SEELEY LAKE — The trophies and plaques tiling the wall of Seeley-Swan High School’s cafeteria reflect a long tradition of athletic excellence and participation.

But some worried it came at an academic cost.

“A field trip, a game or a tournament knocks out half our population or more,” said Trace Stone, who teaches social studies and Spanish. “If you’re teaching a class with eight kids, none of them will be there. Or one might be there. How do you handle that?”

It is a frustration common to teachers anywhere. In Montana, the effect can be most dramatic in small towns, where games often become community events, not just showcases for parents of current students. Sometimes every kid has to play to even form a team. Long distances between rural schools mean it takes hours to drive to most away games.

Three years ago, Seeley-Swan High School tried a radical, simple change. If so many students missed Friday classes so often, why even have school that day? Now, teens attend the high school for slightly longer days with shorter breaks Monday through Thursday. The school is still open for half-day Fridays for a kind of study hall and, soon, voluntary enrichment activities.

Teachers take turns coming in that day, although some are known to be there every week, anyway. Once a month, the day is reserved for staff training.

It is not uncommon for about 40 students — half the school's population — to come in on Fridays.

On one recent morning, Beau Sloan, 14, started with a math test and then went to a different room to study before retaking a world geography test. The freshman is a member of the football and track teams.

“You can take as many breaks as you want. It’s not a big rush. I’ll do what I need to do,” he said. On bigger assignments, like projects, he said, “I get the help I need.”

Kayden Kimmel, 14, said he cannot always finish his schoolwork within the normal school day and sometimes has trouble doing it later because he works many days after school. He often comes in voluntarily just to finish his work before the weekend and because he knows he can receive one-on-one help as he needs it.  

“It’s a lot nicer on Fridays. You don’t have all the teens talking in your ear. Then there’s rush for the next class. I’m not rushed on Fridays,” he said. “It’s my time to do my work.”

Most completed their work within an hour or two, then called home to be picked up. Some moved into the community library, hosted at the school, to read, work on a computer or watch videos on their phone until it was time to go. The school is working with SPARK!, a Missoula-based nonprofit, to add arts-based enrichment activities to draw more students and busy teens who complete other work.

A 2017 analysis by The Brookings Institution found an increasing number of schools in the Rocky Mountain states adopting four-day weeks. In March, they reported that “88 districts in Colorado, 43 in Idaho, 30 in Oregon, and nearly half of the districts in Montana” now operate on a shortened school week. Not all offer Friday activities or study time.

Some started that way but told Brookings that commitment faded as teachers or staff changed over. Most districts do not save money, but some report it is easier to recruit and retain teachers. Most academic results have been mixed.

In Seeley, school leaders say the switch has been a success.

“We’re getting better attendance for these four longer days than we got with a five-day week,” Stone said. “We end up with a more productive, focused four days and more actual class time.”

In combination with other cultural and policy changes at the school, Principal Kat Pecora said the number of students who fail classes has dropped dramatically, test scores have improved and more teens than ever report that they will attend college after graduation. The key is not just eliminating traditional Friday classes, but how they’ve structured the new half-day schedule.

“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we could have consistent intervention with kids and have enough time for it to be valuable,” she said. “I finally think we’ve stumbled upon a good solution.”

Each week, teachers make a note in a private Google Document about students who missed class or scored poorly on recent assignments. Their parents receive a call and the school asks their student to come in Friday to make up missed work, receive extra one-on-one tutoring or retake tests.

Other teens choose to come in, liking the quiet environment to complete homework before the weekend, hoping to bring their grade up from a B to an A, or working with a teacher to prepare college applications.

“It’s changing the culture,” Pecora said. “It’s becoming more of a focus on academics.”

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.