On October 16, 2018, ProPublica and The New York Times published an article about educational disparities among white and black students in Charlottesville City Schools. To learn more about our response to the article and to further explore the issues raised by the article, see below.
Links of Interest:
- Letters of responses to the article from Superintendent Rosa Atkins and the Charlottesville School Board.
- Overview of Charlottesville City Schools’ ongoing efforts to promote equity
- February 2018 News and Highlights containing an equity update
- Updates on community forums to solicit feedback from the community
- Posting for Supervisor of Equity and Inclusion
A Deeper Dive on Specific Topics Addressed in or Related to the Article
In 2016 Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education first published a national data set of K-12 standardized test scores. One conclusion of the review suggests that while the achievement gap is an enduring national problem, it is acutely apparent in many college towns. And like school divisions in Berkeley, Chapel Hill, and Ann Arbor, we have been vigorously working to implement best practices and innovate new solutions. Like those other school divisions, we have seen progress but still have goals to accomplish. For an overview of our efforts, please visit charlottesvilleschoools.org/equity.
Among other programs and efforts, it describes our sometimes pioneering work in areas such as:
- designing “honors-option” classes in English and other high school subjects, which has led to a significant increase in honors and advanced class enrollment, particularly among African-American students. In these honors-option classes, students elect assignments and readings that will lead to either standard or honors-level credit. Based on the success of this strategy, CHS continues to expand these options.
- developing a iSTEM program to reach all our students (even in the elementary schools) so that we can teach design thinking, build coding skills, demystify STEM skills, and build bridges to our internationally acclaimed middle- and high-school engineering programs.
- creating a culture of trauma sensitivity, social-emotional learning, and positive climate that is foundational to academic and personal growth. Our pilot of elementary SEAL (social emotional and academic learning) classrooms (at Greenbrier and Clark Elementary Schools) is a unique offering that is already generating findings and best practices applicable in all our classrooms. Our establishment of two key programs (Positive Behavior and Supports and Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports) gained state acclaim for its emphasis on mental health; the program was featured as a case study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The Stanford researchers discuss the “complex relationships between schooling and non-schooling factors that might affect achievement gaps.” For further information, see their article, The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps.
We are not yet where we want to be in seeing diverse enrollment in advanced classes, AP classes, and Dual Enrollment classes. However, we have seen gains in honors, dual enrollment, and AP enrollment from 2015-16 to 2017-18 for our African-American students, with black students’ participation in honors classes up 29 percent (even excluding enrollment in honors-option classes). We attribute this trend to a number of factors, including our locally-developed strategy of honors-option classes and our strong AVID program (which prepares students for college success).
In addition, CHS has redesigned its process for teachers making course recommendations; the new process gives students greater agency in goal-setting so that the student and teacher can work together to prepare for success in the next year’s chosen courses.
An audit of Charlottesville Schools’ efforts to promote racial parity was commissioned in 2004 during a time of tremendous turmoil at Charlottesville City Schools. When Dr. Atkins joined the district in 2006, she became our ninth superintendent (or interim superintendent) in thirteen years. In 2004-5 there was a particularly divisive 10-month period in which a new superintendent came and left, leaving a wake of uncertainty and polarization.
In the midst of this turmoil, the 2004 audit was completed but did not receive the support or buy-in of the school community. In fact, the audit itself became a symbol of this divisiveness.
Because of its unpopularity, the audit was not revived when Dr. Atkins joined the schools two years later, but the ideas of the audit and its commitment to equity have appeared in Charlottesville City Schools’ strategic plans and initiatives. Some of these initiatives include a major shift toward data-driven decision-making, our award-winning use of instructional technology, reorganization of central office staff to better support school staff, and the creation and annual review of our curricular Guides to Pacing and Standards that provide pacing, standards, and resources.
All of our elementary schools are diverse and have a significant number of students who are economically disadvantaged. At Venable Elementary, for instance, students of color make up 41 percent of the enrollment, and students who are economically disadvantaged, 39 percent.
Having said that, our elementary schools do not, and have not ever, featured an equal distribution of income levels and racial/ethnic groups. Generally speaking, Greenbrier, Burnley-Moran, and Venable have a higher percentage of white and higher-income students than Clark, Jackson-Via, and Johnson. This is reflective of our city’s neighborhoods.
Even so, last winter, as part of our planning meetings and community forums on our growing resident enrollment, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Kim Powell told media, City Council members, School Board Members, and community members that “Rezoning the elementary schools is in our future.” The process of how and when to rezone is dependent on which facilities solution our community elects.
It should be noted that professional planners and individual Charlottesville residents have concluded over the years that this rezoning will not be simple; “solving” the balance at one school worsens the balance at another. As with all issues, what we see in the schools is a reflection of our community. We hope that this work will be complemented by the City of
Charlottesville’s recent and current work on affordable housing and other equity issues that impact our City neighborhoods.
In Charlottesville City Schools, the primary supports for students who need extra assistance are offered during the school day in ways that mirror the structure of the gifted program. In addition, our elementary schools offer a voluntary after-school program called Extending the Bridges to Literacy program. To learn more, read on.
Extending the Bridges to Literacy (EBL) is in the third year of a pilot supported by state grant funding. The point of the grant is to prompt schools’ innovation in extending the learning day for at-risk students (either by adding school days or after-school hours). It’s difficult to compare an after-school pilot to established, in-school programs such as the QUEST program or the supports led by our reading specialists. Both the reading specialists and the gifted teachers follow a similar collaborative model for working with classroom teachers to identify the students who would (at that moment) benefit from their push-in and pull-out services. The goal of the EBL after-school program is to provide voluntary extra learning time for students who might benefit from it, and its chief strategy is to build motivation and confidence by capitalizing on students’ own interests with individualized reading suggestions. As for resources, the EBL program has ample classroom space, specifically trained teachers, and a very low 1:6 teacher-student ratio.
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.
No identification process will ever be perfect, so aside from students who are identified for gifted services, a pool of high-potential students from traditionally underserved groups also receives QUEST services. In addition, in recent years, pull-out services are only part of our efforts; the program relies on a model of collaboration between the QUEST teacher and classroom teachers. Our gifted teachers also do push-in instruction with small groups and the whole class so that all Charlottesville City Schools students benefit from access to the QUEST teachers and the instructional strategies that they offer.
As for the identification process itself, referrals and identification for the program are continuous; the division uses multiple criteria and a variety of screening methods to facilitate equitable consideration of students. The VA Department of Education’s 2017 report “Increasing Diversity in Gifted Education Programs in Virginia” references several of our practices because they recognized the innovative and inclusive intent of our processes. Even so, until our QUEST program reflects the full range of giftedness in our community, we will continue to seek out and create new solutions and approaches.
For questions about our after-school Extending the Bridges to Literacy program (which is not a parallel program to QUEST), see above.
Philosophically, CHS and Charlottesville City Schools have a goal of opening doors for students and pushing students to do their best, set and attain goals, and prepare for success in their adult lives.
Our African-American graduation completion index has risen 12 points since 2011 — and compared with our low point in 2006, it has risen 25 points! Graduation is a far more important marker for future educational and employment opportunities than diploma type, and we are proud of all our students’ accomplishments.
Our African-American students’ rates of attainment of the two types of diplomas track much more strongly with their black peers across Virginia than with their white peers at CHS. We want to empower our students to set their own path, and we want to support them in their goals. When there are barriers that prevent our students’ success, we advocate for them by seeking legislative solutions (such as the SOL testing flexibility we gained in Virginia for English language learners) or by developing programs to help students attain their goals. For instance, one commonly cited barrier to attainment of the advanced diploma is the world language requirement. At the request of students and families, we have worked to offer American Sign Language as an offering, and on a broader scale, we developed a much-copied elementary Spanish program to familiarize all of our students with a world language. Where we identify barriers, we want to work with our community to identify solutions.
At Charlottesville City Schools, we actively recruit minority teachers and staff to better reflect our diverse student body. For example, we partner with the University of Virginia’s African American Teaching Fellows program and recruit at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
Among our teaching staff, 16 percent are presently people of color (with 11 percent being African American). Among our entire staff, 25 percent are presently people of color (with 22 percent being African American).
The diversity of our teaching staff lags slightly below the metro area’s demographics:
Our staff — and shown here, our teachers — do not mirror the diversity of our student population, a much more challenging goal given that most of our applicants and employees live within the metro area:
The state’s Standards of Learning tests are an easy way to get a point-in-time snapshot of whether a a student met a specific threshold, but these tests are criticized for their frequent changes to content and format and their inability to measure a student’s growth.
Charlottesville City Schools has experimented with several growth measurement tools in the past years and starting in the 2018 year, we are using the nationally normed MAP test in grades 2-8. This data will help us identify individual and group needs and customize supports. It will also give us a better picture of our students’ growth and abilities relative to schools across the country. MAP data suggests that our students are growing and that over time, a greater percentage of our students (in all racial/ethnic categories) are demonstrating reading proficiency.
What are our other commitments for reading instruction in recent and current years?
Updates for this year’s literacy initiatives include:
- robust data walls to track growth and needs so that instruction and interventions with reading specialists and others can be more timely and effective;
- better alignment with SPED and other programs and increased training/progress monitoring requirements;
- revised/new curriculum for Benchmark Literacy and Calkins Units of Study in Writing;
- professional learning for reading specialists (who in turn lead school-based literacy work) that specifically addresses the achievement gap.
We offer an array of in-school strategies and supports for students who need them. In addition, we are in year three of a state-funded pilot of “Extending the Bridges to Literacy,” a voluntary after-school program. This program is an example of ways that we are innovating to address these concerns.
As we make clear with every announcement of accreditation and Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores, we – along with our peers across the state – have reservations about the SOL tests and what they do and do not measure. The state’s Standards of Learning tests are an easy way to get a point-in-time snapshot of whether a a student met a specific threshold, but these tests are criticized for their frequent changes in content and format and their inability to measure a student’s growth. They are a point-in-time measure of a cohort’s knowledge on a series of disparate exams.
Do we take SOL scores seriously? Of course. They are an important state measure, and they also point out the disparities that we need to address for our students of color and our students who face economic disadvantages.
Due to the diagnostic limitations of the SOL tests, however, we have spent several years surveying and testing nationally accepted instruments that are more helpful in guiding our instruction. This year, we have implemented the use of the MAP test for reading and math, which creates a portrait of individual students’ and cohorts’ growth. Preliminary results from these nationally normed tools indicate that the tremendous gaps that we find in our preschool populations diminish over the years that our students are enrolled at Charlottesville City Schools, leading to our strong end-of-course pass rates and our rising graduation rate at CHS.
We have made tremendous progress in reducing our rate of suspensions. In the last decade, the division-wide rate of suspensions has dropped 83 percent, and at Charlottesville High School, it has dropped 87 percent. We are very proud of these dramatic gains. We are still making progress on the disproportionality of the remaining suspensions, which we are addressing in a number of ways.
We continue to scaffold our systems of supports (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports), which offer a more holistic and data-driven approach and direct attention to underlying issues. In a similar
vein, we are a founding member of the Greater Charlottesville Trauma Informed Community Network, which provides professional learning and shared resources to help our schools and community agencies.
In addition, as part of our larger commitment to creating an environment that is welcoming and supportive to all, we have offered professional learning focusing on issues such as Charlottesville’s African-American history along with a range of small-group and division-wide book studies, film viewings, conferences, and workshops that address issues of racism, systemic barriers, implicit bias, positive climate training, restorative practices, and more.
Other Resources and Related Reporting on Equity
- Failing Grade:: Community responds to ProPublica/NYT piece on racial inequities in city schools (Cville Weekly, October 23, 2018)
- “Local education inequities across U.S. revealed in new Stanford data set” (Stanford News, April 29, 2016)
- The College-Town Achievement Gap (The Atlantic, June 1, 2017)
- “Building Better Narratives in Black Education” (United Negro College Fund Report, 2016)
- “The “New Racism” of K–12 Schools: Centering Critical Research on Racism” (Review of Research in Education, March 2017)