Capstone students deliver plan for Hopewell schools

Balanced Calendar Plan & Evaluation Toolkit are examples of the “real-world impact” that students in our Ed.D. in Leadership program can have.

Dr. Bridges' Capstone students at the Hopewell School Board building.
The team after presenting to the Hopewell School Board. From left: Kimberly Bridges, Ellen Burnett, Margot Zahner, Max Smith, Jeffrey Elmore and Joy Blosser.

Collaborative capstone studies provide critical support to organizations while allowing students to employ the leadership skills they’ve developed in the VCU School of Education’s Ed.D. in Leadership program. In the 2021-2022 academic year, doctoral students working on nine different capstone teams partnered with nine organizations in the K-12, higher education, and nonprofit sectors in a year-long process to respond to an identified challenge impacting that organization. This article features one team’s work with Hopewell City Public Schools.

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 City Public Schools’ (HCPS) year-round balanced calendar initiative, which they presented to a very receptive Hopewell City School Board at a work session on June 9.

Hopewell is the only school district in Virginia that has implemented a district-wide balanced calendar, which it began in July 2021. Learn more on the HCPS website.

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

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

“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.

“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., Hopewell's Superintendent of Schools

All five capstone team members earned their doctoral degrees in May, and all are professional 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 that 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., principal of Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said that the team’s capstone research and development of a plan expanded her knowledge of best practices for program evaluation and iterative improvement work.

“HCPS district-wide adoption of the balanced calendar is bold and visionary equity work that has the potential to positively impact all learners in Hopewell,” Zahner said. “It was an honor to contribute to the work of Dr. Hackney and the HCPS team.”

Joy Blosser, Ed.D., director of federal programs and teacher development for Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said that 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., preK-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.

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

“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.”

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

“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!”

Note: Every capstone project is different in focus, scope and the work involved, but all involve scholarly work that generates actionable recommendations aligned with the teams' findings and targeted to the organizational context, with specific attention to issues of equity, feasibility and capacity.