Failing grade: Community responds to ProPublica/NYT piece on racial inequities in city schools

Dr. Rosa Atkins has led Charlottesville City Schools for nearly 13 years. During her tenure, the system has made progress on raising graduation rates and reducing suspension rates, but black students are still more than four times as likely as white students to be held back a grade and almost five times as likely to be suspended.  Photo: Eze Amos Dr. Rosa Atkins has led Charlottesville City Schools for nearly 13 years. During her tenure, the system has made progress on raising graduation rates and reducing suspension rates, but black students are still more than four times as likely as white students to be held back a grade and almost five times as likely to be suspended. Photo: Eze Amos

Last week, ProPublica and the New York Times published a scathing indictment of Charlottesville City Schools, pointing out persistent and widening achievement gaps between white and black students. The article also highlighted the overrepresentation of white students in the city schools’ gifted program, and made a general case that the needs of black students and families are not being met.

The piece set off a storm of reactions on social media, with one teacher on Facebook blaming a lack of “support or discipline at home,” while others brought up issues like frequent leadership turnover in city schools, disempowered teachers, and the role of affluent white parents in preventing real change.

The city school system has responded forcefully. In a press conference and a letter to parents, Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins, who has been in her position for nearly 13 years, highlighted what she says are the district’s efforts to address these issues, but also acknowledged responsibility. “Our primary response should be to listen and learn from the central truth of this article,” she wrote. “We have not made consistent or satisfactory progress for all our students.”

The city followed up with a survey to parents, and is holding a community forum on Tuesday, October 23.

For many, the issues raised in the story were not a surprise.

Gaye Carey, 34, says she’s been concerned about the achievement gap since her daughter, Lamira, was in first grade at Johnson Elementary and a teacher recommended her for QUEST, the city’s gifted program. Carey, who is African American, says she remembers Lamira being one of only two black students pulled out of class for QUEST. “And I just know [there’s]  plenty of smart black kids,” she says, “so I’m just not understanding.”

‘The same thing is still going on’

Lamira is currently in fifth grade at Walker Upper Elementary, and she’s in accelerated math classes, where, again, most of her classmates are white. It’s an experience that seems unchanged from when Carey herself was a student in Charlottesville’s schools.

“When I was in high school, I was in advanced classes and I was one of three black kids out of 27 kids,” she says. “And now it’s going on with my daughter. The same thing is still going on.”

Darnell Walker, who attended city schools from elementary through high school, agrees. “I thought these issues for Black students in Charlottesville would have died a few years after I left CHS, in 2000, but I see it’s still alive, strong, and shows no signs of letting up,” he says in an email.

Like Zyahna Bryant, who was featured prominently in the ProPublica/NYT story, Walker recalls that he was one of the rare black students pushed toward gifted programs.

“I was one of those students who teachers would call ‘different,’ knowing they meant I was nothing like my Black friends,” he writes. “But I definitely was just like them. They were all smart.”

The article noted that white students make up more than 70 percent of students in QUEST (in a district that is 42 percent white). And the percentage of white students who are identified as gifted has shot up from 11 percent in 1984 to roughly 33 percent today.

School administrators say what the piece left out were the active steps they are taking to make the QUEST program more inclusive: Changes in the way students are identified as gifted have resulted in an increase in referrals to the program over the last decade. Still, the overall ratio of white to black students hasn’t changed much.

Bev Catlin, a district coordinator for the program, says the ratios are beginning to shift, but it will take time. In the meantime, the city’s gifted specialists are increasingly “pushing in” to classrooms, collaborating with teachers to offer lessons to students who are not identified for the program—both so everyone can benefit from higher-level lessons and so specialists can identify strengths in students who might have been overlooked.

‘All children have gifts’

The city gives all students a formal assessment for its gifted program in first grade, rather than in second like Albemarle County, because national data suggests that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from being tested sooner. Being behind “really does compound year to year,” says Christine Esposito, a gifted specialist at Johnson Elementary. “Kids who don’t feel successful in school will start to shut down.”

Esposito says she and her colleagues are always thinking about ways to make the program more inclusive. “If we had the answer, we would have fixed it by now. We come to work and we try our best to do our best for every kid that we see.”

On the high school level, Charlottesville High has instituted an honors-option program, in which students can pursue standard or honors-level credits in the same classroom, instead of being tracked into separate classes. The district says this program has led to a significant increase in enrollment in honors and AP level courses for African American students.

Margaret Thornton, who taught English at CHS when the program was introduced, says it gave her a much more racially heterogeneous class. Students used different texts to tackle the same big questions, and they learned from each other, improving both test scores and engagement, she says. “It’s a completely different way of teaching, when you’re organizing around these big ideas and then exposing students to all sorts of diverse viewpoints,” she says.

While the honors-option program is expanding, eliminating tracking altogether would be a difficult lift. Even among white students, school systems were traditionally designed to categorize and separate students by ability levels, says Thornton, who is now a doctoral student studying detracking at UVA’s Curry School of Education. “We never righted those structures to make them more inclusive and to make school about enriching experiences,” she says.

“Every child should be getting these enriching experiences,” she adds. “All children have gifts that we can be uncovering.  I don’t think school as we currently have it is designed to do that.”

What will it take?

Indeed, the one thing almost everyone involved can agree on is that the racial achievement gap is a problem that goes beyond Charlottesville, and that no one has effectively solved it.

“What’s happening in Charlottesville is not at all unique to Charlottesville; this is a nationwide trend that schools are failing our black students,” says a city elementary school teacher who asked not to be identified by name. “My questions are, who is doing this better than us, with a similar population? What do we need to do differently?”

A 2016 Stanford University study of standardized test scores found that Charlottesville ranks with other college towns in the 10 percent of districts with the widest racial achievement gaps, but that these gaps exist nationwide. And it’s difficult to separate the school system’s problems from those of the community itself: Charlottesville is a rapidly gentrifying city with a long history of racial and economic segregation.

Grappling with that legacy, several educators say, will require some deep, long-term work, like rethinking teaching to be culturally relevant, and hiring and retaining more African American teachers.

Justin Malone, who started as principal of Jackson-Via Elementary last year and led Charlottesville High School for four years before that, says he recognizes the problems identified in the story, but that in his experience, Charlottesville City Schools are committed to trying to improve.

“Even before the events of Aug 11 and 12, it’s hard not to just ask yourself, are you doing it right, are you doing it well?” he says. “That’s been the work.”

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