Quest in context: Troubled roots of city school’s gifted program

Former Charlottesville High School teacher Margaret Thornton says her research suggests that city schools' gifted education program, Quest, was created to segregate students. Courtesy photo Former Charlottesville High School teacher Margaret Thornton says her research suggests that city schools’ gifted education program, Quest, was created to segregate students. Courtesy photo

Though the gifted education program in Charlottesville City Schools has recently come under fire for its racial disparities, such gaps have existed since the program was created in 1976, and may have even been part of its intention.

At tonight’s School Board meeting, former Charlottesville High School teacher and Ph.D. student Margaret Thornton will present new research that suggests the elite program, called Quest, was formed as a way to keep white students separate from the black students who had recently integrated into the city’s public schools after a time of resistance to desegregation.

Thornton’s report includes a letter from a local woman who proposed a program that the highest-achieving and mainly white students would test into. These students would be pulled out of class to study separately from the others three days a week, the woman, Ms. Smith, said. She also acknowledged that a small percentage of them could be “negroes.”

“It is to be hoped that the plan as outlined above offers a limited form of desegregation, which may placate the fears of those who object to any opportunity of social intermingling of the races, may satisfy the federal courts, and last but not least, may give us a form of desegregated education of which we can all be proud,” wrote Smith.

Roughly 19 years later, in 1976, Quest was born. And its structure was almost exactly the same as Smith’s proposal, says Thornton.

By 1983, Thornton found that 19 percent of the school district’s white students, and fewer than 3 percent of its black students had tested into Quest, prompting city schools to expand its definition of “gifted” to include more students. But the next year, an audit by the U.S. Department of Education still found that black students were underidentified in gifted programs, and overidentified in special education.

At CHS, says Thornton, “walkouts ensued.”

And the issue of the disparity has periodically boiled to the surface of conversation in Charlottesville ever since. Most recently, the topic was raised last fall when The New York Times and ProPublica published a scathing indictment on persistent and widening achievement gaps between white and black students, highlighting, among other problems, the overrepresentation of white students in Quest.

“When people bring up Quest, we get angry,” said CHS 12th-grader Trinity Hughes in the October article. “We all wish we had the opportunity to have that separate creative time. It drives a gap between students from elementary school on.”

Despite efforts by Charlottesville City Schools to address the issue, it’s only gotten worse: the percentage of white students who are identified as gifted has shot up from 11 percent in 1984 to roughly 33 percent today. Overall, white students make up more than 70 percent of students in Quest—in a district that is only 43 percent white.

Thornton formerly taught some “honors-option” English classes at CHS, where students of all abilities are in the same class and examine the same big questions, but use different texts and assignments depending on whether they’re working for honors-level credit. Now she studies similar initiatives (commonly known as “detracking”) at UVA, and says she’s interested in how school leaders and teachers can work together to create heterogeneous classrooms that work for all students.

“Now that I understand how firmly rooted these [gifted] programs are in avoiding integration, I hope we as a community can realize we can’t tweak Quest,” says Thornton. “We have to come up with something new that enriches every student.”

After hearing about Thornton’s research, Superintendent Rosa Atkins invited her to present to the school board. Board chair Jennifer McKeever, who is also familiar with Thornton’s research, says it’s important to recognize the historical context of Quest, and the program should be re-examined.

“Now that we kind of understand better, we have to do better,” she says, adding that two of her kids have been through the gifted program and one has not.

Federal law requires some separation of students by ability, she says, and segregation “is absolutely not” the current goal of Quest.

Says McKeever, “It’s really concerning that this is such a clear indication of structural bias and institutional racism.”

Updated May 3 to correct an error: Quest began roughly 19 years after Ms. Smith’s letter, not 9.