Letter to Black Student Union

Dear members of the Black Student Union at Charlottesville High School:

Thanks so much for taking the time to outline your thoughtful ideas for ways to promote equity in Charlottesville City Schools. As you know, during the last months, our school communities have been vigorously discussing and taking steps to make sure that our schools are eliminating barriers and providing the supports and opportunities that will assure the empowerment and success of students of color and other marginalized groups. For an update on some of the actions our schools have taken since the fall, please see Dr. Atkins’ February newsletter or the update at our “equity forums” page on the web site.

We would like to address your concerns point by point to state what we have done so far in these areas. We are not suggesting that our actions have consistently  been successful or impactful. But by giving these updates, we hope that you’ll see that your ideas complement our ongoing and current efforts. In other words, we want the same things as you, and we are listening and acting to make sure our schools increasingly reflect these goals and values.  The next step is for us to work together to bridge the gap between our current efforts and our shared goals. 

 

Charlottesville City Schools denounce and call out RACISM against Black and Brown students.

As a School Board, we have and will continue to denounce racism against Black and Latinx students. In their written and oral responses to the racist threat that shut down our schools last month, Dr. Rosa Atkins, Chief RaShall Brackney, and Mayor Nikuyah Walker were clear in stating that there is no place for racism, hate, or threats in our schools. Of course, this threat made by someone who is not a Charlottesville student or resident is only one instance of racism. One of the top priorities we heard in our community feedback — and that we hear in your words — is the need to focus on systemic barriers and practices. So in addition to denouncing racism, we are taking active steps to dismantle it through actions such as our dress code resolution banning items associated with racial and religious hatred and violence, our intentional community-building that helps students celebrate their similarities and differences, or our professional learning centered on cultural competence. Past examples include our commitment to reducing or eliminating fees, providing transportation for after-school activities and many evening events, offering translation services, and  providing chromebooks to all students. Two other, unfolding examples include the QUEST program (re-emphasizing its push-in, whole-class elements and reexamining the identification process) and implementing the honors-option model next year at Walker and Buford to diversify classrooms. 

 

African American History class to hold the same weight as an honors history course, not an elective.

This change is reflected in next year’s Program of Study, approved by the School Board last month. Thanks for bringing this suggestion to our attention a few months ago. Students will have the option of taking our African-American history class for honors credit and honors GPA weighting. (As for changing the African-American class to satisfy the state’s history requirements, that is a matter that needs to be addressed on the state level. We are among a handful of school divisions to offer a Black History class, so there is presently no state-endorsed curriculum, no state standards of learning, and no option to earn a verified credit from the state. 

 

The hiring of more Black teachers, especially in CORE CLASS honors, AP, honors and DE studies.

Yes! This was the single-most requested action item in our listening sessions that we held for students, staff, parents, and community members throughout this winter and spring in our schools, community centers, and houses of worship. Our human resources department has begun implementing additional strategies in our already-vigorous recruitment of teachers of color. In addition to our traditional efforts such as visiting HBCUs and other diverse recruiting locations and having staff members of color represent us at these events, we are now implementing new strategies such as early letters of intent to hire high-potential employees of color, presenting at conferences, and making classroom presentations at HBCUs. As a sign of hope, the schools have offered early letters of intent to four recent CHS graduates who are Black and who will be graduating from college with teaching licensure this year or next. While this is just four teachers, we hope that they are indicative of our effort to recruit teachers who understand our students and our city. We also recognize and celebrate that teachers of color are highly sought-after not only by school divisions, but many other industries, so we are considering how our schools can be attractive and supportive workplaces for teachers of color and all staff. 

 

Extended resources, in addition to AVID, for future Black and Brown first generation college students.

As the BSU statement notes, we have extensive resources with AVID, and this program is complemented by our other partnerships with groups such as Upward Bound, GEAR UP, and the Virginia College Advising Corps. Tutoring and academic supports are available through AVID, after-school teachers’ support hours, and volunteer tutors through CHS peers and groups such as UVa’s Madison House and Abundant Life Ministries. Having said that, we are open to further suggestion and are always seeking to continuously improve the services we already provide and the number of students we reach. One of the items that the Black community “upvoted” during our listening sessions was that we should make supports more visible and accessible, and we are considering the best way to address this. Help us figure out how to get the word out and make these supports stronger and more impactful. 

 

Discipline Reform – End the excessive suspending and policing of Black middle and high school students by creating a diverse governing board of staff, students, and parents to oversee equitable and effective discipline.

While we are pleased that suspensions have dropped in our school division by 80% in a decade, we recognize that these disciplinary actions continue to disproportionately impact our students of color. (You can find data here.) Our equity committee — formed of staff, parents, community members and more (and with student representation facilitated by Daniel Fairley and Eric Irizarry) — can make a recommendation regarding a discipline committee. In the meanwhile, we will continue to address this issue on the front end by promoting positive behavior. The Annie E. Casey Foundation and other state and national groups have highlighted our work in areas such as positive behavior systems, direct instruction of social-emotional skills, trauma-responsive strategies, restorative justice practices, and implicit bias training. 

 

Test EVERY student for Quest.

Since 2013, we have been testing all first-graders for QUEST, our gifted program. For older students who move into our schools, we review their test-score data from their first year in our schools to review for indicators of giftedness. In a perfect world, testing all students — even every year, as you propose — would alleviate the disparities we find in the identification process for gifted. However, despite innovative efforts from our staff and the Quest Advisory Committee, we have not yet found success. Consequently, our staff and Gifted Advisory Committee are redoubling their efforts to find the best identification process and teaching model. We continue to consult with national experts on gifted identification. In the meanwhile, we have already begun to further emphasize push-in, whole-class instruction as part of our collaborative gifted model. And aside from students who are officially identified as “gifted,” the gifted program’s pull-out services include a broader and more diverse pool of high-potential students. As we have said earlier, “We would like to state the obvious: that giftedness is distributed equally among all groups, and when we, like other school divisions, fail to identify and nurture all expressions of giftedness, it is a loss to our entire community.” 

 

Apply Mental Health practices that are culturally relevant and racially aware.

This is a shared goal not only for our counselors, but for all Charlottesville City Schools employees. We are committed to a community-wide system of supports that does not relegate responsibility for mental health to a small number of school counselors and psychologists. In fact, we and one other Virginia school division recently won a grant to supply the “Teen Mental Health First Aid” program for teachers, staff members, and particularly students (who will be among the first in the country to be eligible for this program). Our counselors, like our teachers, continue to seek additional training in cultural awareness, trauma-responsiveness, restorative practices, implicit bias, local history, addressing racial microaggressions, and more. 

 

A high standard for programming associated with Black History. No one should have the opportunity to opt out of Black History.

While we are one of a small number of high schools that offer a dedicated course in African-American history, we, too, believe that Black history is American history. Our teachers, librarians, and World Studies Coordinator Annie Evans have increased their long-standing efforts to incorporate local and African-American history across the curriculum and throughout the year (including the voices and stories of American Indians, Latinx and other ethnic groups, religious minorities, and other underrepresented perspectives).  From preK on up, our students are increasingly encountering diverse voices, stories, and experiences in classroom materials, the arts, and student activities. We are pleased that among our many responses to the summer of 2017 was a CHS-spearheaded community “big read” of The Hate U Give, and that the book is now part of our 9th-grade English curriculum.  A new example would be that Charlottesville City Schools is one of six school systems statewide involved in Changing the Narrative, a Virginia Humanities initiative that aims to explore Black history and culture in schools and encourages young people of color to explore and highlight their heritage. For more information on our efforts to include local and Black history, you might be interested in Carol Diggs’ recent article in Cville Weekly: “Telling All the Stories: The People and Places Working to Restore Charlottesville’s African American History” (6 Feb. 2019).  We thank the BSU for your own work in helping us broaden the voices our students hear through contributions such as the creation of the African-American lecture series during Black History Month at CHS. 

 

Racial bias and cultural sensitivity training for all School Resource Officers.

The Charlottesville Police Department would need to speak to this concern directly, but our school resource officers (SROs) undergo special training that qualifies them to work in diverse K12 settings and all CPD officers take annual cultural diversity/biased-based policing classes. It is absolutely our hope and commitment that SROs are present in our schools to promote safety and wellbeing for all students and staff. (We thank them for their work keeping all students and staff safe when they were present at schools and community events during the time of the threat, and we appreciate their role in apprehending the young man who posted the threat.) 

 

Implement the same locked door and buzzer system currently used by the elementary schools at Walker, Buford, and Charlottesville High School, to ensure the safety of the student body as a whole and the staff.

Agreed! Previously-scheduled work began at all three schools the day after your walk-out. This complements the recent upgrades at our elementary schools. This work will take some time, so we anticipate that the systems will be operational this summer.

 

Conclusion

As we hope you can tell, your concerns are our concerns, and we are not only talking but taking action on these ideas. The similarities between the community’s and schools’ values and priorities raise the question, “Why aren’t the schools consistently seeing better results?” Let’s work together to answer this question.

To do that, we need input from staff, students, parents, and community members. We appreciate the student feedback we received from your presentation at our School Board meeting this fall, your participation (and leadership) in student focus groups at CHS and Buford, the “priorities for equity” voting exercise at CHS (which reflected the ideas you presented at our fall School Board meeting), our student representatives on the School Board (including BSU founder Zyahna Bryant), and emails and conversations with teachers, staff, administrators, and members of the School Board.

While our community feedback from across Charlottesville has conveyed that our educators, students, parents, and community members largely share the same values, each constituency has unique — and needed — perspectives on how to make sure that our efforts for equity in Charlottesville City Schools move beyond good intentions to positive impact.

Dr. Rosa Atkins, Superintendent, and the Charlottesville City School Board