Overhauling gifted education and developing a more diverse teaching staff were among the priorities of stakeholders who attended Charlottesville City Schools’ community forum on equity Tuesday night.

At the forum, ideas generated by discussion groups at the first community forum in October and a separate forum for school staff were displayed on four posters in the Charlottesville High School cafeteria. A fifth poster provided space for attendees to write new ideas.

Attendees also were asked to place stickers next to the statements that were most important to them. Charlene Green, manager of Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights, moderated an audience discussion about some of the popular topics.

School Board Chairman Juandiego Wade said the board would continue to gather feedback from stakeholders while drafting a new equity policy for the school division and identifying budget priorities for next year.

“We are getting information in all types of ways — at churches, at grocery stores,” Wade said.
“I can assure you we are going to be asking staff about these priorities.”

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Charlottesville schools launched a public outreach campaign this fall in response to a New York Times/ProPublica story that investigated the achievement gap between the city’s black students and their white peers. Racial disparities in Quest, the school division’s program for gifted students, was one subject of the story that remained at the forefront of Tuesday’s discussion.

About 73 percent of students currently in Quest are white and 13 percent are black. White students make up about 43 percent of Charlottesville’s total K-12 enrollment, while black students make up 32 percent.

One parent said that Charlottesville City Schools appears to constantly sort students into separate academic tracks throughout their schooling experience.

“That is in the bones of the system,” she said. “Once you start tracking students, you are expecting less of them.”

Maggie Thornton, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education & Human Development, said her research reveals Quest’s origins as a form of de-facto segregation in the years after Charlottesville’s schools were forced to integrate in the 1960s.

“Can we repurpose something when it’s original purpose was to resegregate students? I think not,” Thornton said.

Thornton said that simply dismantling Quest would not be enough to ensure a more equitable outcome for students.

“We have to play some chess and think about how [a new system] will be manipulated by parents with privilege,” she said.

School Board member Sherry Kraft said that she and other school board members were committed to studying Quest and identifying ways to improve it.

“We are hearing loud and clear that Quest needs to evolve,” Kraft said. “We really need to take a look at this from the bottom up.”

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Hiring and supporting teachers of color also emerged as a popular topic.

Tessa Thompson, an instructional assistant at Clark Elementary School, said it will be difficult for Charlottesville to retain black teachers without creating a more vibrant community of black young professionals in the city.

“Teaching is hard. Community is one of the of the things that keeps you going,” Thompson said.

Christina Chambers, a parent of a CHS student, said after the forum that she would like to see the high school re-examine its Advanced Placement program and offer more “dual enrollment” courses through a partnership with Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“Dual enrollment makes more sense than AP. You have more than one test, you have the whole year’s worth of grades,” Chambers said. “If you don’t pass that one AP test, you don’t get the college credit and it’s all for naught.”

Sylvia Elder, a retired CHS counselor, said expanding Charlottesville’s preschool program should be a priority for the school division.

“You cannot expect kids to thrive if they don’t have that foundation,” Elder said.