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The City Journals

The pros and cons of Jordan District’s Flexible Fridays

Jan 11, 2021 12:24PM ● 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, but they don't always have space to do that within the traditional structure,” Superintendent Anthony Godfrey said. “We've heard feedback about exciting things that are happening in our schools. Students have been able to learn in ways that hadn't been possible before and to feel connected to each other and the school in ways that were not previously possible.”

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, students can schedule time to work with teachers but also participate in activities normally held after school. Drama teacher Michael Draut invites the West Hills Middle stage crew to meet on Fridays instead of after school when students may have conflicts. On Fridays at Oquirrh Hills Middle, while students wait to meet with teachers or wait for the bus home, they participate in enrichment activities—history lectures, wood-burning demonstrations and open-sewing sessions. At Herriman High School, club members use Friday hours to organize service projects and hold activities.

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.

“We knew that there would be gaps from spring learning that would need to be filled,” Godfrey said. “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.”

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.”

Kindergarten teacher Meline Hansen said the time to work individually with students on Fridays is a gift.

“I have a solid block of time with students who need extra help or extra challenge without having to worry about keeping other students engaged in independent tasks,” she said.

Midas Creek 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.”

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.”

Surprise benefits

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 benefitted from having fewer people in the building on Fridays.

“Fridays allow them the ability to do projects that they put off during the week while they were cleaning and disinfecting throughout the school,” Godfrey said.

Being assigned virtual classwork on Fridays 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. 

Jordan School Board President Bryce Dunford said when classes are virtual on Fridays, there is less contact tracing and fewer days quarantined students are missing class. 

Oquirrh Hills Middle Principal Donna Hunter has noticed students taking more responsibility for their education, requesting to come in on Fridays to work with a teacher instead of waiting to be invited.

“We've got special ed kids that asked to come in on Friday so that they can get extra help on their homework; they didn't used to do that,” Hunter said. Many special ed students couldn’t stay for after school study hall because they have to catch a bus home. Buses run on the alternative schedule on Fridays.

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 Jordan board of education this summer. The alternative Friday schedule was planned to be temporary, but the board voted to extend it through the rest of the school year.

And yet, there are some who do not like the schedule.

The Friday schedule is a burden to some families who lack access to computers and internet. Instead of asking students to come in or to complete virtual assignments, Teri Gomez, a teacher at Columbia Elementary, assigns a packet for students to work on at home.

Other families are unable to get their kids to school and home in the middle of the day because of childcare or transportation conflicts. In response to such a situation, teachers at Mountain Point Elementary work together to coordinate inviting children from the same family to in-person sessions on the same Fridays to reduce the burden on some families who are struggling.

Marc Taylor, choir teacher at Copper Hills High, said the teachers who are loving the Friday schedule are those who can easily teach their content online. However, classes such as choir, require in-person class time. And with only four classes a week, Taylor said his students are missing out on rehearsal time. Taylor has only asked his top group, performance Madrigals, to come in on Fridays. However, he has had some problems getting them all there. Some families treat it like a three-day weekend and make Friday plans. Other students are using Fridays to work 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,” 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 said without parent support, the groups cannot be effective. Because attendance is optional, she has never had all eight students show up.

“Not having students attend on Fridays 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.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to work with my students doing interventions,” she said. “What it’s turned into is a prep day. I won’t complain about the prep; it has been a huge help. However, my students aren’t as far along this year because I’ve lost academic time. 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 are baffled and frustrated with the inconsistency of expectations on Fridays 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.

Stacey Ratliff said her kids keep fairly busy on Fridays.

“They usually do their online programs (lexia, imagine math),” she said. “Teachers call in kids on rotation, so every kid has that more one-on-one instruction at some point. It's also the day my third grader takes online spelling and vocab tests. Yes, they are usually done faster than the in-person half day, but I don't feel like it's wasted. My middle schooler has assignments fairly regularly but not for every class. And the school has been open for enrichment activities and needed help, but she's only done that twice.”

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.

Some parents believe it would be more beneficial for kids to be in school on Fridays.

“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. Two out of my three kids have never been asked to come in and have never had a Zoom call or anything to interact with their teacher. My other kid has been invited to come to school once for an hour.”

Alison Johnson said for her daughter, a junior at Copper Hills, 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.

One parent said her child is rarely invited to school on Fridays because he hasn’t needed remediation.

“So often the kids ahead are the ones left behind,” she said. “They aren't given anything to challenge them because all the focus is on the kids behind.”

Godfrey said the wide range of what Fridays look like is because it is meant to be flexible.

“We set parameters at the district level that were broad enough to allow for creativity but also established a way to provide for a level of expectation with different parameters at the elementary, middle and high school level,” he said.

Also, the Friday schedule is still new, and parents and teachers are still adjusting. 

“This is a new approach that we're trying in the midst of a lot of other new things happening and so it will take time, as always, to see the full potential of the program and to work out any kinks,” Godfrey said.

Heading into the second half of the year, teachers are still learning how to utilize Fridays to best meet the needs of students and families. At Mountain Point Elementary, teachers meet regularly to discuss their students’ needs and to brainstorm how to make Friday activities more engaging to meet them.

“For each grade, the plans have evolved into using more data to create more specific and targeted interventions or enrichment activities,” sixth grade teacher Gina Vondwingelo said.

Some grades focus on providing more student-driven learning activities and utilizing small groups to reduce distractions. Many are able to focus on just one subject for the entire block of time on Fridays and to use data to determine which students should be invited in each week. Some are able to provide a variety of enrichment activities only possible with small groups. Other teams have found Fridays are more effective when they send work home for those who are not invited to attend that day as well.

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.