Hopewell City Public Schools is considering moving its schools to a year-round calendar in the 2020-21 school year, a proposal school officials hope will improve lagging student achievement.
The district would become the first in the state to have every school open all year as the school system looks to join a growing national movement of year-round scheduling to reduce the “summer slide,” which disproportionately affects impoverished students. More than half of the city’s public school students qualify for government assistance.
Hopewell’s appointed School Board must sign off on the proposal, a decision that could come as early as May 16.
“Every child can benefit from this,” said Hopewell Superintendent Melody Hackney. “We’ll see all these improved student outcomes that we anticipate and that the research suggests will happen in Hopewell.”
Hopewell students currently perform below the state average in math, reading, writing, science and social studies. The district’s 91 percent on-time graduation rate is also narrowly below the state’s 92 percent rate average. Four of the district’s five main schools (it also has a preschool center and an alternative education program) meet the state’s full accreditation standards, but gaps persist.
Black students pass state tests at rates 6 percent below the district average in reading, writing, science and social studies. Students living in poverty fare 3 percent worse on exams, according to state data.
Academic and state researchers have found that year-round schools help black and low-income students most. Statewide, two in five public school students live in poverty. In Hopewell, it’s more than one in two. Sixty-two percent of Hopewell students are black, according to state data.
Hackney said she hopes moving to a year-round calendar will prevent students from forgetting what they learned in the previous school year, helping students perform better in the classroom while also giving them opportunities outside the school during the weeks-long breaks students will have over the course of the year.
Traditional school calendars have schools in session for about nine-and-a-half months before a summer vacation that lasts about two-and-a-half months.
The Hopewell proposal — a “balanced calendar” model — has nine straight weeks of instruction followed by either three weeks of vacation, two weeks of intersession — community projects, camps and field trips, among other things — or a combination of the two.
Students would get six weeks off in the summer. They would still have 180 days of school like they do now, just spread out over the course of the full year.
“More time with students and more opportunity for instruction results in growth, so we want to make sure we have that time with children,” said Byron Davis, the principal at Patrick Copeland Elementary School.
Hackney, Davis and Malik Wheat, the data and testing specialist at Hopewell High School, led the research process for the proposal.
The three said cutting the amount of time students take off in the summer will decrease summer learning loss. The intersession periods, they said, will also give students opportunities they might not otherwise get.
“Until we adjust our calendar, it’s going to be very, very difficult to have significant growth and improvement in our school system,” Wheat said. “The variable of time is critical, and we believe that this calendar and this model can change the variable in a way that we can see improved outcomes for our students.”
Hackney said it makes more sense for the roughly 4,300-student district to go year-round systemwide rather than pilot at one or two schools because of the division’s size and in consideration of families that have students at more than one school.
Joshua Cole, the executive director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Office of Strategic Engagement, said he was encouraged that Hopewell was considering going year-round because it will allow for “consistent” learning. He specifically highlighted the negative impact of the summer slide, in which students forget what they learned during the school year. The slide most affects students from low-income families, according to multiple academic studies on the subject.
“The more we can do as an educational system to prevent a long time period — a gap — in their schooling, the less they’ll lose in terms of their retention of information,” he said. “The more time there is between when we’re learning something, the harder it is to regurgitate.”
Students are considered to be economically disadvantaged if they qualify for free or reduced-price meals, receive benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or are eligible for Medicaid.
If the proposal is approved, Hopewell would be the lone district in Virginia operating all of its schools year-round. Several individual schools in the Richmond region currently go all year.
Bellwood Elementary School in Chesterfield County operates year-round, as does Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in Richmond, the state’s first charter elementary school, and CodeRVA, a regional magnet school in Richmond where Hopewell sends two students.
Hopewell officials visited Bellwood in March as part of their multiyear research process and said they were impressed with the model school, which is still in the first year of its year-round calendar.
District leaders got the idea for going year-round during teacher focus groups in the summer of 2016. A planning team was created in the fall of 2017 to start studying the idea, with funding for the research coming from a Virginia Department of Education grant — one of five Virginia divisions to receive the grant in 2017.
Kathy Amos, a parent of a fourth- and eighth-grader in the district, said she was in favor of the proposal because it’s not about taking away summer vacations, but improving education.
“It actually gives us the opportunity to take vacations at different times in the year when certain tourist locations may not be as crowded,” she said. “We still have three weeks in the fall, winter and spring that we can go on those vacations.”
Raja Nelson, also a parent of two Hopewell students, moved to the city from Cumberland, N.C., where his children — then in elementary school — had year-round school. His children, now a sophomore and a senior, would go to day camps during the intercession breaks or the family would go on vacation.
Like Amos, he said he’s not worried about losing a traditional summer vacation.
“21st-century children are not traditional in any sense,” he said. “They are multitaskers that need to stay engaged and do various things to keep their interest.”
The School Board is set to vote on the proposal this month or at its June meeting, giving families a year’s notice. Since starting the research process, school officials have garnered feedback through community presentations as well as surveys of teachers and principals. Three in four teachers said the proposed changes would improve student achievement, according to a presentation from Hackney, Davis and Wheat.
“It’s a significant change, and we owe it to the people that are impacted to have enough time to adjust to that and make some changes in their personal life where they will be impacted,” Hackney said.
The district has scheduled a final town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Carter G. Woodson Middle School to discuss the proposal.