RICHMOND — A panel of education leaders tasked with envisioning an equitable school system for Virginia’s Black students has offered 26 recommendations it believes will give those students better access to advanced classes and promote teacher diversity, among other improvements.
The African American Superintendent’s Advisory Council, a group of educators formed in September, found that in the 2018-19 school year, Virginia’s Black students were 22% of the state’s public school population.
At the same time, Black students make up just 12% of gifted program enrollment. They found a 26% disparity between Black and white students in Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses.
But when it comes to discipline, Black students make up more than half of the state’s suspensions.
“I really do think that we have an accountability problem as it relates to school discipline dispensation,” said Leah Walker, who heads the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Equity, in an interview. “We only have five school districts in the state where we don’t see discipline disproportionality manifesting in ways that are detrimental to Black students. Just five out of 132.”
In hopes of fixing this national problem that has manifested in Virginia for decades, the council recommended that the Virginia Board of Education include discipline disproportionality as an indicator in the state’s accountability system for local school divisions. It also recommended that the board create guidelines for best equitable practices at the state’s governor’s schools, an effort that Democrats in the state Senate killed during the General Assembly.
Makya Little, who served on the council and advocates for students of color at her alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, said teacher recommendations and “parenting hacks” drive much of the inequitable access around advanced coursework.
Who teachers view as gifted affects who they offer recommendations to, and sometimes parents can find ways to get their kids into gifted programs if they’re part of certain communities, Little said.
“If the teacher doesn’t [nominate your child], typically parents can have their students tested by a private company to say, ‘Well my child scored on this assessment, and I want them moved,’” she said. “Now that is one of those … parenting hacks that very few know about. … Well, if you’re not going to the PTA meetings, in the circles, you don’t know that. And it gives them an unfair advantage.”
To combat this and similar pipeline issues when it comes to gifted programming and disparities in earlier advanced coursework, the council also advised that the state require open enrollment for Advanced Placement courses.
While many of the recommendations call for more transparency in school quality profiles, like requiring school systems to report the gifted enrollment data and teacher diversity data as part of their school quality profiles, some could be more complicated.
One of those recommendations is to reconfigure school boundary lines to promote integration. A report from Virginia Commonwealth University released last year found that school segregation is deepening in Virginia. The state can recommend new school boundaries to localities, but according to state law, the localities must consent to any changes.
There is also a lack of teacher diversity in Virginia, the report found. Late last year, the VDOE released equity guidelines that showed 4 in 5 Virginia teachers are white. This does not reflect the public school student body in Virginia, which is about half students of color, and research shows that students benefit from having teachers who look like them.
“That pipeline really starts earlier than when the teacher of color has started on their job,” said Rashard Wright, chief of staff at Newport News Public Schools, who chaired the council. “We really need to recruit minority teachers early, as they’re leaving high school, and as they go off to college and provide them that contract. That commitment to come back to their hometown and teach.”
The state superintendent of public instruction, James Lane, said the work of the advisory council is not completed. The hope is that the council members will continue to offer advice as long as he is serving as superintendent.