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Rural west Texas school district approves 4-day school week

A small school district in rural west Texas recently adopted a four-day school week, becoming the first in the state to take advantage of a new law giving schools flexibility in setting their calendar.

Trustees for the Olfen school district, which currently has around 60 students in its kindergarten through eighth-grade system, unanimously approved the change on Jan. 12.

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Students in one rural western Texas school district will spend longer days in school, but only four times a week, beginning next year.

Under the new schedule, which will begin in the fall, an additional 25 minutes will be added to each school day.

Normal instruction will take place Mondays through Thursdays, but attendance will be optional for students on Fridays, when tutoring and other kinds of academic help will be offered, Olfen Superintendent Gabriel Zamora told TODAY.

Zamora proposed the idea after joining the district at the end of the last school year.

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“When I saw that it was almost impossible for us to provide additional or after-school tutoring, I figured this would be a way to implement some kind of way to help those kids who needed it and the plan evolved from there,” he told TODAY.com.

Fridays will remain a regular work day for all teachers and staff, and the district also will continue to offer transportation five days a week.

That means parents who depend on a regular school week as a form of child care won’t be affected by the new schedule, Zamora said.

Instead, the new calendar will hopefully encourage the district’s surrounding communities to provide enrichment activities such as karate, gymnastics, leather working, pottery and others that are hard to implement in a rural district like Olfen, Zamora said.

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Brown Elementary in Irving, Texas. For a story about schools adding more recess.

Until recently, Texas public schools were required to provide 180 days of instruction.

The state legislature last year approved a measure that changed the recording of instruction time into minutes, rather than days.

The state now requires at least 75,600 minutes each year. Olfen’s new school calendar would provide 77,000 minutes over 160 instructional days, the district said.

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Zamora said he spent “countless hours debating the pros and cons with staff, parents and board members” before determining the four-day calendar would benefit the district.

He said the turning point came when he received support from staff, since the four-day school week will actually mean a longer work week for them.

“Their payback is going to be on Fridays, after they finish the tutoring, because they’ll have the opportunity to do their grading, to do lesson plans, enter grades into the computers,” he said.

“Those are things that teachers, especially in small school districts, rarely have the opportunity to do in the day. It’s something they end up doing after schools or even on weekends.”

Zamora said he expected the new calendar could also help the district by attracting parents from nearby communities.

“The amount of attention that each of our students get here is amazing. When you have a class that sometimes has six to eight students in it, how can you not interact with that teacher? How can you slip through the cracks?” he said of the one-school district.

Many staffers know the name of every student in the system, he added.

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“What we were missing was that tutoring, that ability to say, ‘You need that extra help’ and now we’re going to provide it.”

Since school board trustees approved the calendar change last month, Zamora has received numerous phone calls from other districts interested in adopting the idea.

"Every district is different and should look at what’s best for them," he said. "For us, at this point, we believe that this is what’s best for us."

Follow TODAY.com writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.

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