Still in session –

After two years of pandemic-induced learning loss, school leaders across the region are increasingly turning to an educational innovation that has traditionally been banned in Virginia – sending students to school year-round. .

In July, Hopewell became the first school district in Virginia to switch to an 11-month schedule. For much of the fall, Richmond Public School administrators went on a citywide listening tour, asking families, teachers and community groups what they thought of a similar change. after initially rejecting an earlier proposal in March last year.

Goochland County leaders spent much of the last year entertaining the idea before tabling the discussion in November, while Chesterfield County already has two elementary schools on a year-round schedule.

If the agrarian calendar was good enough for generations of children well advanced in industrialization, why would you want to move away from it now?

Interest in year-round school stems from a combination of new state laws and a growing need for solutions to help students bounce back from months lost to virtual instruction due to COVID- 19. But the foundations were laid long before the pandemic.

Starting in the late 1980s, school districts had to get a waiver from the Virginia Board of Education to start school before Labor Day, but in 2019 the General Assembly passed a law giving school districts much more flexibility in developing their own schedules.

Following a 2012 study by the Joint Audit and Legislative Review Commission (JLARC) that found that historically underperforming groups improved faster in schools over extended timelines, the state began offering grants to school districts to explore moving to a year-round model. According to the JLARC review, minority students and those from low-income families enrolled in year-round programs all scored higher on state learning standards assessments than their peers on the traditional calendar.

Now that districts have both state permission and funding to consider new scheduling approaches, many are doing just that.

In Richmond, the school board has been debating the issue since first asking Superintendent Jason Kamras for year-round options in 2020.

Kamras’ team garnered a flurry of community feedback, asking groups to extend the year by two weeks or move more drastically to an 11-month schedule running from August 15 to June 29 with three one-week breaks. week between each trimester. .

These one-week “intersessions” ensure that students always have free time, but in Richmond these weeks would also be used for targeted remediation to help students who are behind in school to catch up.

“Any time there is a drop, it correlates with summer.” —Stephen A. Geyer, Goochland County Public Schools

The Richmond School Board rejected a proposal in the spring to switch to an annual calendar during the current school year. When Kamras presented options in November, the board raised questions about the quality of the administration’s survey of the community, whether the plan would improve student outcomes, and whether the district had the operational staff to do it. to arrive.

“I personally welcome the opportunity to at least try it, even if it has to be a pilot program to see how it works,” said Richmond City School Board Chair Cheryl Burke. . “But change is difficult.”

In mid-January, after Kamras presented the results of a poll that found a majority did not support sending children to school year-round, the school board voted to stick to a traditional schedule.

“I continue to believe that we need more teaching time, but an extended school year schedule isn’t the only way to get there,” Kamras said late last year. “We can also explore more robust summer programming, Saturday academies and extended day options.”

Although school boards are understandably reluctant to play with cherished traditions like summer vacation, there is a broad consensus among educators that students return to school each fall having forgotten some of what they learned the previous year.

In October 2021, Goochland County Public Schools Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Stephen A. Geyer presented a chart of district student test scores dating back to 2014, showing the annual “Summer Slide”.

“Any time there is a drop, it corresponds to summer,” Geyer said. “We see great progress in the students…from fall to spring and then we see them dive into the summer.”

If Hopewell is any indicator, getting community buy-in for a new schedule may require making sure people know they’re still getting a summer break.

“Don’t call it school all year. When you name it that, there’s a natural assumption that you don’t quit,” says Byron Davis, Balanced Schedule Implementation Manager for Hopewell City Public Schools. “And nobody likes that idea.”

Hopewell became the first school division in Virginia to switch to an 11-month schedule this school year, and it received $1.5 million from the state to implement the new schedule in its five traditional schools, one school kindergarten and an alternative school.

The 2021-22 school year at Hopewell began on July 26. The year is divided into four nine-week terms, with three two-week intersessions at the end of the first, third and fourth terms. Students will have a shorter summer break, from June 9 to July 26, with an optional break from June 20 to July 1.

Since Hopewell students are in school for the state-mandated 180 days of instruction during nine-week terms, intersessional classes are elective, non-credit courses, and they are more like offerings of specialized summer camps than to summer courses.

“There is a certain pressure. Everyone has an opinion. —Byron Davis, City of Hopewell Public Schools

Traditional summer schools or “credit recovery” classes tend to strip an academic subject of all the frills and distill the content down to a handful of core concepts, Davis says. The purpose of intersessional courses is to avoid this.

“We really try to make it an enrichment opportunity,” Davis says. “Generally, students who are assigned to remediation are stuck in the rut of always being in remediation and not having the opportunity to experience meaningful things that really allow you to grow.”

During the fall recess, options included a disc golf lesson, in which elementary students use drones, boomerangs and simple machines to learn the rules and strategies of disc golf.

One of the high school options was an economics course that taught students about investing, and athletic coaches ran leadership classes.

Six months into her experiment, Davis says the change at Hopewell has been positive, but headteachers considering a schedule change should be prepared to answer many questions.

“There is a certain pressure,” he says. “Everyone has an opinion”

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