Tough talks: Hundreds gather to discuss racial inequities in city schools

The CHS cafeteria was packed October 23 with community members eager to talk about longstanding racial disparities that became a national news story.

Dede Smith The CHS cafeteria was packed October 23 with community members eager to talk about longstanding racial disparities that became a national news story. Dede Smith

Charlottesville City Schools has opened up a dialogue on racial disparities in its schools, with a survey to parents and a series of community forums, the first of which was held on October 23.

Though data on the black/white gap in city schools—in everything from suspension rates to participation in gifted programs—has existed for decades, the outreach is in response to an October 16 ProPublica/New York Times story spotlighting the district as having one of the biggest racial achievement gaps in the country.

At the forum, hundreds of community members filled Charlottesville High School’s cafeteria, where Charlene Green, manager of the city’s Office of Human Rights, told the crowd: “This is not about holding hands and singing ‘We Are the World,’ because it’s not going to happen. We need to figure out how we’re going to have these difficult conversations and listen to each other.”

In breakout groups, attendees discussed issues like gifted identification and hiring and supporting teachers of color.

Valarie Walker, who grew up in city schools, was in attendance along with her daughter, Trinity Hughes, who was one of the two African American students featured in the Times article.

Walker talked about her own experience as a child at Greenbrier Elementary School, which she enjoyed. “I still talk to my fifth grade teacher to this day,” she says. “We give each other hugs.”

But she also brought up her struggle to get her older daughter enrolled in an advanced course at Charlottesville High School, where she eventually thrived. Trinity, too, is now doing well in Algebra II, the class she could not get into her junior year because she struggled in math as a freshman. “I think it’s just trying to make sure that all kids have opportunities,” Walker says of the changes that need happen. “I think a lot of the kids just get pushed to the back.”

She’s glad the city is offering the forums (a second is scheduled for November 27). “You have to have the community’s input,” she says. And like many attendees, she was encouraged by the conversations happening that night. “When everybody gets together and everybody feels the same way, it makes you feel better.”

John Santoski, a former school board member whose two daughters attended city schools (one is now a teacher at CHS), says it was “good to see so many people come out,” but he’s withholding judgment on the city’s response.

“We’re really good here in Charlottesville at getting together and talking about things,” he says, noting that he was involved in many of these same conversations 25 years ago, when he was on the school board. “Whether there’s really going to be action…the jury’s still out.”


Initial results from a Charlottesville City Schools survey sent to all parents in the district revealed a glaring gap between the way white parents and black parents experience city schools.

For instance, in response to the statement: “My school values cultural similarities and differences,” 82 percent of white parents, but only 47 percent of black parents, agreed that the schools were moving in the right direction. On all questions, a greater proportion of white respondents rated the schools as moving in the right direction.

At the forum, city schools spokeswoman Beth Cheuk also noted that only 14 percent of respondents identified as black (in a district that’s roughly a third black), a red flag that the schools need to do a better job of reaching out to parents of color.

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