But Graham Road Elementary, with one of the highest poverty rates in Northern Virginia, has maintained an improbably high level of performance. Its continued success offers proof, Fairfax officials say, that extra time was a popular but now unaffordable luxury.
“We’re not going to get a massive infusion of money from the state, local or federal government to compensate teachers for a longer school day or school year,” said Richard Moniuszko, deputy superintendent of Fairfax schools.
“If one school can transition to the traditional calendar and maintain high levels of student achievement,” Moniuszko said, “then the others should be able to do it as well.”
That assertion has catapulted Graham Road into a national discussion, a debate that has intensified as school districts attempt to reconcile bleak budgets with research suggesting that extra class time provides a powerful boost, especially for poor kids and English language learners.
Tucked between a strip mall and an affordable housing complex in the Falls Church area, Graham Road is home to about 430 students from kindergarten to grade six. About 85 percent come from low-income families, and most are learning English as a second language.
Despite its demographics, the school became one of the highest-performing in the state under a “modified calendar” that allowed for a shortened summer break and five weeks of additional instruction. Last year, Graham Road’s impressive record — more than 90 percent of children were proficient in math and reading — was rewarded with a congratulatory visit from President Obama.
That same year, the School Board jettisoned the modified calendar. Graham Road’s charismatic, hard-charging principal retired. And half its teachers left.
“We were all like, ‘Oh God, what’s going to happen to Graham Road?’ ” said board member Martina A. Hone (At Large).
What happened was a pleasant shock. On state tests last spring, 98 percent of Graham Road students scored proficient in math, up eight percentage points from the year before. Eighty-seven percent scored proficient in reading, down two points, but a victory nonetheless, given all the turmoil.
“We’re proud of that 87 percent,” said Principal Terry Dade, 35, a Fairfax native in his second full year at Graham Road.
Dade is widely credited with leading the school through its period of tumult. He hired a raft of teachers, more than half of whom have fewer than three years of experience.
Factors in success
They are idealistic and energetic. But they are also scientific. Dade expects them to collaborate intensively and regularly, dissecting data they have gathered about students’ skills and weaknesses. They critique one another’s work, revising failed strategies and coming up with plans to help struggling students.