comes during a time of low teacher job satisfaction, with educators leaving the profession across the nation in increasing numbers. A 2022 study conducted by the Charles Butt Foundation found 77% of over a thousand Texas public school teachers surveyed said they were considering leaving the profession, a 9% jump from the previous year and a 19% increase from 2020. Teachers pointed to low pay, increased workloads, pressure to raise test scores and perform non-instructional tasks, and lack of planning time as reasons for their dissatisfaction.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over half of U.S. public schools were understaffed for the current school year, with 69% reporting a lack of candidates vying for open teaching positions as their main challenge. This rings true in Marfa, according to staffer Jessica Murphy, who said she found the applicant pool to be sparse when assisting in hiring last year.
At Monday’s meeting, 10 MISD staff members, the majority of whom were teachers, addressed the board to express support for the four-day model. They said the four-day week would allow them to target students who need additional support on Fridays, and the flexibility of more time to grade, plan and collaborate with other staff members would help prevent burnout — which in turn would improve student performance.
Melissa Firmin, special education teacher for the junior high and high school, said she was in support of the four-day week because it would offer special ed students more down time, family time and community experiences that would help them thrive. She also argued that it would decrease absences special ed students accrue when they need mental health days or days for medical appointments.
Rosa Martinez, special education teacher for the elementary school, said the four-day week would allow her to focus on addressing behavioral issues and improving social skills with the students she works with.
“Early intervention is the best policy for any child, whether they have a disability or not. If we can target that, by the time these kids are in second grade, maybe we can curb those behavioral issues so that they can have time to learn,” said Martinez. “If the behavior is not in check, the kid is not learning.”
Martinez added that she also works a second job on the weekends to supplement her income and would appreciate the occasional day off on Fridays. (32% of MISD staff have a second job, according to statistics provided by the district.)
Teacher and coach Arturo Alferez said he was in favor of the four-day week because it gives students more flexibility in their schedules to prepare for secondary education.
“I’m always telling students: when you graduate, I don’t want you to graduate with just the diploma, I want you to graduate with a diploma plus more,” said Alferez. “This will give us an opportunity for some of our students to start taking dual credit classes, certification classes, where they can use those days to actually focus on that.”
In a presentation, Porter outlined the biggest challenges causing the district to consider the four-day solution. Enrollment is in decline, down to 233 students from last year’s 264, as is the district’s attendance rate, which is currently at around 92% and frequently dips below 96%. As state funding opportunities are in part determined by average daily attendance, that decline is harming the district’s finances, she argued. The district also sees a high absenteeism rate on Fridays.
Then there is the high teacher turnover rate plaguing the district: 21 teachers left the district three years ago and 15 left last year. Porter said they are expecting to receive eight resignations this year (the board has accepted three to date).
“This affects our continuity and education. This affects our ability to replace our teachers that are leaving with highly-qualified educators,” said Porter. “And ultimately, it can affect instruction. So what can we do to retain our teachers and not have to replace as many?”
Teachers, who often have multiple courses to prepare for, are only allotted 45 minutes a day for grading and planning, said Porter, which is simply not enough time, she argued. On top of that, teachers are required to attend parent-teacher conferences, other meetings and training as well as provide additional tutoring time (House Bill 4545 made it compulsory for teachers to provide 30 hours of instruction per subject that students fail on the STAAR test.)
Overall, said Porter, teachers are placed under enormous pressure, and the current system leaves them feeling like they have little capacity for anything other than day to day demands.
“The state continues to ask more and more of our teachers. It’s not just educating them for eight hours a day and sending them home. It’s raising them, it’s teaching them how to use the potty, how to flush the toilet, how to come to school on time, how to be social-emotional learners, how to have proper police officer interaction, how to perform CPR. It’s not just reading, writing and arithmetic anymore,” said Porter.
Still, staff members were not without their concerns regarding the new schedule. Alferez, despite his supportive stance, expressed concern over the impact on parents with young children, given the lack of day care options in the area. He said he was hopeful the community would receive enough advance notice so parents could start to plan accordingly. He said the district also needed to make sure there are ways to hold students accountable when they are expected to show up for tutoring or additional instruction on Fridays.
Board President Teresa Nuñez — who expressed support for the change despite her previous concerns over a lack of data on the new concept’s impact on kids and families — suggested the district proceed with caution, maybe starting with a temporary pilot program to test the waters. “What if it didn’t work?” she said. “What if we missed a step or we forgot something?”
While the finer details of the newly-adopted four-day schedule will still need to be worked out, administrators explained that students who rely on the district to provide their breakfast and lunch five days a week through the free and reduced lunch program could be given food to take home for Fridays, and buses could still run as needed in order to pick students up for tutorials and athletic events. Graduation will still take place in May and athletics events will not be impacted.
Board members ultimately chose to unanimously approve the new four-day instruction week for the 2023-24 school year. Aguero said the next steps will include garnering teacher feedback on preliminary calendars the district has already drawn up and setting protocols for attendance requirements. He asserted the idea that for the new model to be effective in improving student outcomes, teachers, administrators and students would have to strategically utilize Fridays.
“The whole thing behind this is that Friday has to be purposeful. We can’t just make it a day off,” said Aguero.