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Fairfax County Public Schools pilots program offering students flexible school hours

Herndon High School teacher Richard Cupolo teaches students enrolled in the Twilight Program through the evening (via Fairfax County Public Schools)

This past spring, Fairfax County Public Schools launched a new Twilight Program to assist students whose “life circumstances” beyond the classroom complicated their ability to attend classes.

The program operates outside of the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. high school day with the goal of helping students graduate on time, FCPS Special Projects Administrator for the Non-Traditional Schools and Programs Joe Thompson says.

According to FCPS, 90 seniors in the program attended extra classes in-person for three days a week from 4-6 p.m. and worked remotely for the remaining two days of the week. The evening instructional hours are meant to compensate for the classes students may miss in the morning or afternoon for external responsibilities, such as child care or a part-time job.

“A lot of our students are closing down a restaurant and not getting home until they’ve cleaned the kitchen at 3 in the morning sometimes, so catching that bus at 7 in the morning is really a very difficult thing to do,” Thompson said. “Or the parents are working late, and they need to watch them and get their own younger siblings off to school, so they were missing their first couple of classes of the day — not because they didn’t want to be there, but just that they have priorities.”

While numbers haven’t been reported for this past year yet, FCPS reported that 94.2% of the Class of 2022 graduated on time. However, the rate dropped to 82.9% for Hispanic students and 72.8% for English language learners.

The program was piloted at six high schools: West Potomac, Justice, Herndon, Mountain View, Bryant and Fairfax County Adult High School. For students not in areas districted to those schools, Thompson says “alternative schools” were used “to supplement the pilot schools.”

He credits FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid with petitioning principals to voluntarily take on the challenge of implementing the program halfway through the academic year — a busy time for any school.

“During the seventh semester, all the seniors are getting their grades off to colleges, and we’re scheduling for next school year, so for schools to take that on during that time of year was actually pretty surprising and pleasing for us,” Thompson said.

Since the program’s conclusion, Thompson says the pilot schools gave positive feedback on how “powerful” the program has been. Though there were no “set benchmarks” for the program, he believes it was “very successful.”

“We were able to help students get back on track and reengage with school and feel confident about their learning again, so the students were very thankful,” Thompson said. “…It really gave them the confidence to come back into the classroom and feel like people understood their needs and that they could get their education without falling so far behind or having to give up a diploma to help their family.”

“I was so stressed because I knew I was failing a class I needed to graduate,” Madelyn, a Twilight student, told FCPS. “Joining the program was like a second chance and brought so much relief to me.”

The program’s benefits are not only limited to students, Thompson says. While the students receive the necessary support to complete their educational careers in the face of hardship, teachers derive personal fulfillment from helping students succeed and avoid burnout.

“[Teachers] were revitalized by the opportunity to help,” Thompson said. “These students are the underdogs that everybody’s rooting for to do well, and these teachers are having a hand in bringing these students back from possibly not graduating.”

Additionally, the Twilight Program gave teachers — who often already work second jobs and stay after the end of the school day to coach or supervise clubs — the “real advantage” of being able to gain that extra compensation from their own classrooms with familiar faces, Thompson says.

With the school year over, as of June 16, administrators and teachers are evaluating the most effective way to take the program forward. While Thompson isn’t sure the program will start on “day one of school” next fall, he’s optimistic it will continue based on the success indicated by the pilot schools.

“I think this is something that’s going to continue and hopefully grow over the next couple of years,” Thompson said. “We want to grow it right and slow so that we don’t throw people into a position where they can’t succeed. But I do think that based on the success this year, we should see this be something that’s very much sustainable for the next several years.”

One change Thompson aims to implement is an earlier start to the program to “catch a few more students who are struggling.”

“Now, what we want to do is fine-tune timing. Obviously, if we can get students involved earlier, maybe we can catch more before they disengage from school,” Thompson said. “…So we’re hoping that not only will [the program] grow to more schools in our region, but also more students within those schools will see this as an opportunity for them.”

While the future of the program is not set in stone, Thompson hopes to continue making schooling more flexible for FCPS students.

“We really think all students can learn, and it’s just a matter of getting them in the right environment,” Thompson said. “This was our chance to do it, and it worked out as well as we could have hoped.”