A group of five people standing in front of the Hopewell School Board Office
From left, VCU professor Kimberly Bridges, Ed.L.D., and Ed.D. in Leadership students Ellen Burnett, Margot Zahner, Max Smith, Jeffrey Elmore and Joy Blosser. The students and Bridges worked on a capstone project to evaluate whether Hopewell City Public Schools' move to a year-round K-12 school calendar is making an impact on students. (Owen Wachter, VCU School of Education)

VCU students ‘look forward,’ delivering plan for Hopewell to evaluate 12-month school year

As Hopewell Public Schools’ first school year with a year-round calendar ends, a School of Education student project designing an evaluation plan and toolkit for the district’s balanced calendar will have a ‘real-world impact’ on the district’s plans

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In July 2021, when Hopewell Public Schools became the first district in Virginia to move to a 12-month school-year calendar, a group of Virginia Commonwealth University doctoral students were already hard at work preparing for how to measure the new calendar’s impact on the K-12 students.

For their capstone project in the VCU School of Education’s Ed.D. in Leadership program, a team of five doctoral students developed a comprehensive evaluation plan for Hopewell Public Schools’ year-round “balanced calendar” initiative, which they presented to the Hopewell School Board at a work session last month, just a few weeks after graduating from VCU.

The team’s work for Hopewell is an excellent example of the real-world impact that the capstone projects can have, said Kimberly M. Bridges, Ed.L.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and co-coordinator of the program.

“The work of these doctoral students was done in partnership with a school system that is on the front lines of a huge innovation in their division,” Bridges said. “While they’re busy implementing this fantastic initiative across their school system, these students had the ability to take a step back and look forward, and produce a plan with tools and resources that the division can use to take their work into the next phase.”

The capstone team’s work began just under a year ago with a review of existing literature and school division documents and interaction with teachers, parents, school and division administrators and school board members through interviews and focus groups.

At the end of the year, the students provided recommendations for what an evaluation plan could look like and how the school division could implement it. “The evaluation plan should focus on student engagement, student well-being, student achievement, teacher engagement and quality of instruction,” the capstone students found.

While working on the project, titled “Designing an Evaluation Plan for Hopewell City Public Schools’ Balanced Calendar,” the students also collaborated closely with Melody Hackney, Ed.D., Hopewell superintendent of schools, and Byron Davis, supervisor of balanced calendar implementation and director of communications.

“The capstone team’s research, and more importantly the tools that they gave us, will be instrumental as we move forward with the continual improvement and evaluation of our balanced calendar,” Hackney said.

All five capstone team members earned their doctoral degrees in May, and all are administrators in either K-12 or adult educational systems. Team member Max Smith, Ed.D., assistant director of the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, said the capstone experience is what initially drew him to the program.

“The capstone allowed my doctoral work to focus on finding practical solutions to real-world problems,” Smith said. “Through this work, the team I was part of will be able to have a deep and lasting impact on the ways in which Hopewell evaluates, improves and communicates the successes and setbacks of the balanced calendar initiative.”

Margot Zahner, Ed.D., a team member who is the principal of Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, said the capstone research and development of a plan expanded her knowledge of best practices for program evaluation and iterative improvement work.

“[Hopewell Public Schools’] districtwide adoption of the balanced calendar is bold and visionary equity work that has the potential to positively impact all learners in Hopewell,” Zahner said.

Joy Blosser, Ed.D., director of federal programs and teacher development for Harrisonburg, Virginia, schools, said her capstone journey was a challenging one, but she’s proud of the team’s accomplishment.

“Not only have I grown as a professional throughout the program, but I am proud of the final product our team created for Hopewell Public Schools,” she said. “I am excited that our work was not only appreciated, but that it was also embraced by the superintendent and school board. The fact that the evaluation plan we created will be used to help Hopewell evaluate the success of their balanced calendar program, as well as make adjustments along the way, makes all of our hard work over the past year so worth it!”

In addition to Smith, Zahner and Blosser, the team included Ellen Burnett, Ed.D., pre-K through 12 mathematics instructional specialist for Colonial Heights City Public Schools, and Jeffrey Elmore, Ed.D., regional program manager of capital region adult education for Richmond City Public Schools.

“The capstone team’s research, and more importantly the tools that they gave us, will be instrumental as we move forward with the continual improvement and evaluation of our balanced calendar.”

Melody Hackney, Ed.D., superintendent of Hopewell City Public Schools

Hopewell Public Schools was one of the nine organizations in the K-12, higher education and nonprofit sectors that Ed.D. in Leadership students served in their yearlong capstone projects. Developed to respond to a challenge each organization faced, the projects provided critical support while allowing students to employ the leadership skills they had developed in the Ed.D. in Leadership program.

This was the second consecutive year that VCU students collaborated with Hopewell Public Schools for a project. In 2020-21, the capstone team focused on “providing recommendations for structural, philosophical and fiscal changes to the year-round calendar initiative and its associated communication plan that would positively impact the long-term sustainability of the initiative,” said Bridges, the capstone’s chair.

The students are not just informing long-term research and theory, but are shifting the way that front-line educators and leaders are going to be doing their work, Bridges said.

“The board and superintendent were so appreciative of their work,” Bridges said. “Not only did they say this team’s work gave them resources they did not have the internal capacity to do in their first year, they also said that it’s influencing and guiding their planning and next steps. I’m so proud of this team!”