The academic year for Charlottesville City Schools begins Wednesday with big changes in the division’s gifted program, Quest, although the road to these adjustments wasn’t easy for Superintendent Rosa Atkins.

Atkins faced backlash for requesting $620,000 from the city out of the normal budgeting cycle to hire eight gifted specialists to strengthen the changes to the program. Additionally, parents criticized her administration during a School Board meeting public comment session for moving too quickly to recruit more staffing.

But, earlier this month, the city approved $468,000 to fund six of the eight positions. The division will pay for the remaining two teachers out of its current budget. City staff recommended that $156,000 of the allocation come from the City Council’s strategic initiatives fund and $312,000 from the citywide reserve fund.

Atkins’ changes to the gifted program include shifting the universal screening that occurs at first grade to at least two other grades. The plan also will bolster a “push-in” model — all students will 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.

In 2018, racial inequalities came to the forefront after an article by the New York Times and ProPublica focused on the school division’s gifted program. Although the school system is 43% white, 37% black and 11% Latino, 73% of students in Quest are white, 13% are black and 5% are Latino.

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

Rosa Atkins, Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent

In June, Atkins told Charlottesville Tomorrow she decided to make immediate changes because — in looking into the history of Quest — there’s evidence of how it led to the disparity. The program has been an issue that has been discussed for many years, she said. “There’s something about when the time is right, and you move into action,” she said.

Atkins said she cannot go back and ask previous superintendents and board members why they didn’t make the changes, but she can decide to advocate for changes to achieve equity now.

“We have community members who want it,” she said. “We have students who need it. We have school members who want this change. … It’s the right thing to do.”

An upsetting letter

A letter found by a University of Virginia doctoral student, Margaret Thornton, revealed that a woman identified as “Ms. Smith” recommended that city school officials create a program to test children because city schools at the time were ordered to integrate.

Written in 1950s, the letter states that gifted and 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.” The letter 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 in May that 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. “I would love to see a program of enrichment that’s centered around the idea that every child has gifts,” Thornton said in an interview. “The job of the school is to help children uncover and refine those gifts, and we should be using research-based instruction.”

After Thornton made a presentation to the board, Atkins said the letter was “upsetting.”

She added that the presentation was important because it illustrated the intentionality to comply with the law but to 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, Atkins said. “For many years, we knew something was going on — that something was happening to our children where they couldn’t get into Quest,” she said. Former student School Board representative Zyahna Bryant, who was been a Quest student, said in May she wished some of her friends were offered the same opportunity.

She said she’s aware of the educational disparities and racial inequalities in the district and hopes that the board begin to call out 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. That day, McKeever explained she was looking forward to making changes. “You cannot uncover all these contexts and just continue,” she said.  “You have to do better when you know better.” The administration seemed to have kept its promise.

The School Board was updated on the new Quest improvements on May 31, the first day of a two-day retreat at the Hilton Richmond Short Pump in western Henrico.

You cannot uncover all these contexts and just continue. You have to do better when you know better.

Jennifer McKeever, Charlottesville School Board Chairwoman

At that meeting, school board member Leah Puryear said she understood the presentation made by Beverly Catlin, who coordinates instruction for Charlottesville. Still, Puryear said something was missing in the identification process — there’s something subjective that educators may not be able to write down in the identification procedure, and 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?”

An exclusionary term

Puryear said the term “gifted program” has a negative connotation. “I think that all students are gifted,” she said. “In this community, the word ‘gifted’ is exclusionary.” Having lived in the community for a long time, she said she 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 Puryear recalled the students asked her why people were talking about them.

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

Puryear wasn’t alone.

“Isn’t every child gifted? I think we need to change how we’re talking about this,” board member Lisa Larson-Torres said. “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.”

Virginia schools are required to identify gifted students. The division states that Charlottesville students are identified via multiple methods, including classroom performance, portfolio activities, student checklist and standardized tests. City schools will continue to focus in English, math and visual arts, per state requirements, to identify students. Math and English have been used to identify gifted students from first through 12th grade. Visual arts are used from fifth to 12th grade.

Ideally, the division would like two gifted specialists in each building for the new changes, Atkins said. “We want two in, but that does not negate the fact that we will have a very robust curricula that’s in place of our schools,” she said. Earlier this month, Atkins said four of the eight gifted specialists already have been hired.

And her plan was to hire the remaining four before the school year began.

“If they are not hired by the first day of school, that will not diminish our efforts to hire,” Atkins said. “We’ll continue to interview as we get new applicants. We’ll continue to explore the possibilities of bringing those applicants on board if they not filled by that time.” Her move to hire more gifted specialists comes in a critical time, as a shortage of teachers affects Virginia and the nation.

According to a study by Learning Institute, the most available data revealed “teachers education enrollments dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35% reduction.” The same report, titled “A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S.,” showed there’s a decrease of “almost 240,000 professionals on their way to the classroom in the year 2014, as compared to 2009.”

But, Atkins said, research shows communities with major universities tend to attract teachers better than other communities. That’s because of the influx of professors and new staff members who bring their spouses or someone in their family who are in the teaching field. She also said she starts recruiting early. “Our applicant pool seems to be a little deeper,” she said.

Pioneering equity role

In late April, the division announced it hired its first supervisor of equity and inclusion, T. Denise Johnson, who previously served as the executive director of City of Promise.

“We need people of color who are in positions of leadership,” Johnson, a 1998 graduate of Charlottesville High School, said in April. “They also need to understand that it’s not enough to say, ‘You can do this’ — but [also] ‘Let me show you how do to this. I can show you it can be done because I’ve done it myself.’” Her duties include examining policies and systems, such as curriculum or transportation, that are currently in place and ensure they’re equitable for all children, she said. Additional tasks include engaging staff to build a welcoming and inclusive culture, monitoring student achievement, developing academic plans and providing counseling about “educational equity issues,” according to a district document.

Born and raised in Charlottesville, Johnson said she brings a unique perspective to her new role. Her goal is to reach as many children as she can by facilitating change, like making sure all children, regardless of their background, receive the resources that they need to maximize their full potential, she said.

We need people of color who are in positions of leadership.

T. Denise Johnson, Supervisor of Equity and Inclusion

She said that the New York Times/ProPublica article resonated with her, adding that education is an equalizer. Johnson said she wants to honor people who helped her by helping children and that it’s necessary to have someone who is intentionally placed to address equity concerns. There needs to be a bridge builder between the school systems and the community, she said. “There have been certain spaces of inequity that we’ve always known. We’re being reactive to the history of educational disparities, and we’re also being proactive in saying, ‘The buck stops here. We’ve had enough,’” she said. “It’s time to make some changes. We’re going to put the things in place to make those changes, and that’s my goal.”  


Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.