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“The Energy and Passion Is What’s Infectious”: Year-Round Calendar Part of Hopewell Schools’ Bid To Change Culture

studnets sitting on stools look towards teacher
Students sit in a science lab during the first day of classes for Hopewell City Public Schools. The district became to first to return all of its students to the classroom on Monday. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

For many Virginia students, the first day of school is still a month away. But on Monday, Hopewell City Public Schools became the first district to bring students back for a new school year districtwide. Hopewell also became the first in the state to launch a districtwide year-round school schedule.

Students at Hopewell High School formed a long line to enter the building for the first time in over a year. Freshmen Kizziyah and Dezinia walked up to friends in line to say hi. They’re both glad to be back in-person, even with a new calendar.

“It’s weird going to school in July,” Kizziyah said, giggling. “But, it’s ok.”

Hopewell High Assistant Principal Larry Cherry is also glad to see the school bustling again. He was outside greeting students and making sure they knew where to go for their first class of the day. He said one of the hardest things about the last school year was not being able to provide more support to students who needed it.

“A lot of kids have one-on-one connections with certain people in the building. And they weren’t able to have that,” Cherry said. “So because of that, we dealt with a lot of students with depression, anxiety.”

Now, kids can make those connections again, even if they have to smile behind masks. The district is requiring masks and social distancing for all students and staff.

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Hopewell High School Assistant Principal Larry Cherry. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Cherry grew up in Hopewell, attended Hopewell City Public Schools and is now proud to be working with a district that’s setting an example for others in the state.

“I love it, because it [the new calendar] helps with teacher burnout. It also helps with some of the summer slide - with students remembering information that they miss when they get a big break - and allows kids to really be in school all year long if they choose to be,” Cherry said.

He says the timing of the transition is welcome, after a year of COVID and virtual instruction, “being as kids were out so long, and trying to help catch them up on information that they missed, and just the opportunity to be around their friends.” The district was originally supposed to begin the new schedule last fall, but that got put on hold because of the pandemic.

Staff and community members have been largely supportive, according to Byron Davis, Director of Balanced Calendar and District Communications for the district. He cited a VCU doctoral study that found most people who fully understood what the schedule change was about were in support of it. Those who knew less were more likely to voice opposition.

Becky Minetree, a library media specialist in Hopewell, is excited about the new schedule. “They [students] don't need 10 weeks off in the summertime,” Minetree said. “Sure, we need time off and so do they. But with the shorter break, they won't have all of that summer slide that they have where you spend the first month of school reteaching what they learned in May and June.”

Students exit busses
Students stand in line to enter the building as Hopewell High School welcomes students for the first time in over a year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

“It's only going to be advantageous for our students,” said Daingerfield Henley, a dual-enrollment English teacher at Hopewell High School. “They just need love, support, and people to listen to them. And they need more time with structure. And they need more opportunities to show what they can do, because they are really amazing kids.”

Tara Henry, a special education teacher, says the calendar will be an adjustment. But she’s looking forward to seeing how the change will impact teacher burnout and student learning.

“I'm hoping that there’ll be some growth that we'll see with the students,” Henry said. “As for me, personally, it is going to take some getting used to, I'm not going to lie. But I'm here for it, to see how it goes.”

The Why

A big part of Hopewell’s motivation for moving to the year round schedule was a realization that school leaders needed to create an atmosphere where students want to be.

Results from a survey of Hopewell High School students collected a few years ago included some startling statistics: 41% of students didn’t like school, 38% didn’t feel a sense of belonging, 35% of students felt they didn’t have any part in the decision making process, and 30% said they felt teachers and other students didn’t care about what they had to say.

“We heard that, and we made it our priority that even though that's probably not the most traditional data from which we make decisions around how to lead our schools and improve them, for us, it was the most important,” said Hopewell Superintendent Melody Hackney. “Because what we thought was, if we can get that right, and we can make an improvement upon those perceptions of our most important stakeholders, our students, then the rest will take care of itself.”

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Students sit in desks. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In 2015, after an intensive week of research and collaboration, a group of Hopewell teachers recommended that a year-round calendar “was right for Hopewell,” Hackney said. Teachers cited a 2012 state study that found achievement of certain student groups, especially historically underperforming students, improved faster in extended-year programs than in schools following traditional calendars.

The study found that year-round school wasn’t a foreign concept in Virginia’s history and that the traditional nine-month school calendar originated as a compromise between urban and rural school systems following the Civil War. Prior to that, school systems followed different academic calendars to reflect the specific needs of their communities.

Rural schools, according to the report, “accommodated the agricultural needs of their local communities, and many rural schools were open for, at most, six months of the year. Conversely, many urban schools implemented much longer school calendars at that time, in some cases up to 49 weeks of school out of the year.”

Davis, who has been leading Hopewell’s implementation of the new school calendar, said manufacturing - not farming - is the main industry in Hopewell. “We have a lot of people who are doing blue collar work, however, it’s not typically related to farming,” he said.

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Byron Davis, Director of Balanced Calendar and District Communications for Hopewell City Public Schools.  (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In response to the study, state lawmakers in 2013 created the Extended School Year Grant Program. This grant funding has largely made Hopewell’s change in schedule possible.

In September 2019, Hopewell City Public Schools received a $1.5 million start-up grant, and in August 2020, the district received a $1.5 million implementation grant from the Virginia Department of Education. Davis estimates the grants will sustain the year-round calendar for five years before the district needs to seek out other funding sources.

The state grants are still awarded annually, according to Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for VDOE, with priority given to schools based on need as identified through state accreditation ratings and performance on school quality indicators.

Both Petersburg City Public Schools and Chesterfield County Public Schools received funding for existing year-round programs at specific schools in 2019.

The Plan

In Hopewell, students now have 45 days of instruction, followed by 10-15 days of optional courses and experiences called intersessions. Davis said this schedule was “a bit more palatable” for some people, because the school year remains divided by four quarters - not unlike the traditional calendar. Students also get a month-long summer break in July.

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Students walk the halls of Hopewell High School on the first day of classes. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Davis says students have the same amount of opportunity for time off now as they’ve always had, plus more educational and camp-like experiences he says a lot of kids in Hopewell haven’t had the opportunity to experience.

“And this is all done for free,” Davis said. “So families who may not have been able to afford camp experiences or childcare or a variety of other sorts of experiences...they're now being offered for free through Hopewell, and if they're interested, they can sign up and take advantage of them.”

To help save on costs, Davis said all teachers work one intercession as part of their contract. “But it also makes it so that all teachers are involved in this process. There's no one who's left out or left behind,” Davis said. “So they're learning from the experience as well as learning from each other.”

Davis says every teacher got the opportunity to design their own intersession course around a topic they’re passionate about.

“So instead of people being forced into a box of, ‘this is what instruction should look like,’ teachers are able to bring their energy and passion,” Davis said. “And the energy and passion is what's infectious and changes the environment in a learning setting.”

The hope is this environment will open up more opportunities for students to follow their passions as well. Like 16-year-old Hopewell High School junior Mason, whose teacher took him up on the idea of building a special, tall table for his classroom - because he’s tall.

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Students sit at a desk, taking notes. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

“I was like, ‘Oh, really? And then we did it,” Mason said. “And that table is now in his room, just chilling there. And it's got our names on it, the people I did it with.”

Mason is part of the CREW Academy, a new initiative in Hopewell to help transform students’ experiences in school. The class was piloted for the last two years at the district’s high school, and has since expanded to the rest of the district.

“We wanted to see what would happen if we dreamed a little bigger, went a little deeper and created this hub of where we were trying to go with community and culture,” said Sommer Jones, dean of student experiences in Hopewell City Public Schools.

“We're making the main thing engaging our kids, providing them a safe space where they can feel comfortable and grow and learn,” Hackney said. “And we think that once we do that, while coupled with real meaningful educational experiences that make sense to them and have meaning to them, the test scores, the attendance, all of those traditional measures upon which we evaluate success will take care of themselves.”