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Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said she will be recommending in June that School Board members make changes to the district’s Quest gifted education program.

“It will look quite different,” Atkins said.

Atkins’ move came in light of a letter found by a University of Virginia doctoral student, Margaret Thornton. In the letter written in the 1950s, a woman identified as “Ms. Smith” recommended that school officials create a program to test children because city schools at the time were ordered to integrate. Students who tested well would be put into a majority white accelerated program.

The letter detailed gifted and the average groups made up somewhere from about 15% to more than 20% of the total school population in communities “where this type of program has been undertaken.” It also acknowledged that “some of these gifted and above average children will be negroes,” thus satisfying the court orders and showing enough integration to satisfy federal officials.

Quest came into being about 20 years later and operates similarly to what was described in Smith’s letter.

Thornton, a former 10th-grade English teacher at Charlottesville High School, said the letter was found in UVa’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Her interests have been in desegregation, so she researched gifted programs to see where they originated. Her presentation came in the wake of a 2018 New York Times/ProPublica article on racial inequalities in education that focused on Quest.

“I would love to see a program of enrichment that’s centered around the idea that every child has gifts,” she said in an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow. “The job of the school is to help children uncover and refine those gifts, and we should be using research-based instruction.”

Atkins said the letter is upsetting, adding Thornton’s presentation to the board meeting on Thursday was important because it illustrated the intentionality to comply with the law but do it in the most marginalized way possible to avoid full desegregation.

“My first thought was, for such a long time, we’ve been knocking on the door to get our children in the gifted program,” Atkins said. “We should have been knocking the door down and the structures that held up that door to get them in. Our students are incredibly smart. Black and brown students are smart.”

The letter corroborated what people have suspected for years, she said.

“For so many years, we knew something was going on — that something was happening to our children where they couldn’t get into Quest,” Atkins said.

According to figures from Sept. 30, 73% of students in Quest are white and black and Hispanic students make up 13% and 5%, respectively. The school system is 43% white, 37% black and 11% Hispanic.

Student School Board representative Zyahna Bryant, who has been a Quest student, said she wished some of her friends were offered the same opportunity. She noted she’s aware of the educational disparities and racial inequalities in the district and hopes that the board begin to call the “different layers of racism.”

“A lot of people in the community, on the board and other committees need letters like this to be like, ‘Oh, racism is real,’” she said. “I hope this is enough for them to actually start moving.”

School Board Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said Thornton provided an understanding of the historical context for which Quest was created.

“I look forward to making changes,” she said. “You cannot uncover all these contexts and just continue. You have to do better when you know better.”