Bridging the gap: Charlottesville’s first supervisor of equity and inclusion talks about creating a new culture

T. Denise Johnson (second from right) at her alma mater, Charlottesville High School, with some of her mentors: former cheerleading coach Jackie Estes; mom Mary Johnson; and Reverend Alvin Edwards, a family friend.
Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith T. Denise Johnson (second from right) at her alma mater, Charlottesville High School, with some of her mentors: former cheerleading coach Jackie Estes; mom Mary Johnson; and Reverend Alvin Edwards, a family friend. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

When T. Denise Johnson was growing up in Charlottesville’s Westhaven neighborhood, she was one of the few black kids in her honors classes at school. Decades later, that’s a disparity that hasn’t changed—the city’s public school system has one of the widest racial achievement gaps in the nation. In both Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools, black students are less likely to be selected for the gifted program and more likely to be suspended or held back a grade, and these inequities have persisted for decades.

Last October, a damning article in The New York Times and ProPublica brought national attention to Charlottesville’s disparities. The city responded by holding a series of community forums, and has begun making significant changes.

These have included revamping its gifted program, Quest, and hiring Johnson to be its first supervisor of equity and inclusion. Johnson had returned to her hometown a few years ago to run City of Promise, an education-focused nonprofit that supports children in the Westhaven, 10th and Page, and Star Hill neighborhoods. We sat down with her before the school year began to talk about her own experiences in city schools, and the daunting challenge ahead.

C-VILLE: What’s the scope of this new role?

JOHNSON: As supervisor for equity, I’m charged with looking at all of our practices, policies, and procedures, and making sure that they are serving all of our students to max capacity.

So that’s pretty broad.

Yeah, it’s pretty broad (laughs). A lot of it looks like partnerships and facilitating. It’s so broad because it’s about creating a culture. I think Dr. Atkins and CCS were very intentional about not making it feel separate, because really and truly, equity is a way of life, it’s a culture, it’s something that everybody has to be practicing. So I sit at the table with a lot of different people doing various things, making sure we look at everything through an equity lens.

You grew up here.

I did!

What schools did you go to?

I went to Burnley-Moran, Walker, Buford, and CHS, Class of ’98.

That’s really great. To have someone in this position who actually went through the schools.

I call it a perfect love story, when you’re able to come back and serve the community that raised you. I consider myself forever indebted to Charlottesville, especially CCS. So when I got the opportunity to come back home, I was committed to making sure that I was able to serve those that were coming after me, it was very important.

What was your experience like as
a student in Charlottesville public schools?

I had a fantastic experience. I was in the Quest program, and an athlete—I was a cheerleader and ran track. I was one of the few students of color in the honors-level classes. That has remained consistent. But I also had relationships of various races, ethnicities, upbringings, things like that. The beauty of my education, I received so many relationships and opportunities, but also growing up in the Westhaven area, I was able to witness those that didn’t have the same opportunities. I know they were no less intelligent or capable than I was. So I’ve seen the greatness that education can be, and I’ve also seen those who weren’t able to be as successful as I was. And so I think that’s part of the work that I see myself doing, making sure that everyone is able to connect.

Why do you think it was different for you versus some of your peers?

I had some educators who became role models. I think it’s important to have people tell you that you can, in a space that gives you a lot of messaging that you can’t do certain things and that certain things aren’t for you. When you’re able to find a mentor or model in your space who says you can do these things, and not just you can, but let me show you how, I think that was what was able to leverage me to a different place.

I did have parents that cared, but they were working, and they worked hard. My mother was a Head Start teacher [when I was] growing up. But it was also those outside supports that were able to support me, even to this day.

Johnson (second from left) walking through her Westhaven neighborhood with her sisters and her mom. Photo courtesy subject

Who were some of those supports?

I had a fantastic cheerleading coach, her name was Jackie Estes; she was the one that actually introduced me to the college I eventually went to for undergrad, Virginia State.

Also Reverend Alvin Edwards, who was my best friend’s father, really was pivotal, just watching his leadership and his work within the community just model what leadership looked like. Being able to be around their family’s system of love and expectation was important as well.

And then there were so many others. We had a strong cohort of African American leaders during that time. There were just many people who were intentional about the expectations that they had of us, and me in particular, and there were those that challenged me when I wasn’t doing the best that I could.

Looking back, is there anything the schools could have done differently, either for you or others?

That was when tracking was huge, and I think Dr. Atkins is working really hard to address that. There were moments when certain cohorts of students would go one direction and another set would go a different direction. Kids early on learn expectation, and what we as adults believe that they can do. And so I think the higher the expectation, for all students, the more that students will accomplish.

Do you see the changes in the Quest program as helping to address that?

I think any time all students are able to receive a high level, what we call a gifted quality, of education, it would be for the greater good of every child. I think the intention is to make sure all our children are receiving that same enrichment and resource. And that’s never a bad thing.

You were a school counselor in Richmond for many years. How do think that informs your work or your perspective?

I’ve always been drawn to youth that needed more support. And so part of the reason I got into school counseling was because I wanted to be that person that I needed growing up.

I grew up not knowing about colleges and college readiness and things like that, but knowing that I wanted those opportunities, and I just needed someone to show me how to get there. I wanted to be that for other youth. So as a school counselor, I naturally worked with youth that reminded me of who I was growing up. And not just those children but all children, just making sure that I was able to have conversations that made them feel like they could be successful in the way they wanted to be.

Obviously, both city and county schools have struggled with equity issues for a long time, but the Times/ProPublica story brought national attention to these issues. What did you think about their coverage?

I think that story was a mirror for some of the work that needed to happen. When I was a director at City of Promise, we received a grant based on some similar disparities. But coming on this side, it made me see the work that had been happening, and also that we were ready to be intentional about working to fill those gaps that we knew were going on. And so I have seen both sides of it.

I think everything happens for a reason. And it’s not just that the article threw us into the forefront, it’s what happens after that. Anytime you are confronted with something it’s about what happens afterwards. And I think there could have been several ways the school system chose to handle it, but I think they handled it to the best of their ability. And making sure that there are a ton of positives that come out of that situation.

What was the reaction to that story in the Westhaven community?

It varied. I think overall there were many people that could see Zyahna’s point of view, that had lived and experienced it, not just current kids but people that had gone through the school system. I think that a lot of people could understand what she was saying and how she was saying it.

In general, you’ll find that a lot of adults’ perspectives have to do with their own personal experiences they had as children, and so we have to work for those people that don’t necessarily have great relationships with the school system.

I always say that people should expect action; trust is something that is earned through action, through doing exactly what you say you’re going to do. And so I think this is a time for the system to build and rebuild trust that may have been lost along the way.

Why did you think these inequities have been so persistent?

When you’re talking systems, and systemic issues, one thing isn’t in isolation. Systemic issues in education aren’t in isolation from affordable housing, from justice issues—it’s all tied together. And so I think looking at the history of Charlottesville, there’s always been a system of inequity in some form.

We’ve had these conversations before. Does it feel any different now?

It feels different to me. I believe that with the amount of students that we have, there’s no reason for us not to be able to make the systemic changes that we need to make. I’ve seen on the school side the leadership is being very intentional, and aggressive about the work and bold about the work they want to have happen, and so I am trusting that we’ll be able to accomplish the goals that we’re setting.

I always say that for me it’s not about pointing fingers. And I think it’s important to say it’s not about what the school system has done wrong. The school system is made up of the community and its members. And so while we are continuing to hold the schools accountable for their work, I think we all have to take ownership in making sure our kids are successful.

Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

It’s seems like a potentially very daunting position to be in.

Yeah, but I’m so thankful for it. Under no circumstances did I ever imagine I’d be in this position, to be able to effect change in the way that I can. But I am incredibly blessed because of it. And I don’t consider it daunting, I consider it amazing work, that I feel privileged to do. And so I think as long as I have that perspective and know that I’m doing all that I can, I can feel comfortable in what we’re doing and being a part of the CCS team.

Do you think in terms of the other pieces, like housing and justice issues, do you see that also changing from when you were growing up here?

What I know is that everyone is working really hard to make things right. I’ve worked at a lot of tables to try to break down these inequities and figure out what we could be doing differently. So I know the intention is there, the desire is there. I want to believe the right people are at the tables to make the necessary changes moving forward.

I feel like oftentimes wealthier, white parents inject themselves pretty strongly into the debate, so how do you make sure everyone’s voices are being heard?

That’s what it comes down to—no matter whether you’re wealthy and white or not, you just want your voice heard, and so the key will be bringing everyone’s voice to the table. And what I’ve found is that when parents didn’t have great relationships with the school, it’s because they didn’t feel like they were being heard. So just making sure that we’re being intentional about hearing everyone and taking into account how they feel, and using it to better the school itself.

And what does that look like?

It’s not just about electronic communication. A lot of times I just serve as a reminder about basic fundamental relationship things, like having verbal conversations with people. There’ll be a set of our parents who prefer surveys, a set who will benefit from text messages and phone calls, and there will be a set of our families who will benefit from door-to-door, community engagement.

We’re being very intentional about community engagement early on. We’ve started even this summer with back to school registration and making sure that we’re going into communities to engage with people. And also just having conversations with families about what method works best for them. 

Are there any other things you were working on at City of Promise you could see bringing this to role?

One of the initiatives that I’ve brought over is going to be a division-wide mentoring and tutoring program, the Bring Back the Village network, which is rooted in the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. I know the importance of having a mentor, someone who is there to support you, to check on your grades, to make sure you’re doing well in school, not just academically but emotionally, and just being that liaison when you need them. And tutoring is important; at City of Promise we had started to build out after-school tutoring programs, but that’s something I wanted to carry over to make sure every school has their own tutoring hub.

Another big thing I learned on the City of Promise side is the need for partnerships—not just with the school system, but with other nonprofits and organizations in the city. There are so many people doing amazing things in Charlottesville, so on this side, creating a Community Care Coalition—that’s what I’m tentatively calling it—where all of our nonprofits and organizational players in the city are coming together to discuss the youth development that’s happening and support the kids.

There are so many different issues around equity—what do you
see as the most important things to address?

All of it. All of it. One of the things I also learned is that you can’t treat any one symptom in isolation. In order to effect real change, we have to do the hard work of fixing all of it, or attempting to address all of it, to do the work that we need to do.

It seems like you are pretty hopeful.

Yeah, I live in hope. I don’t think you can do the work we do without rooting yourself in hope. We all are in this field because we hope to instill in our kids that hope for a better tomorrow and making sure that they are equipped to handle the world that we leave for them. There’s no reason why any child, whatever their background, can’t be as successful as they want to be.

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Kenneth A Martin
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Kenneth A Martin

I good place to start is for CCS to form a strong partnership with the Upward Bound program at UVa.

Bill Marshall
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Bill Marshall

So we have living proof that if you have parents that teach you values and expect you to accept responsibility you can succeed despite obstacles. Some questions I have for her. 1) Why in this interview did you not speak about the parents who are not doing their part to teach their kids responsibility as you were? 2) I presume from the interview you do believe things have gotten better, so if it has then why are you still blaming the system instead of African american cultural choices that tell too many kids they are victims and the system is… Read more »