Some students at Wendover High drive more than 70 miles to get to school each morning.
It’s among the most remote schools in the state, sitting on the western desert border shared with Nevada. And, being so rural, it’s got one of the smallest student bodies in Utah.
Because of those challenges and the impact they have on attendance, the school has decided to shift to a four-day week this coming fall.
“It will be good for the families who live there and have work and school on both sides of the state borders,” said Maresa Manzione, president of Tooele County School District’s board of education.
The district’s request to change its schedule received unanimous approval from the Utah Board of Education on Feb. 6. And it is, at its core, an attempt to align its classes better with student and community demands split by that state line and the long drives around and in between.
Wendover in Utah, where the high school is located, sits alongside West Wendover in Nevada. The district over there has recently voted to move to a four-day week next year, over similar concerns about distance. Tooele County School District in Utah says that matching its neighbor “will further promote harmony between the two cities,” which share many organizations and amenities for kids.
The change in Utah will be implemented at both Wendover High and at Anna Smith Elementary School, which its future students attend. That means five schools in the district have four-day weeks, following the previous implementation at the even more remote Dugway School, Ibapah Elementary and Vernon Elementary.
“There’s a challenge of providing education there,” acknowledged Utah Board of Education member Carol Barlow Lear in approving the shift Thursday. “And we’ve discussed their dilemma.”
The district reports that many students drive 75 miles to get to the high school each day and some teachers more than 100 miles.
While that’s expected at a rural school, it becomes a problem in regard to extracurricular activities, mainly sports. The massive distance between the schools and any other major towns or cities, at least two hours, makes going to most athletic competitions a full-day commitment — and one of the top reasons for student absences.
At Wendover High, which encompasses seventh through 12th grades, more than 60% of the 197 kids are on a sports team. And on a day when there’s an away basketball game for the boys team, for instance, more than 35% of the student body is gone to participate, including cheerleaders. Additionally, four of the 14 teachers are coaches and leave, too.
“This data is representative of other sports at Wendover High,” the school reported in its application for a waiver from the state board. And, it noted, depending on how many sports a students participates in, most athletes have 15 to 35 meets per year.
By moving to a shorter school week, the district plans to schedule all sports for Thursday evenings, Fridays and Saturdays. That way, students who want to compete with top-tier schools — with many in its size bracket actually being in southern Utah — wouldn’t miss class to travel to games.
“The four-day week allows students to spend more time in class and less time traveling for sports and other extracurricular activities,” added Mark Ernst, area director for the school district.
State law requires schools to hold class for 180 days each year with 5.8 hour of instruction per day. Districts can apply for a waiver, though, to have a four-day week — at 148 days total for the year — if they have seven-hour school days. Tooele’s school board drafted and approved a plan to do so in December.
Manzione, the board president, said another benefit of the shorter week is to incentivize more teachers to stay at the high school. Currently, its retention rates are low. About one-third to one-half of the staff there leaves each year, not wanting to work in such a remote area.
Having a longer weekend, the district hopes, would be an extra benefit — to both educators and students — and, hopefully, make it worth the drive.