Less than a year after Charlottesville City Schools were called out in the national press for longstanding racial disparities, the city is paying nearly $500,000 to help remake its gifted education program.
City Council approved the appropriation of $468,000 on August 5 to pay the salaries of six new gifted education teachers for the 2019-20 school year. It’s part of an overhaul of Quest—Charlottesville’s gifted program—that’s centered around establishing a more inclusive approach to both instruction and selection.
“For us to be able to be in classrooms with the frequency and regularity that we want [in order to] really have an impact for all children, the decision by the superintendent…was that we needed to add more gifted resource teachers,” says Bev Catlin, coordinator of gifted instruction.
Prior to this year, each of the city’s six elementary schools had one full-time gifted education teacher on staff; the new hires will now split duties with the existing instructors in an effort to provide more hands-on learning and attention to individual students.
As part of Quest’s new approach, students identified as gifted will no longer be pulled from their classroom for separate instruction. Instead, lessons traditionally given to these students will be extended to the rest of the class as well.
In October, The New York Times and ProPublica co-authored an article that highlighted the city schools’ racial achievement gap (one of the highest in the nation), and pointed out that white children made up more than 70 percent of Quest despite representing only 43 percent of the student population. The story linked these disparities to Charlottesville’s history of school segregation, and declared that the current system “segregates students from the time they start, and steers them into separate and unequal tracks.”
CCS became the target of heavy criticism, prompting Superintendent Rosa Atkins to admit in a press conference that the school district still had work to do in order to make “consistent or satisfactory progress for all our students.” She said at an ensuing community forum that while CCS didn’t believe the divide to be rooted in racism, “we have not fully lined up with the values that we have communicated.”
“We were very sensitive to the reaction of that article, and it has never been our intention as a program to not serve a group of students or to hurt a group of students,” Catlin says. “So what I think has happened—and we are very excited about it—is the agenda has moved very quickly…because we could’ve talked about this for a while and we had been talking about making changes [but now] we’re making them. We’re ready to go.”
In addition to providing enrichment education to all children in their classrooms, the district is also changing how it identifies students as gifted. Before, students were identified in first grade as eligible for Quest, but that process will now extend into the third grade to create a more inclusive learning environment and avoid labeling specific kids in the eyes of their classmates.
“We are going to have even more collaboration with the classroom teachers than what we saw with the previous model, which I think is really exciting,” says Ashley Riley, a gifted education specialist at Clark Elementary. She says the schools will be able to serve students more “thoughtfully” and in “intentional ways.”
The school district also hired UVA education professor Catherine Brighton as a consultant to help guide its continued reconfiguration of Quest. Brighton, who’s worked in Charlottesville since 2001, says her role will involve acting as a “sounding board” and helping the district analyze the best practices for providing gifted education.
“I’m in terrific support of the work that they’re doing,” she says. “I think that the idea of serving all the students in the classroom and the geography of the services happening in the general education classroom is squarely in line with the research in the field.”