2 cities pursued more school for kids. Only 1 pulled it off.


RICHMOND, Va. — Jonathan Oliva is in third grade, but struggles to read and write.

“His teacher said he’s like a kindergartner. He doesn’t know anything. And she can’t help because her class is too big,” his mother, Veronica Lucas, said in Spanish, standing in the parking lot outside his elementary school.

Jonathan, his older brother and cousins were there to watch as Lucas shook her head. Jonathan is still far from fluently reading. His short academic career was largely spent online.

“We can only help him so much,” said Lucas, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was 13 and has limited experience with school herself. “He needs more time in school.”

Lucas doesn’t know the man in charge of Richmond’s schools tried — not once, but twice — to give students just that.

Superintendent Jason Kamras tried to remake one of the most untouchable aspects of school — the academic calendar — to give kids more time with teachers. It’s the kind of drastic intervention some experts say is needed to help students recover after two-and-a-half years of interrupted schooling.

Although Richmond’s school board rejected the idea, Hopewell school officials, who are 20 miles away, supported it. Their district became the first Virginia school district to implement a year-round education system in 2021.

What is the difference between a city that was able to accomplish the impossible and one that failed?

Richmond’s superintendent met opposition from teachers and parents, particularly among more affluent families. Hopewell’s much smaller size, and teachers that backed the change, made it easier to build support in the community.

A small number of school districts in the nation have extended the academic calendar or moved to a year-round program to address concerns over pandemic setbacks. Washington encourages schools to follow suit. Researchers say that if educators take the extra time to reinforce learning, it could be one of many strategies that could help kids catch up.

Both Virginia school systems face continuing challenges in helping children to recover. Hopewell has struggled to enroll students to attend optional extra school days — especially those who need help the most.

Back when Hopewell schools followed a traditional calendar, 10-year-old Gi’Shiya Broggin remembers sleeping late, swimming and visiting family during summers away at her father’s house. After returning to Hopewell and her mother’s home in a public housing development near a coal-fired power plant, she would feel like she “didn’t know anything” — especially in math.

Fourth grader Gi’Shiya, a talkative fourth grader, still finds math frustrating. “I need help with subtraction,” said Gi’Shiya. “If the bigger number is not on top, I get really confused.”

Hopewell, who was studying year-round school for the first time several years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in 1999, had started this program to help improve performance among the 4,000-student district. Here, 91% are economically disadvantaged and 60% of students are Black. Only one school was officially accredited by the state.

According to district records, most teachers supported the change. Districts had been pushing for the extension of school years after a review found benefits, especially for Black students.

After the 16-months spent in school buildings, intervention became urgent. Recent tests show that Hopewell students lost the equivalent to more than two school years in math. This is the worst outcome among thousands of school district in a study.

Students began using the new calendar in summer 2021. Summer vacation was now reduced to just four weeks in July and June. Students can also opt in to additional classes during intersessions or breaks. Each one lasts two weeks.

Gi’Shiya’s mother, Quinn Branch, hoped the change would help her kids retain more information and skills. “This will be good for my children,” she remembers thinking.

Now in its second year, it’s hard to know how much the change has helped. Chronic absenteeism remains high — 53% of high school students have missed at least 10% of school days, compared with 16% before the pandemic. Superintendent Melody Hackney stated that teacher turnover has declined in recent years.

The schedule for teachers is an improvement on the traditional August to June marathon. “I always feel a break is coming up, and that’s a relief,” said high school teacher John Johnson, who’s active in the teachers union.

The intersessions offer students the chance to learn new subjects, more time on math and more reading time. They are not required. Teachers must teach at most one intersession course each year.

In this year’s intersession classes, 20% to 25% of students attended at least one class. Hackney attributes the low turnout to the program’s newness. She said that some students simply want to stay in. Hopewell is currently considering making intersession mandatory to students who are farthest behind.

“The kids that are struggling to be successful in school are those that I would most especially want to see take advantage of these experiences,” said Hackney.

The experience of Gi’Shiya’s family suggests some may not be aware of the need.

Branch struck out trying to sign up her twins for their top choices — gymnastics and cooking for Gi’Shiya and sign language for Gi’Shaun. Branch was so overwhelmed by the number of courses, she decided to give up and send her children to visit their father over three weeks.

Branch didn’t know that her twins were getting help, as they are behind in math reading and math, until she was contacted by a reporter. She said that if she had known, she would have made more effort to get them into intersession programs.

At first, in Richmond, Superintendent Kamras resisted any suggestions to extend school year.

The pandemic then struck and the school board decided to close all schools for the 2020-2021 academic years. Kamras saw online learning and social isolation devastate children’s emotional lives and academic motivation.

“I was all in then,” he said. “I just felt this enormous sense of urgency.”

Tests have since shown Richmond’s average student lost the equivalent of nearly two years in math learning.

The school board decided to increase the number of days in the 2022-2023 school years, which was done in the spring 2021. Kamras offered two options: to extend the school year 10 days or to keep the 180-day calendar and add three, one week intersessions to assist the most in need students. However, many board members were skeptical by the fall.

“The timing is not appropriate,” said board member Kenya Gibson. She stated that the changes would place too much strain on students and teachers.

“Family time is sacred,” she said. “We must be incredibly cautious when we talk about social-emotional learning and we are taking away critical family time from our kids.”

Gibson, a Yale-educated Black architect, represents one the most wealthy areas of the city. She was elected on a platform advocating for teachers and is one of two board members who have received campaign money from Richmond’s teachers union.

“We need to find a way to make the time we have work better,” Gibson said in an interview. She said she remains concerned that schools are understaffed, and she likely wouldn’t support adding extra required time until schools hire more teachers and administrators.

Gibson asked Kamras to consider another option — maintaining the schedule as it was.

Kamras who answers to the board agreed. Teachers overwhelmingly favored the option that was closest to the status-quo in a survey sent to families and staff.

Kamras suffered a crushing defeat.

“It feels like the mantra is: ‘Fix everything, but don’t change anything,’” he said. Kamras acknowledged that he can understand the motivations of teachers and parents.

“It’s a huge change. I still believe in many ways the pandemic is the exact right time to make a change,” said Kamras. “But I also understand and empathize with folks who said, ‘Actually, the last thing I want right now is more change.’”

Most teachers responded to the online survey, but students’ and parents’ voices were largely missing. Only 539 students and 2,285 families responded to the survey in a district with more than 20,000 students. The majority of respondents were from the minority of households in the district with higher incomes who do not qualify for benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.

Richmond struggled to adopt year-round school because wealthier parents couldn’t see any benefit of more class time for their children, said Taikein Cooper, executive director of Virginia Excels, a statewide education advocacy organization.

“Parents who had resources were complaining that it would mess up their annual vacations,” he said. “But a lot of students who really need year-round school don’t take an annual vacation.”

Hopewell was, however, different. All students were in the same boat so it was easier for the district to sell the change.

The small number of low-income Richmond parents who did respond to Kamras’ survey said they preferred fewer school days, not more. Kamras may have been able to reach more parents to find parents more open and willing to accept change if they had reached out more.

On the city’s south side, where enrollment is growing thanks to an influx of Latino immigrants, Kamras would have found an eager, if unrepresented, audience. While 25% of Richmond’s students are Latino, there is not one Latino member of the school board. In 2022, more than half the Latino high school students dropped out before graduating.

A number of mothers sat in their cars at the pick-up station outside Cardinal Elementary School on a recent afternoon. Ranchera music drifted between cars, Spanish-language talk radio was heard from another.

Five mothers were interviewed while they waited to see their children. They didn’t know about the plans to extend school year. They would all have taken advantage of the opportunity to spend more time at school.

“It’s good to have vacation, but it’s too long,” Leticia Mazariegos said in Spanish. Her nine-year-old son, who speaks English only timidly, said she would encourage him to learn more. “Why don’t they do that?”

Veronica Lucas wants more time at school for her son Jonathan. While Richmond schools have taught phonics to improve reading instruction for Jonathan, they still need more. “I can’t afford to hire him a tutor,” Lucas said.

Jonathan may have another chance.

Kamras has made a third attempt at a year-round schools, calling it a pilot school for interested schools. According to his proposal, five schools would be adding 20 school days next year. The school board must approve the proposal, just as before.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York supports the education team of the Associated Press. All content is owned by the Associated Press.

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