Update on gifted program set for Thursday's School Board meeting

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Charlottesville City Schools’ teachers don’t represent the diversity of the community or the student body, Annie Suttle said.

“It’s important to have who you are as an individual represented in your school,” said Suttle to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “… Frankly, I have a white son. I have a white male. I don’t want my son to be taught by someone who looks exactly like him.”

Suttle was among 16 people, including educators, who huddled in one of the rooms at the Boys & Girls Club on Cherry Avenue.

The conversations, lasting nearly 40 minutes, were a part of four equity forums hosted by Charlottesville City Schools. Other forums were held at Charlottesville High School, the Friendship Court Community Center and City of Promise.

Charlottesville Tomorrow attended two of the forums — the Boys & Girls Club and Charlottesville High School —  to get a broad perspective on the discussions.

Among some of the questions parents answered at those two sessions included improvements they’d like to see; what they’ve heard; and a sign that the division has made progress towards equity. Parents shared their suggestions to their groups and then the groups presented to each other.

The forums serve as an avenue to get feedback from the parents on the directions they’re like the city schools to take, said schools spokeswoman Beth Cheuk.

“We just want to [know] what our work looks like from the community’s perspective,” Cheuk said. “It cannot be a one-way conversation.”

Participants were encouraged to speak candidly at the events. Charlottesville Tomorrow only joined tables when invited and only directly quoted people who gave permission.

Hiring minority teachers, better communications in the school system, an update on the division’s gifted program and more minority representation in equity conversations, such as the equity forums, were on the minds of the participants.

“You want different perspectives,” Suttle said on the hiring of more minority teachers. “You want to be able to see who you are, and who you can be as a student.”

Myron Johnson said he can tell that there have been more minority teachers than he has seen in the past, but that’s just a start.

“One of my son’s teachers is Black. I was very happy to see that because I’m all for somebody [who] looks like you because I feel like they have a better understanding,” he said.

Johnson said the forums mean that the division is attempting to reach out to people, but he’d like school officials to improve on communication.

The forum at the Boys & Girls Club was held on a Wednesday evening, he said, which is around the same time parents are cooking dinner and getting their children ready for the next day.

Johnson said he made it to the forum because he works at the Boys & Girls Club, meaning he was already in the area.

“Truth be told, if it wasn’t here, and I was not already here, I would not have attended,” he said.

Although the forums had been advertised across multiple platforms, including the news and social media sites, he said the division could have met people where they are, like visiting barber shops, grocery stores or providing food at the forums.

“People love to eat,” Johnson said.

A lack of representation of marginalized groups in equity conversation goes back to the heart of communication, said Mia Woods, who added that she’d like to see an update on the division’s gifted program.

The revamped gifted program includes shifting the universal screening that occurs at first grade to at least two other grades.

The program also bolsters a “push-in” model, schools officials have said, allowing all students to receive instructions at the same time while gifted specialists collaborate with classroom teachers.

Other changes include expanding the collection of examples of students’ best work to help determine giftedness from the first grade to the first through third grades.

Woods said she wonders if the underrepresented minority groups in Charlottesville are interested in hearing from the school,  and perhaps there’s repair that’s needed around trust, interest or availability.

“We’re talking about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Woods said. “And sometimes, we’re preaching to the choir, or preaching to those who are not in that categorized group.”

Charlottesville School Board member James Bryant disagreed with the parents’ claims, saying the forums have been well advertised.

“I mean what else can we do? There was plenty of communication,” Bryant said. “… It’s a matter of people picking themselves up and coming. You cannot make people come to these forums. That’s one of the reasons they had them in different places.”

Additionally, he stressed the division has made efforts to hire minority teachers, and — in fact — the schools hired a great number of educators of color last year.

“We’ve never had such a diverse group of new hires coming into the school system,” said Bryant, a former educator.

The division cannot hire minority teachers for the sake of hiring them — it’s also finding ways to keep them, he said. For him, he never left the division because he’s a native of Charlottesville. So, he stayed because he wanted to make a difference in his community.

Many of the employees they hire eventually venture out of town on the weekends, Bryant said. And that gets old.

“For some people, they might say [the Charlottesville area is] not a very welcoming place,” he said.

Another challenge is salary, he said, noting that Black people are not going into education like they used to. Most educators coming out of graduate school with a master’s degree might not make $50,000, depending on the school they apply to, Bryant said.

Jennifer McKeever, School Board chairwoman, said hiring a diverse staff has been the division’s priority. She noted there have been efforts to make sure that there’s a staff that mirrors the population of the community — a huge component of that is pay in supporting staff training and salary.

“That’s why I think it’s important to have a budget that reflects that we do value our staff,” McKeever said.

The School Board is requesting a 3% increase in salary for all staff, and the city is expected to vote on that request next month. The School Board also will get an update on the gifted program at Thursday’s meeting.