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 sister and cousins watched from the backseat as Lucas shook her head. So many obstacles stand between Jonathan and reading fluently. Much of his short academic career was 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.
While Richmond school board members said it would be too expensive and disruptive, school officials 20 miles away, in Hopewell, pushed forward. In 2021, theirs became the first Virginia district to adopt year-round schooling systemwide.
Why was one city able to do the seemingly impossible, while another 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.
Nationwide, a small number of districts have extended the academic year or changed to year-round school to address concerns about pandemic setbacks. The state of Washington is urging schools there to consider doing the same. If educators use the extra time to reinforce learning, adding school days is one of several strategies that could give kids the best chance of catching up, researchers say.
Both Virginia school systems continue to face challenges helping children 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.
Math still vexes the talkative fourth grader with glasses and cornrows. “I need help with subtraction,” said Gi’Shiya. “If the bigger number is not on top, I get really confused.”
Several years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hopewell had begun studying year-round school as a way to boost lackluster performance in the 4,000-student district, where 91% of students are economically disadvantaged and 60% are Black. Only one school was fully accredited by the state.
Most teachers supported the change, according to district documents. The state had been pushing districts to extend the school year after a review showed benefits especially for Black students.
The need for intervention became acute after kids spent 16 months outside of school buildings. Test scores show Hopewell students lost the equivalent of more than two years of learning in math, one of the worst outcomes among thousands of school districts in a recent study.
In the summer of 2021, students began the new calendar. Summer vacation was reduced to four weeks in June and July. The school also added three new breaks, or intersessions, when students can opt in for additional classes. Each 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. However, teacher turnover is lower than it has been in years, Superintendent Melody Hackney said.
For some teachers, the schedule is an improvement over 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 are meant to give students an opportunity to try new subjects and more time to work on math and reading, but the courses are not required. Teachers must teach at least one intersession course a year.
This year, only 20% to 25% of students participated in at least one intersession class. Hackney attributes the low turnout to the program’s newness. Some students just want to sleep in, she said. Hopewell is now considering making the intersession programs mandatory for students who are furthest 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. The courses filled up so quickly she gave up and sent her kids to visit their father during the three-week breaks.
But Branch did not know her twins were receiving help because they are behind in math and reading until contacted by a reporter. Had she known, she would have tried harder to get them into the intersession programs, she said.
In Richmond, Superintendent Kamras initially resisted suggestions to extend the school year.
Then the pandemic hit, and the school board voted to shutter schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. 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.
In the spring of 2021, the school board agreed to add days for the 2022-2023 school year. Kamras proposed either extending the school year by 10 days, or keeping the 180-day schedule and adding three, one-week intersessions to help the neediest students. By the next fall, however, several board members were skeptical.
“The timing is not appropriate,” said board member Kenya Gibson. She said the changes would put too much strain on teachers and students.
“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 Black, Yale-educated architect, represents one of the more affluent 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, complied. In a survey issued to staff and families, teachers overwhelmingly chose the option closest to the status quo.
It was a huge defeat for Kamras.
“It feels like the mantra is: ‘Fix everything, but don’t change anything,’” he said. But Kamras said he also understands where teachers and parents are coming from.
“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. In a district of more than 20,000 students, only 539 students responded, and 2,285 families. Most respondents were among the minority of families in the district who have higher incomes and do not qualify for government benefits such as 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.”
In Hopewell, by contrast, all students were more or less in the same boat, so the district had an easier time selling the change, he said.
The small number of low-income Richmond parents who did respond to Kamras’ survey said they preferred fewer school days, not more. Had the district reached more parents, however, Kamras might have found parents more receptive to change.
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. A quarter of Richmond students are Latino, but there is no Latino member on the school board. More than half of Latino high school students in the class of 2022 dropped out before graduation.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of mothers waited in their cars in the pick-up line outside Cardinal Elementary School. Ranchera music drifted from one car, Spanish-language talk radio from another.
None of five mothers interviewed as they waited for their children knew about the attempts to extend the school year. Each of them would have jumped at the chance to get more time in school.
“It’s good to have vacation, but it’s too long,” Leticia Mazariegos said in Spanish. Her 9-year-old son speaks English very timidly, and she said more school would help his confidence. “Why don’t they do that?”
Veronica Lucas would like more time in school for her son Jonathan. Richmond schools have trained teachers in phonics to improve reading instruction, but he still needs more help. “I can’t afford to hire him a tutor,” Lucas said.
There may be another chance for Jonathan.
Kamras is making a third attempt at year-round school, this time calling it a pilot for interested schools. In his proposal, five schools would add 20 required days to the school calendar next year. As before, approval rests with the school board.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.