To balance a tough budget, Fairfax County last year eliminated a key learning tool for nearly two dozen of its neediest schools: extra class time.

Some schools had tacked hours onto the day, and others added weeks to the year — methods used nationwide to lift student achievement. After the extra time disappeared, scores on state tests slipped at several of the schools.

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.

“It’s absolutely amazing how it benefits their craft,” said Dade.

A strong principal, a culture of collaboration and a staffing formula that sends more teachers to needier schools: those factors contribute more to student achievement than extending time, Fairfax officials say.

But former Graham Road principal Molly Bensinger-Lacy, Dade’s predecessor, said extra time can be crucial for beat-the-odds schools.

Under the extended-time calendar at Graham Road, a long summer vacation was replaced with shorter breaks throughout the year. But even during those breaks, teachers would offer catch-up and enrichment lessons. Attendance was optional, but the vast majority of kids showed up.

“Many people wanted to know what our silver bullets were,” Bensinger-Lacy said. “Certainly, extended learning time was one of them.”

Many researchers back that view.

Studies have shown that poor children tend to fall behind their middle-class peers in the summer. And during the school year, some students inevitably need more help to keep up.

“There’s no way to close the gap without additional learning time,” said Daniel Duke, a University of Virginia professor who studies schools that have made dramatic achievement gains.

Arlington County’s Barcroft Elementary uses a modified calendar, as do two Alexandria schools. Some D.C. public charter schools, such as those run by the national KIPP network, have also embraced extended class time.

In Fairfax, seven schools had the modified calendar, and 16 had full-day Mondays, when schools generally release students two hours early.

Eliminating those programs saved about $8.4 million a year. It’s still too soon to judge the long-term effects of that cut, and it’s difficult to pin changes in achievement on any one factor. But some advocates for poor and minority children say results of the most recent state tests raise warning flags.

Signs of slippage

In 2010, for example, all seven of the modified-calendar schools met achievement goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. In 2011, after shifting to a standard calendar, only three schools met the goals.

Reading pass rates slipped at six of the seven schools.

“They were defying the odds before, and now you see this slippage,” said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason). “That concerns me.”

Time remains a pressing issue at Graham Road.

Dade set aside $20,000 in federal Title I funds — allocated to schools with high poverty rates — to pay teachers to tutor the neediest children during the summer, before and after school and on Saturdays.

When school was dismissed one recent day, dozens of children streamed outside to the playground. Others stayed indoors.

Upstairs, a handful of sixth-graders memorized facts about Native Americans in preparation for the state social studies test. Third-graders practiced multiplying double-digit numbers.

Downstairs, second-grade teacher Katherine Rountree spent an hour reading with a handful of students. One of them was Orlando Hernandez Flores, 8, who spoke only Spanish when he arrived a year ago from Guatemala. He now communicates well in English and is an unequivocal fan of the after-school sessions.

“We do everything, like read books from the library,” he whispered one recent afternoon, grinning as if part of a conspiracy. “And we can read with the teacher.”

Rountree said that she has had to make difficult choices about how to spend the hours after school. She has a lot of kids who need extra literacy help. “I also have kids who can’t count,” she said. And all of them want to learn.

“We didn’t drown last year, and that is a huge feat for this school,” Rountree said. “It doesn’t mean modified calendar isn’t valuable. It just means we worked twice as hard.”