Do students that meet federal poverty guidelines have less access to advanced studies? The nonprofit news website ProPublica recently released what it calls the “Civil Rights Data Set,” gathered from 2009-2010 school year reports. The data includes numbers on gifted enrollment, free and reduced lunches, and race for every school district with more than 3,000 students. ProPublica offered the data as “The Opportunity Gap,” a free tool for evaluating access to advanced courses of study across racial and economic lines. In Virginia, 32 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, but just 13 percent of students are enrolled in a gifted program. [See C-VILLE's map: Opportunity and Access in Charlottesville/Albemarle Elementary Schools]
Jennifer LaFleur, ProPublica’s Director of Computer Assisted Reporting, writes that her team found the strongest correlation between gifted access and free and reduced lunch numbers, “a variable often used in education research to estimate poverty at schools.” She tells C-VILLE that ProPublica received no corrections for Virginia data.
Charlottesville’s six elementary schools feed into Charlottesville High School, where their stats are mixed then averaged. Forty-five percent of Charlottesville High School’s roughly 1,200 students qualify for free or reduced lunch—a number well above the Virginia average. Those same students have access to a veritable buffet of 26 Advanced Placement classes, and enroll more frequently than their peers across the state.
Looking at the elementary schools, however, the numbers tell a different story.
In Charlottesville City Schools, Clark, Jackson Via and Johnson elementaries have the highest percentage of students on free and reduced lunch, between 71 percent and 85 percent. The same three schools have the lowest enrollment in gifted programs, between 6 percent and 9 percent. Clark Elementary has both the highest rate of free and reduced lunch and the lowest gifted enrollment percentages; its district also includes the Sixth Street and Crescent Hall housing projects and Friendship Court, one of the city’s largest recipients of Section 8 housing assistance vouchers.
In Albemarle County, where the area median income is nearly twice that of Charlottesville, a mix of school sizes and locations yields more varied results. However, at schools where 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch (Scottsville, Greer, Yancey, Red Hill and Woodbrook), gifted enrollment totals 8 percent or below.
The upside? Area schools are adapting to meet varied student needs. Since Charlottesville City Schools started its Quest Gifted and Talented program, Director Beverly Catlin says resources have been devoted equally across schools and among students of all backgrounds. Every elementary school has a half-time talent development teacher for kindergarten and first grade students, and a full-time gifted education specialist at every school for grades two through four.
“That’s a pretty unusual thing to have, if you look at schools across the Commonwealth,” says Catlin. En route to high school, both Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle have three gifted education specialists. Catlin also says that gifted instructors do not have their own classrooms.
“Our program is a lot of collaboration with classroom teachers, from kindergarten up,” says Catlin. “We do a lot of planning with teachers, a lot of co-teaching. We want everyone to be an expert at teaching every student in our school division.”
Billy Haun, Albemarle’s Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning, says the smaller size of county elementaries like Red Hill and Scottsville make for more drastic percentages. He also notes that Albemarle’s gifted resource teachers must spend at least half their time working with every classroom.
“They’re going to be teaching all students, not just the students that are identified,” says Haun. He adds that Albemarle sends additional staff to those schools that show greater numbers of students on free and reduced lunch, and that the school board is “ready to move beyond simple Standards of Learning (SOL).
“We’re developing more project-based learning assessments, rather than simple SOL tests,” says Haun.
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