Charlottesville applying ‘equity lens’ to course changes

Amy Laufer no longer is a member of the Charlottesville School Board. A former teacher, Laufer resigned from the panel, effective immediately after Thursday’s meeting because of her family’s move to Albemarle County.

Laufer first was elected to the School Board in 2011. In 2017, she ran for a position on the City Council but lost to Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councilor Heather Hill. It was unclear Thursday night whether an interim member would be appointed or if a special election would be held.

The board saw another organizational change at its first meeting of the year with the selection of Jennifer McKeever as chairwoman and Leah Puryear as vice chairwoman.

Later in the meeting, the board discussed the possibility of expanding student access to honors courses or honors-level instruction.

“Our classrooms will look quite different, and our students will have a different experience in our schools,” Superintendent Rosa Atkins said. “We have a lot of work [on equity] ahead of us, but this is the first step.”

Charlottesville High School began piloting honors-option, or unleveled, classes for ninth-grade English in 2011. This year, the honors option is available for ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade English classes, some history and science classes and several electives.

“[Unleveled courses] offer a comprehensive presentation of the content, and students can access any level of that content,” Atkins said.

A draft of the division’s program of study for the 2019-20 academic year adds the honors option to more courses at CHS and expands the use of this approach at Walker Upper Elementary School and Buford Middle School.

Buford plans to “embed” honors-level instruction in unleveled science and social studies courses next year.

“We have currently an honors pull-out program that is functional but doesn’t give enough students access,” Buford Principal Stephanie Carter said.

Carter said teachers will offer differentiated activities around central themes or projects. She said Buford staff will receive professional development from CHS teachers with experience in unleveled instruction.

“Students will have the opportunity to choose what they want to do,” Carter said. “Embedding low-risk, high-reward scenarios in our classes helps our kids to develop a growth mindset.”

Adam Hastings, principal of Walker, said his school would embed honors-level instruction in all of its courses next year.

“We don’t have transcripts or GPAs here,” Hastings said. “We want to have a program that serves all kids where they are.”

Changes proposed for CHS courses would add an honors option for biology, geometry, government and African-American history courses.

Members of the CHS Black Student Union decried the lack of an honors option for African-American history at a School Board meeting last fall.

“De-tracking has been one of our main priorities this year,” said CHS Principal Eric Irizarry.

Irizarry said CHS math teachers are excited to use standards-based grading in the unleveled geometry classes.

“It’s an effective way to monitor where students are on individual standards instead of just [a letter grade],” Irizarry said. “It’s about mastering that content by the end of the year.”

Another proposed change to the program of study would make Spanish an elective at Walker instead of a required course. Hastings said Walker’s Spanish classes currently cut into instructional time that otherwise would be used for math classes.

Thirty-one percent of Walker students were behind grade level in math in 2018, including 50 percent of African-American students and 44 percent of economically disadvantaged students.

McKeever said that Virginia’s graduation requirements for an advanced diploma include three years of instruction in a foreign language. She added that Spanish classes can help some students to learn grammatical concepts that are also used in English.

“I don’t see [Walker] students who don’t know the benefits of taking a foreign language down the road … selecting it,” McKeever said.

Atkins said that Walker staff “… would need to be very attuned to [ensure that] students who need additional instruction in math or literacy are not precluded from taking Spanish” when students create their schedules for next year.