Superintendent to give more details at June 13 meeting

RICHMOND — After examining the structures of the Charlottesville City Schools’ gifted education program, Quest, Superintendent Rosa Atkins said she’s aiming at creating new pathways.

The School Board was updated on the new improvements on May 31, the first day of a two-day retreat at the Hilton Richmond Short Pump in western Henrico County. Improvements will be made in the way students are identified in the program, Atkins said, as well as the services provided.

The division plans to expand its universal screening that occurs at first grade to at least two grade levels. The plan also includes bolstering a push-in teaching model, which allows all students to receive instructions at the same time, as gifted specialists collaborate with classroom teachers.

“We will be pushing in with co-teaching and collaborating with classroom teachers,” Beverly Catlin, who coordinates instruction for Charlottesville, said in an interview.

The changes discussed at the meeting for next year are not finalized. Adkins plans to go before the board June 13 with more specificity.

She said that the current model has benefited students, adding that their performance on standardized tests, such as the ACT, and their acceptance rate into postsecondary schools has corroborated the program’s success.

She told board members she’s making the changes so that the program benefits students equitably.

Last year, racial inequalities came to the forefront after an article by the New York Times and ProPublica focused on the division’s gifted program. The school system overall is 43% white, 37% black and 11% Latino; 73% of students in Quest are white, 13% are black and 5% are Latino.

Virginia schools are required to identify gifted students. Charlottesville students are identified via multiple methods, including classroom performance, portfolio activities, student checklists and standardized tests, according to Catlin’s presentation.

Catlin said the division will continue to focus in English, math and visual arts, per state requirements, to identify gifted students. Math and English are used to identify gifted students from first through 12th grade. Visual arts are used from fifth to 12th grade.

The division also uses universal screening protocols to identify gifted students in first grade. It aims to expand the universal screening from one to two.

“We don’t just identify students in first grade. First grade is the universal screening,” Catlin said. “Students are identified all the way through 12th grade. Every year, we are identifying students.”

In the new identification plan, the division plans to review observation protocols and checklists.

Teachers and gifted specialists will collaborate to keep classroom observation notes, collect student work for portfolios, review notes, portfolio data, classroom performance and achievement data, among others, according to Catlin’s presentation.

“We’re [going] to look at protocols that we’re using and the checklist that we’re using, comparing them to the most current research and [we’ll] see if we want to stay with the one that we’re using or if we want to make some changes,” Catlin said.

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School Board member Leah Puryear said she understood Catlin’s presentation, but something is missing in the identification process. She said there’s something subjective that educators may not be able to write down in the identification procedure but it’s in that child.

“My issue is, if I’m the teacher and I’m doing the identification, the children are not going to benefit from the services if they’re not identified or is everyone going to be identified,” she said. “I’m saying if I’m not able to identify the child with all this and that child is missed how, do we pick them up?”

Puryear also voiced concerns about how the gifted program has a negative connotation.

“I think that all students are gifted,” she said. “In this community, the word gifted is exclusionary.”

She said she has been in the community for a long time and won’t forget when a group of students approached her to ask what’s wrong with them.

“I wasn’t even on the School Board,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t understand what you mean. “What is wrong with me?”’ I said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’”

And then the students asked Puryear why people were talking about them.

“‘They’re talking about me like there’s something wrong with me’” Leah said. “‘We can’t help where we live. We can’t help who our parents are.’”

Board member Lisa Larson-Torres also took issue with the gifted term.

“Isn’t every child gifted? I think we need to change how we’re talking about this,” she said emotionally. “Every child is gifted. We need to see that. I don’t like hearing kids being identified as gifted, and we need to change it.”