The scene outside Fairfield Court Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, at 7:40 last Thursday morning was so festive that one might have assumed it was the first day of school. Upbeat music blared from a speaker on the sidewalk. Sgt. Edward R. Gore II, the school’s “climate and culture specialist,” the district’s term for its school resource officers, opened his arms to the kindergartners and first graders who came running toward him, as well as to some who wavered. Also on hand to greet children and parents was the principal, Angela Wright.

But in fact, the first day of school was receding in the distance: Fairfield Court was one of two local schools that had started the year on July 24, as part of a hotly contested trial: adding 20 days to the customary 180, to help make up ground lost after Richmond kept schools closed to in-person learning for 18 months during the pandemic. Families had only six weeks of summer vacation — closer to the European norm than the American one — before kids returned, and Wright and her staff were doing everything they could to make early-August school seem welcoming. Thus, the daily embraces and music, with a track list chosen by Gore.

“It brings a smile to put on their face every morning,” he said. “I’m out here every day.”

Beneath the good cheer of the greetings were weighty implications. The results of the 200-day academic years at Fairfield and Cardinal elementary schools will help determine whether Richmond adopts a similar approach at more schools across the 22,000-student district. For nearly three years, district leaders have been proposing to add days to the school calendar for some or all students or keep the same number of days but with a shorter summer break, to reduce what educators call “summer slide.” But, as ProPublica recently reported, that plan ran into stiff resistance from some school board members, teachers and parents. In the end, only two of the district’s 50-odd schools adopted the extended calendar for the coming year.

The pilot is being watched more widely too, as one of the highest-profile examples nationwide of schools taking aggressive action to address the unprecedented declines in student achievement since the pandemic’s onset.

The first big test has been simply seeing whether students show up. To qualify for the pilot, Fairfield Court, which has 217 students this year, had to demonstrate backing from its families, who are almost entirely African American and many of whom live in an adjacent public housing development. But a survey was one thing, warned skeptics of the proposal; getting kids to come to school in midsummer was quite another.

The turnout lagged initially, with about 80% attendance in the first week, below Fairfield Court’s average rate of 91% last year. The school’s “attendance engagement team” made repeated calls and even some home visits to absent students, trying to discern why they were out. In some cases, it was simply a matter of lacking money for new clothes or a haircut. With these targeted efforts, which included Wright herself offering to pick up kids whose parents weren’t able to walk them to school, they lifted the rate to an average of 87% by last week. “We’re down to the ones that aren’t here, we know exactly why they aren’t here,” Wright said.

The other school in the pilot project, Cardinal Elementary, which is three times larger than Fairfield Court and has a heavily Latino population, had strong attendance from the very start, 95% in the first week of the pilot, according to district data.

Principal Angela Wright of Fairfield Court advocated for the extra days and even offered to pick up kids whose parents couldn’t walk them to school. Credit: Brian Palmer for ProPublica

Not that everyone at Fairfield Court had needed cajoling. Several parents said their kids had been eager to return, a judgment buttressed by the alacrity with which the kids ran toward the music and into the building, where free breakfast awaited all. “They like going to school,” said Kay Brown, after her sons, a first grader and kindergartner, had dashed in. “Some kids give their parents a hard time. My kids love it.”

Renarda Bacon’s daughter, who is in third grade, had spent most of her summer break at a day care program, but Bacon was glad to see her back at Fairfield Court, where she would be getting more actual instruction. “I’m all about progressing,” she said. “If they’re going to get in a couple more days of learning, it’s not going to hurt them.”

Ashley Martin had driven her own two kids, a third grader and kindergartner, as well as three others from the neighborhood before heading to her job in a call center. She had been a staunch supporter of an extended school year from the get-go, she said, after seeing the news about Richmond’s plunging test scores during the past two years. She also thought that adding instructional time could help reduce the city’s high levels of youth violence. (Last year, a 17-­year-old boy was fatally shot and found in a garbage can in the adjacent housing development, and the school year ended two days early in June after a graduating senior and his father were shot and killed outside one high school’s commencement ceremony.)

“I definitely love this program,” Martin said. “They should keep it, and hopefully the school board expands it, so we can get these kids back on track.”

Inside school, veteran teacher Philip Canady started the day with math lessons for a dozen fifth grade boys. (This year, for the first time, the school had decided to separate fifth graders by sex, thinking it might improve outcomes.) Canady, regal-looking with a trim gray beard and wooden bowtie, moved back and forth among the desks, coaxing the boys through worksheets on identifying place value in numbers ranging to the millions.

“How many hundreds in that number?” he asked one boy. “Five? OK, put five in the hundreds column. How many tens do I have? OK, add two tens. No, no, that’s not tens. Put a two there. How many ones do I have? Four ones. Now I want you to create 2,034 for me. Do you have any hundreds? No. So what are you going to put there? Zero. You got it.”

And so on, on and on around the room, with only a few interruptions to address some minor squabbling at one table. If any calming was needed, a YouTube video waited on the big computer screen at the front of the room: “3 Hours of Amazing Nature Scenery and Relaxing Music for Stress Relief.” Nearby, some small fish swam in a tank.

For this extra month in the classroom, Canady and his fellow teachers were receiving an extra month of salary — roughly 10% of the usual annual sum — plus a $10,000 incentive and the chance at an additional $5,000 if the school met certain “accelerated learning goals” set by its leadership team. The district was paying for this, a total of a couple million dollars between the two schools, out of its slice of the $190 billion in pandemic recovery funds that the federal government has sent schools since 2020. (District Superintendent Jason Kamras has said that if the district chooses to expand the initiative, it could apply for special state funding for innovative programs or other outside funding.)

To qualify for the pilot, Fairfield Court also had to show support for it among its staff; only two employees had opposed it and transferred to other schools. In a room across from Canady’s, the operational base of the school’s academic dean and the instructional leaders for math and reading, the three educators said that they were liking the pilot. It had meant adjusting their vacation plans, but they had made good use of their five weeks off (faculty had started school a week before the kids, for professional development and classroom preparation), including going to a conference in Las Vegas with some R&R attached. And now, they were getting the satisfaction of seeing students get a head start on the year.

“I know there were a lot of naysayers, but I see a lot of happy children every morning,” said the academic dean, Nsombi Morrison.

It was time for one of the trio’s regular check-ins with the teachers for each grade level, this time with the third grade team. The three teachers came in, and together the six women reviewed tables with each student’s progress toward grade-level metrics in math and reading, and discussed upcoming assessments to gauge whether the school was reaching the goals it had set for the extra month. The educators were so fully into the stride of the year’s instructional march it was hard to believe that nearly all of the district’s other schools remained closed, with some 21,000 students not returning until Aug. 21.

Back in the principal’s office, Wright said she was keenly aware of the responsibility the school bore in showing the rest of the district that the extra time can make a difference. She had recently attended a meeting with other principals, she said, and her message to them had been this: “My whole goal is for this to run so effectively and to see that data increase so much that when two or three schools come on board next year, that here’s a blueprint. Here’s what you need to do to make it.”

She added: “I would love to hear, OK, this has now gone so well at these two schools, we’re bringing in four more schools next year.”