The pros and cons of Jordan District’s Flexible FridaysJan 18, 2021 02:36PM ● By Jet Burnham
A first grade teacher at Mountain Point Elementary works with small groups of students on Fridays. (Principal Carolyn Bona/Mountain Point Elementary)
By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
Jordan District officials implemented a new school schedule this year. Students attend in-person school Monday through Thursday, with Friday designated as a virtual learning day. Students have either online assignments or a take-home packet from each class to complete from home on Fridays. Teachers can also invite small groups of students to come to school for a few hours on Fridays for learning activities or remediation.
Flexibility of Fridays
The flexibility of the Friday schedule allows teachers to meet the needs of their students in creative ways.
“We have great confidence in the ability of our teachers to tailor instruction to the needs of students,” Superintendent Anthony Godfrey said. “But they don't always have space to do that within the traditional structure.”
Midas Creek teacher Julie Ribar doesn’t usually have time to teach STEM topics to her fifth graders. However, the flexible Friday schedule enables her to hold enrichment learning experiences. Her husband, who is studying technology and engineering with a teaching emphasis at BYU, works with small groups of students on engineering activities for a few hours on Fridays, while Ribar works individually with students on academics.
“This has been a great opportunity for my students,” Ribar said. “Many of them have expressed interest in becoming engineers when they grow up.”
At Mountain Point Elementary, student leaders participated in a virtual leadership conference on a Friday instead of missing school to travel to a conference as they normally do. The kindergarten team has been able to introduce coding activities to small groups of students on Fridays.
At secondary schools, teachers use the time on Fridays to complete activities that would normally be held after school. Students at Herriman High use Friday hours for service projects and club activities. Oquirrh Hills Middle offers a variety of enrichment activities on Fridays for those waiting to meet individually with their teachers.
Time to catch up
The biggest benefit of the Friday schedule is that teachers are able to provide enrichment and remediation activities which target the individual needs of students.
“Having flexibility on Friday to form smaller groups of students, whether in person or virtually, so that teachers could follow up on gaps in learning that they had observed during the week, we thought would be a good way to help boost students after the difficult learning circumstances they had gone through the spring,” Godfrey said.
Ashley Chappell, mother of three, said one of her children fell behind in math with remote learning and has been able to use Fridays to catch up.
“Having the opportunity for small-group learning and more individualized time with his teacher has been a huge blessing,” she said. “If he doesn't grasp a concept 100%, his teacher has asked if he can come so she can make sure he is solid and good to go for the next week or a test they are taking. It's been wonderful, and I hope it never ends.”
Third grade teacher MaryAnn Birch said the benefits of working with smaller groups on Fridays are clear. “You can target students who need specific skill-based interventions,” she said. “Teachers and students can strengthen their relationship in small groups. Students tend to be more engaged when there is a small group. You can get students who normally don’t interact to talk and ask questions. Teachers can create lessons that are more interactive and exciting.”
A gift for teachers
Student instruction is only scheduled for a few hours on Fridays. For the remainder of the day, teachers participate in professional development, staff meetings and lesson planning.
“We did not select this model because it is the best learning model,” Jordan District Board of Education member Darrell Robinson said. “We selected this because teachers are required to work both face-to-face and online. It is the only way we could think of to give teachers some prep time to do what we asked them to do.”
Kindergarten teacher Meline Hansen said having a productive solid block of time for collaboration and planning has been great for teachers who have had to adjust to fewer direct instruction hours.
Middle school teacher Jamie Buttars said there are numerous advantages for both teachers and students.
“Teachers are able to give more personalized help to the students so they are more successful,” she said. “Friday has also been a life saver for students that have been quarantined. It allows them a time to come in and get caught up without having a lot of added stress. Teachers are also able to plan better lessons, so even though students are technically losing 30 minutes of class time a week, they are learning just as much while in school.”
There have also been some unexpected benefits to the alternative schedule. Some parents have seen a decrease in their child’s stress levels when they know they have a day to catch up or that they can get help from the teacher without the whole class listening in.
Additionally, school custodians have more time on Fridays to complete projects with fewer disinfecting demands and fewer people in the building.
Virtual classwork has been a benefit for Kim McDermaid’s daughters who often miss school on Fridays to participate in weekend softball tournaments.
“This year was so nice with the virtual Fridays so that they could get on and work on their assignments through the day as we had time,” she said.
Oquirrh Hills Middle Principal Donna Hunter said students taking more responsibility for their education, requesting to come in on Fridays to work with a teacher instead of waiting to be invited.
Problems with the schedule
The four day in-person and one day virtual learning was the most popular option of both parents and teachers who responded to a survey sent out by the board of education this summer. And yet, some who are unhappy with the schedule.
The Friday schedule is a burden to families who lack access to computers and internet or transportation or alternative childcare on Fridays. Teachers whose content cannot easily be provided online (such as performance arts) are losing instruction time.
One of the biggest hurdles to Friday efficiency is the lack of parental support. Some families are treating it like a three-day weekend and refuse to send their children in when a teacher requests it. Older students are using Fridays to schedule more hours at their part-time jobs.
“You can ask your kids to come in, but you can't grade the kid or penalize them for not being here,” Copper Hills High choir teacher Marc Taylor said. “It's completely optional and up to them whether or not they want to come into school on Friday. The teachers have no power on Fridays.”
Birch invites eight students in each Friday to work on filling learning gaps, but because attendance is optional, she has never had all eight students show up. She said without parent support, the groups cannot be effective.
“Not having students attend on Friday’s makes it more difficult to teach everything in four days compared to the five we had before,” Birch said.
One kindergarten teacher has found that Fridays are not what she hoped they would be.
“My students aren’t as far along this year because I’ve lost academic time,” she said. “I send home Friday work, and some parents make sure their kids do it, while others don’t. I’ve had parents complain I’m expecting too much on Friday and others that feel I’m not doing enough. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
What does Friday look like?
Many parents say they are baffled and frustrated with the inconsistency of expectations among teachers, schools and grade levels.
Erin Weist said her middle school kids never have any instruction or assignments but use Fridays to complete homework, while her elementary kids have worksheets and virtual work assignments every Friday.
While Stacey Ratliff said her kids keep fairly busy on Fridays, taking spelling and vocabulary tests and spending time with online programs such as Lexia and Imagine Math, other students have little to no work to do on Fridays.
Alison Johnson said for her daughter, a junior, her only requirement on Fridays is a dance practice.
“She hasn’t needed extra time with teachers on Fridays, so, other than dance in the morning, Friday’s are pretty much a day off,” she said.
“I think Fridays are a joke,” said one parent. “My kids are given a few worksheets they can do in an hour, and that constitutes for them being in school.”
While some teachers rotate through their students to invite them to school one Friday a month for enrichment activities, others only invite those who need extra help, leaving students who don’t need remediation left out and unchallenged.
The lessened workload and enrichment activities are for in-person students only; remote learners enrolled in the district's online curriculum have a regular full day of instruction on Fridays. Bre Silva said that means her son, a remote learner, doesn’t have the same opportunity for one-on-one interactions with his teacher.
Godfrey said it is expected that there will be a wide range of what the day looks like for students because parameters were set to be broad to allow for creativity. And because it is still new, it will take time to see the full potential of the program and to work out any kinks.
Heading into the second half of the year, teachers are learning how to better use Fridays to meet the needs of students and families. At Mountain Point Elementary, teachers have found that tracking performance data helps them create targeted interventions and enrichment activities. The extended time for collaboration has resulted in more engaging and efficient lessons. They have also found success in coordinating with each other to invite children from the same family to attend in-person sessions on the same Fridays to relieve possible burden to families.
Parent support is essential
Godfrey encourages parents and students to share any questions, concerns or success stories about Fridays with their school’s administrators. He emphasizes that parents should be checking with students each week to find out what is expected and supporting their students to meet them.
“Parents have always been an essential partner in effective education, and that is true now more than ever,” Godfrey said.
The virtual Friday schedule was implemented last year at Real Salt Lake Academy High School. When the Jordan board voted to open schools this year with the virtual Friday schedule, other districts soon followed. The alternative schedule was made possible by an exception made by the State Board of Education to allow virtual learning hours to count toward the minimum hour and days of annual instruction requirement.