Not long ago, I found a statistic that blew my mind: 104 of 178 school districts in Colorado operate on a four-day school week. My brain started to race in an effort to address two key questions: What could we do with that extra day? And how could we help districts and administrators do more for kids? I came up with an idea for a fifth-day program, and then I did what any crazy educator would do. I wrote (and won) a grant to make it reality.
Along with a colleague, we used those funds to form Colorado AeroLab, a non-profit educational corporation working in partnership with small rural school districts in northwestern Colorado to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Yes, it’s true — just in the context of public education.
We received a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the Colorado Department of Education to create “5th Day” programs at North Park (Walden), South Routt (Oak Creek) and West Grand (Kremmling) School Districts. The Innovation Fellows Program at the Colorado Education Initiative also provided us with assistance to design and build the work. These programs run on Fridays for middle school and high school students, also extending to after school and special community events for adults and families.
Instructors use design thinking and project-based learning to help students master essential skills like professionalism and self-initiative. They weave in social-emotional activities that enable students to work on grit and growth mindset, perseverance and diligence. Their curriculum enhances critical thinking and logical reasoning skills through escape rooms, robotics, gaming, 3D design modeling and printing, teambuilding and active problem-solving games.
Ultimately, students put all these skills into practice in social impact projects where they work with local community members to identify problems and create solutions to benefit their hometowns. The projects also serve as a capstone, which earn students diploma endorsements and other credentials that add value to high school diplomas in the eyes of college admissions officers, scholarship committees and potential employers after graduation. What’s more is that the, 5th Day intentionally bridges the gap between traditional education and future-ready, skills-building opportunities for students that commonly exist outside the classroom.
And, that’s what we wanted to accomplish all along. We knew we could empower students by exposing them to relevant experiences in various careers. We could help students master personal and professional skills needed for lifelong success. We could recognize and award their pursuit of excellence as they grew into healthy young adults. And, we could reach the children who hungered for purpose.
To bring the 5th Day to life, we hired local teachers at the learning center. Doing so would also improve teacher recruitment and retention through additional salaries—and help teachers enhance their instructional practice. Together, we are exploring how to use design thinking, project-based learning and social impact projects to engage students more deeply in their own education.
Students in our program have shown incredible energy and enthusiasm, and I am pleased to say 5th Day has found its place among athletics, clubs, scouts, student government, FFA, 4-H and all the other activities that keep young people busy. A program that started with a group of eight students at a week-long summer camp now includes four sites and a year-long program with more than 200 students.
While districts large and small must take a variety of considerations into account when thinking about the 5th day, we may soon have a great example to learn from, as all eyes are on 27J Schools in Brighton, a mid-sized district in its first year of navigating this change.
Consider this next big idea. What if a school looked at its master schedule as a 4+1-day week? Students would engage in four days of traditional classroom teaching and learning, followed by a fifth day of future-ready skills-building, capstone-designing, credential-earning and possibility-making learning opportunities.
Evidence could make a strong case for such a positive shift to a five-day school week – but with a twist.
Elaine Menardi is Chief Innovator at Colorado AeroLab and an Innovation Fellow at Colorado Education Initiative.