CHATTOOGA COUNTY SCHOOLS
• 7 schools: One high school; one middle school; 4 elementary schools; one alternative school
• About 2,660 students
• About 180 teachers
A four-day school week helped Chattooga County Schools save $796,000 annually:
• $88,000 in substitute teacher pay
• $221,000 in busing costs
• $154,000 in power costs
• $333,762 on salaries
• Teacher absences decreased 28 percent
• Kindergarten through eighth-grade student absences fell 32 percent from 2008-2011
• Discipline write-ups for ninth- through 12th-grade students fell by 73 percent, from 1,344 to 375, from 2008 to 2011
• Third, fifth and eighth graders improved test scores in reading, English/language arts, math and science from 2009 to 2011, according to the state Report Card.
SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — In 2010, the Chattooga County School District adopted a four-day school week to save money.
Two years later, Superintendent Jimmy Lenderman has nothing but praise for the shorter school week.
"Best thing in the world," Lenderman said. "There's a lot of positives that have come out of it we weren't expecting."
Those unexpected benefits include reduced teacher and student absenteeism, fewer disciplinary "write-ups," improved test scores and a savings of almost $800,000 annually, he said.
"To a school in Atlanta, that's nothing. To us, it's a lot," Lenderman said.
Chattooga County's four-day week is an extreme example of a strategy that North Georgia schools -- including those in Walker and Catoosa counties -- have adopted in response to state budget cuts: Fewer school days, but longer ones.
Instead of requiring Georgia students to attend 180 days of school annually, Georgia now allows for a shorter year -- a minimum of 160 days -- provided students get sufficient hours of instruction. Fewer school days mean less money spent on things such as bus trips and heating and cooling of school buildings.
"It's not saving a tremendous amount of money, but it's saving some," said Chris Jones, director of facilities and operations for Walker County Schools, which has switched to a 168-day school year.
"We cut 12 days. That's 12 days of buses that do not run," Jones said. "But we're staying longer in the school each day."
Catoosa County Schools switched to 166 instructional days in 2011 and also started the school year after Labor Day. The school board made the switch mainly to complete tornado recovery construction work at the middle and high schools in Ringgold, district spokeswoman Marissa Brower said.
"We estimate that we will save approximately $140,000 in fuel and utilities," Catoosa schools Superintendent Denia Reese said in an email.
Out of the box
The Chattooga County School District is one of several in Georgia that have gone even further and chosen a four-day week.
Chattooga's unconventional schedule may be fitting for its unconventional superintendent.
Lenderman has come to pep rallies on his Harley-Davidson while dressed as an Indian, Chattooga High School's mascot. He's hidden inside a casket and jumped out to give a "spirit stick" to the class that showed the most school spirit.
Lenderman grew up in Chattooga County and was an all-state tailback on the high school football team. He spent 27 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including serving as a pilot for Marine One, the presidential helicopter, when President Ronald Reagan was in office.
Lenderman returned in 2008 to be assistant principal in charge of discipline at the high school. When he became superintendent in 2011, he requested a $50,000 annual salary reduction.
"Cut your pay, they'll like you better," he advised. "You can't sit here and ask people to make sacrifices, if you don't make 'em yourself."
Chattooga County's four-day week squeaked through the school board by a 3-2 vote in August 2010. But board members are sold on it now, Lenderman said.
"They're 100 percent behind it. We've already approved the schedule for next year," he said.
The district needed to reduce expenses, Lenderman said, because state funding dropped from $16 million in 2009 to $12 million now. Over the last three years, the district has laid off 56 teachers and 23 other staff members, but "it was not enough," he said.
The four-day week saves about $796,000 annually: $88,000 in substitute teacher pay, $221,000 in busing, $154,000 in power costs and $333,762 on salaries, he said.
"If you want to save money, you go to a four-day week. If you're driving your buses 20 percent less, you're going to save," Lenderman said.
It's the intangibles that surprised everyone. How is it possible to cut a school week, yet see improvements in attendance and discipline, with no decline in test scores?
"It's not stressful when you always have a three-day weekend," Lenderman said. "It's just easier."
Having Monday off gives students and teachers time to take care of personal business, and the shorter week forces everyone to focus and get down to business when they're in school, teachers and students said.
Lenderman said discipline write-ups for ninth- through 12th-grade students fell by 73 percent, from 1,344 to 375, comparing the fall periods of 2008 to 2011.
Comparing the fall months of 2008 to 2011, teacher absences decreased 28 percent and absences for kindergarten through eighth-grade students fell 32 percent, he said.
"It would be really hard for me to go back to the five-day week," said Beth Hall, principal of the district's Summerville Elementary School. "I have Monday to get done what needs to be done."
High school robotics class teacher Eleanor Brown said, "I think the kids are more attentive. And they know there's not as much downtime, so we've got to get in there and do it."
Asked what she thought of the four-day week, Brown said, "Love it."
The really, really like it
Students and parents echo those feelings.
"I love the four-day week," said Emily Spears, a waitress at Pops Place all-you-can-eat buffet on Commerce Street, whose 5-year-old daughter, Brancyn, attends Summerville Elementary. "Everybody likes it, as far as I know. If I was still in school, I'd like it that way."
Melissa McAlpin, a hair stylist at Strands & Tans, said, "I haven't heard anything negative. For the older kids, it's really good."
In the high school robotics class, not one student raised a hand when Lenderman asked who wanted to return to a five-day week. The response was the same every time he posed the question to a group of high schoolers.
English teacher Shane Tucker, who's worked for 18 years at the high school, said, "I cover the same material in four days that [I] covered in five."
Assistant Principal Beth Morgan has 30 years' experience in education, including 19 at Summerville High. She said that, at first, she was "leery" of the four-day week. But the high school has had its highest graduation rates in the last two years, topping out at 72 percent last year, she said.
"This is the most focused teaching from bell to bell that I've ever witnessed in 30 years," Morgan said. "The students are more focused."
Day care 'solves itself'
Initially, day care was a big concern with the four-day week, school officials said. Churches offered to open their doors on Mondays, and day cares were going to take in older kids. But none of that proved necessary, Lenderman said.
"To my knowledge, that's taken care of itself," he said.
Steven J. Smith, the Superintendent of Wilcox County Schools which switched to a four-day week last year, anticipated that demand for day care would go up, since students had Monday off. But when he called area day care providers, only one had two more kids.
"It's amazing how people just find a way to work it out," he said. "An older sibling watches them, a relative, somebody watches that child."
Smith cited many of the same unexpected benefits in the shorter week: better teacher and student attendance, fewer discipline referrals, a reduction in expenses.
When the district was deciding whether to stick with the shorter week after the first trial year, "83 percent of our staff wanted to keep the four-day week," he said.
As for the shorter week's effect on test scores, "That's the magic question. So far, we've not seen any effect one way or the other," Smith said, adding, "One year does not a trial make."
Wilcox County, which is an hour's drive northeast of Albany, Ga., only has about 9,000 residents and Smith thinks the four-day week may work best in small, rural counties.
Besides Chattooga, other Georgia counties with a four-day week are Elbert, Haralson and Talbot. Stewart County Schools just decided to try it, Smith said. Those counties have populations between 6,000 and 28,000 residents, according to the U.S. census.
The four-day week goes beyond outside-the-box thinking, Lenderman said.
"I got everybody out of the box, and I burned the box," he said.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.