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Fuel for Thought: How the Cost of Gas is Affecting Schools

Fuel for Thought: How the Cost of Gas is Affecting Schools

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Updated on Aug 5, 2008

Have you been sighing over the high price of gas and scaling down your summer vacation plans? Cash-strapped school districts setting budgets and schedules for the upcoming academic year are eyeing the pumps as well. And many of them are starting to make the same kinds of cost-cutting decisions as you are.

Some of them are doing it by moving towards a shorter school week. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) surveyed more than 500 school superintendents this year, and a full 15% of the respondents said their school systems were considering cutting one day out of the school week, to reduce the amount they spend on transportation and utilities. A shorter week is a boon for schools in other ways, too. They save money on substitutes, since teachers don't have to take as many days off for doctor's visits and other personal appointments. And since this alternative schedule gives both teachers and students more time on the weekends to plan for the upcoming week—and to relax—some schools expect better morale, fewer discipline problems, and increased attendance.

Alan Lossner, the director of district-wide services for Webster County in Kentucky, says that's been the case in his school system. Webster County has had a four-day week since 2003, and Lossner explains that he's seen both a rise in test scores and a dramatic fall in absenteeism and the number of discipline referrals. In addition, the money that's saved on transportation costs has actually enabled Webster County to add, not cut back on, school programs like an all-day kindergarten. "It's been outstanding," Lossner says, "and it's part of our culture now. It would be really hard to go back."

But Lossner acknowledges that the "modest scale" of his rural school district has been a big reason these changes have worked, and cautions that a shorter week is "not for everybody." With only four days of school a week, teachers have to cram more instruction than ever into the time they have—a strategy that could lead to some subjects getting short shrift. And make-up work accumulates more quickly for students who miss school due to illness or a family emergency. Plus, the long, hot days in the classroom can be genuinely grueling. Starting this fall, for instance, the MACCRAY school district in west central Minnesota will push the length of its school day to a full ten hours—more time than many working adults spend in the office.

The steep cost of gas affects school systems in other ways as well. 44% of the respondents to the AASA survey said their school districts had cut back on student field trips in response to fuel prices, and 15% said they had reduced or eliminated athletic activities and other extracurricular offerings.

But some schools are beginning to respond to their tighter transportation budgets in very creative ways. Instead of piling kids into a bus, more and more teachers are organizing virtual field trips. Using web-conferencing or interactive online videos, classes can "travel" to another city, explore a geographical formation like the Grand Canyon, or connect with a classroom of kids in a different country. It's not quite as thrilling as the real thing, but virtual field trips may actually help to keep kids more engaged with the subject they're studying, by leaving out the many other distractions that accompany actual excursions.

Chances are that rising fuel costs are causing your child's school to consider both small and large changes to the way it will operate in this coming academic year. Take steps to keep yourself informed about these proposals. If you can, make a point of attending school district meetings. Communicate with teachers and administrators to find out what changes are in the works, and ask about how they will affect your child's curriculum, field trips, electives, and after-school activities. And if a four-day week is in the works for your child and you're worried about the expense of an extra day's worth of childcare, consider starting a rotating playgroup with other families in your area. When everyone's feeling the pinch of higher gas prices, sharing costs makes sense both economically and environmentally.  

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