Marfa ISD campuses adapt to new four-day school week 

Marfa Elementary School Principal Amy White passes out the school district’s calendar to parent Yessica Martinez while she waits to pick up her child from school last week. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

MARFA — Marfa Elementary School Principal Amy White weaved between idling cars in the pick up line last week during dismissal, greeting parents and guardians through rolled-down windows to pass out copies of the new four-day school week calendar

The 2023-2024 school year, which began two weeks ago, marks the first time a tri-county district has adopted an experimental four-day, rather than traditional five-day, instructional week.

“Marfa’s kind of a unique community in the area anyway, so why not let us give it a shot,” said White. “I think it’s going to benefit the kids.”   

The model is becoming increasingly popular across the state, especially in understaffed, rural districts as a potential solution to teacher recruitment and retention. In Marfa’s case, the district is also facing declining enrollment and is exploring ways to remain relevant and attract more families, unable to achieve much by way of facility upgrades due to budgetary constraints. 

Administrators are feeling the pressure to make the model work, they said, aware that other area districts are viewing Marfa ISD as a guinea pig. Interim Superintendent Arturo Alferez said he has fielded calls from other district leaders considering moving to the alternative schedule.

“The way they made it sound is, ‘You guys are the pilot schools for this four-day,’” said Alferez. 

Despite some members expressing concerns about unstructured time and a potential lack of child care for parents, the school board voted to approve the four-day school week last February after surveying students, parents and staff. According to the district, of 94 parents surveyed, 73.4% were in favor of the idea, the majority reporting child care would not be an issue. The majority of staff, 86.5% of 37 polled — there were 59 staffers total at the time — were also supportive of the initiative. At the time of the survey, 233 children were enrolled with the district, and because many parents have more than one child with the district, administrators believe respondents included over half of parents. 

In addition to hopefully acting as a recruiting tool for the district, allowing over-stretched educators more planning time and mental respite, administrators emphasized the opportunity to reach students falling behind academically more effectively on flexible Fridays.

The district will hold “Shorthorn Success Days” one to three Fridays a month, where supplemental tutoring, one-on-one instruction and enrichment activities — including field trips and other initiatives — will take place for students from 9 a.m. to noon, and staff development exercises like meetings and planning sessions will take place from noon to 3 p.m. School days Monday through Thursday have been extended by 30 minutes to ensure the district is meeting state requirements.

State law requires school districts provide 30 additional hours of tutoring for all students who fail the STAAR test. On Fridays, at the junior high and high school campus — which is currently without a principal after Luane Porter resigned this summer — Alferez said teachers will work on STAAR tutoring and students will have an opportunity to work on dual credit classes as well as college preparation. 

“It’s also an opportunity for our seniors to come in, start looking at applications for FAFSA, for college admission, any kind of scholarship or writing,” said Alferez. 

During dismissal last Thursday Marfa Elementary School Principal Amy White reminded students Julio Gonzalez and Aubrianna Medrano about special instruction taking place on Friday. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

White, who drove the bus route Friday morning to pick up a handful of students, said they had around 36 kids show up for the first Shorthorn Success Day. Her campus plans to work on STAAR remediation — though state testing doesn’t start until the third grade — as well as catching students up who may have fallen behind, and planning activities like field trips or hearing presentations from community members. For example, retired music teacher Beth Kerzee plans to come in some Fridays to teach music lessons, said White. 

She said ideally she would like to have all elementary students participate in Friday instruction at some point in the year. On Friday afternoon — at the end of the first-ever Shorthorn Success Day — White met with elementary school teachers to debrief. She said feedback was positive and that staff was excited for more opportunities to work with students.

“They’re really happy to have these small groups that they can work with these kids,” said White, noting typical class sizes in the elementary are around 17 to 20 students. “Even the kids that are where they’re supposed to be [academically] benefit from having smaller group time with their teacher.” 

Third grade teacher Janet Enriquez, who is in her eighth year with MISD, said at first she was concerned about the four-day week leading to less instruction time, but the opportunity to meet with students in smaller groups and have more time for lesson planning on Fridays led her to support the idea. The 30 additional minutes every day have also worked out so far, she said. 

“I’m using that time to really reach them and engage them — not just ‘Oh, you’re doing an extra worksheet,’ but let’s get to know each other better and make connections,” said Enriquez. 

Students are selected to participate in Shorthorn Success Days at the start of the week, then parents are notified. Last Friday, Enriquez worked with nine students, providing one-on-one instruction as well as “pre-teach” time, which entails reviewing the next week’s lessons with students who will then help explain them to fellow classmates.

“I think it’s a confidence booster for our kids who tend to struggle. They get to already know some of the topics, so that was definitely something we got to do Friday that I was excited about,” said Enriquez. 

While a majority of the Friday afternoons will have to meet state requirements for professional development for teachers, meaning they cannot just be turned loose to work in their rooms, White said lesson planning, data analyzation and more will be possible. 

Enriquez, who is teaching her third-graders in every subject, said at times it can feel like she has two full-time jobs, with all of the parent communication and more on top of being in front of students in the classroom all day. In the past she has felt it was difficult to balance it all without coming in on the weekends. 

“I am one of the elementary teachers that does come on Sundays,” said Enriquez. “Because I like to be fresh and have plans that are engaging and fun. I always feel like at the end of the school day, I can’t really do that.” 

But last Friday, because she got some planning time in the afternoon — alone, and with White — she felt relief knowing she was prepared for the coming weeks. 

“I was able to lay out at least what I wanted for the next two weeks and just not be so burdened with exhaustion, like actually having the energy to plan thoughtfully. That was awesome,” said Enriquez. 

Alferez said he plans to seek teacher feedback on the junior high and high school campus and assess how cafeteria operations and transportation went on Friday. The district has hit a snag in terms of its ability to provide meals for students on Shorthorn Success Days, he said, and it is something they are working on figuring out. 

“According to the cafeteria guidelines from the region [18 education] center, we can’t open up the cafeteria for meals similar to what we had in the summer,” said Alferez. “We can do it through providing snacks [that] either the students can pay for, or the school.” 

Sports are largely proceeding as normal despite the new four-day school week. The district’s first pep rally is set to take place this Thursday afternoon ahead of Friday night’s football game, as opposed to taking place on Fridays as they have in the past. 

White held open house meetings about Shorthorn Success Days for elementary parents last week, which saw few attendees, but she remains available to discuss the matter or any concerns with parents, she said. 

“I know it’s different, but I think they will see a difference in their kids,” said White. “We’re not just trying to get a day off. We’re here to work with kids.” 

If you are a Marfa ISD parent or guardian interested in sharing your thoughts about the four-day school week, ou can reach our editorial team at [email protected], or reach reporter Mary Cantrell directly at [email protected].