When Sabrina Hendricks was about to start fifth grade at Walker Upper Elementary School in Charlottesville, she got upset after finding out that most of her friends she’d gone to Venable Elementary with were being pulled out of Charlottesville City Schools by their parents to attend private schools.
Hendricks’ parents wanted her to stay in the public school system to be around her peers who came from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and to support the public schools, rather than pay to send her to a private school with mostly upper-income, white students.
“When they said that, I kind of got it, but I mean when you’re 9 years old, you just want to go where your friends are going. You don’t really care about greater racial issues,” said Hendricks, now a senior at Charlottesville High School.
But as Hendricks got older, she started to think about the bad reputation Walker and Buford Middle School had among white families, and realized how much of this had to do with race and class. As a member of the Charlottesville Youth Council, she and fellow council members decided they should research the issue further and see what could be done about it.
The Youth Council is a group of 17 local students who advise the City Council, inform the community about issues that affect youth and make recommendations on how they feel Charlottesville can be a better place.
The Youth Council is open to city residents between the ages of 13 and 18. Each year the council is made up of at least two middle school students, two students from each grade at Charlottesville High School and one student from the Lugo-McGinness Academy.
The council includes two students from each school attendance zone (Burnley-Moran, Clark, Greenbrier, Jackson-Via, Johnson and Venable) and five at-large members. Private school students, home-schooled students and out-of-district students who attend Charlottesville City Schools are also welcomed to apply.
Youth who serve on the council meet monthly, receive leadership training and are given opportunities to travel to national youth council conferences. They are eligible to serve their term until they graduate from high school.
Each school year, council members choose at least one project they want to work on. In the past, the council has worked on projects such as registering eligible high school students to vote and researching the effects the city’s gifted and talented program has on students.
This year, Hendricks said the council wasn’t sure what it wanted to work on, especially because of the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The group’s adviser, Daniel Fairley, connected the council with research students at the University of Virginia’s Youth Action Lab, and they started to think about and explore issues affecting the Charlottesville community that they could address, especially social issues.
“I thought about it and I realized that when parents send their kids to private schools, those high amounts of resources are going elsewhere, and it just really kind of set off this fire in my soul that it was hurting my hometown, it was hurting the public schools and the kids who don’t necessarily have a choice about whether they can go [to public or private schools],” Hendricks said.
“When I brought that up, everybody was pretty behind it and were really focused on it and it kind of matched our theme of dealing with more racial and social problems inside of our schools, so it kind of went along with what we’ve been working on,” Hendricks said.
Together with the UVa research students who were advising them, the council decided the best way to gather data would be an electronic survey. That way, they could collect quantitative data and also anecdotal evidence and stories from participants.
They specifically wanted to learn more about why families were pulling their students out of Walker and Buford for private schools and then sending them back to the public school system to attend Charlottesville High School.
The Youth Council also researched the history of the two schools, which were originally founded as junior high schools in 1963. Students zoned to Walker came primarily from white, more affluent communities, whereas students zoned to Buford came from predominantly Black and/or low-income communities. The schools were, in effect, segregated due to zoning.
In 1988, the schools were reconfigured. Walker became an upper elementary school for all of the city’s fifth- and sixth-graders, and Buford became home to all of the city’s seventh- and eighth-graders.
This is when white families began pulling their children out of Walker and Buford, and that legacy continues today.
The students surveyed around 76 current and former city division students who either attend Charlottesville High School or local private schools. They also interviewed two staff members at CHS, two city School Board members and two parents.
Students who completed the survey were entered to win one of six Amazon gift cards.
Members of the council distributed the Google Form survey via social media, which Hendricks said posed some limitations in terms of the field of respondents.
“It’s really important to note that like 90% of our respondents were white and probably came from the same socioeconomic status that [I’m] in because it went throughout [my] and other Youth Council members’ platforms,” Hendricks said.
92.2% of survey respondents were white, 6.5% were Hispanic and/or Latino, 6.5% were Asian or Pacific Islander, 5.2% were Black and/or African American, 3.9% were multiracial or biracial, 1.3% were ethnically Jewish and 1.3% were Middle Eastern.
Last fall, Walker reported the student body was 36.6% white, 34.6% Black, 13.2% Hispanic, 5.9% Asian and 9.7% students of multiple races.
Buford reported its student population was 38.4% Black, 34.4% white, 15.3% Hispanic, 5.6% Asian and 6.2% students of multiple races.
While Walker is the only school for fifth- and sixth-graders and Buford is the only school for seventh- and eighth-graders in the city division, there is a noticeable decrease in white students between the two schools, presumably due to white families pulling their children out between Walker and Buford.
Tandem Friends School, a private secondary school, reports a 75% white student body, and the Village School, a private girls-only middle school, reports a 93% white student body, the Youth Council reported.
“I think the responses would have been different if we were able to reach a wider audience,” Hendricks said, specifically referencing that the respondents were mostly white.
Members of Youth Council presented the survey findings to the City Council during a work session May 17.
Many of the public school students surveyed reported that they went to the schools simply because that’s where they were zoned, but some said their families were morally opposed to private schools or felt they were a waste of money.
Most of the private school students reported that they went to private schools for smaller class sizes or perceived greater academic rigor, but many were motivated by perceived reputations of Walker and Buford.
Hendricks said Youth Council members noticed a pattern of students using words like “sketchy” and “ghetto” to describe Walker and Buford in the survey, which really disturbed them. Hendricks noted that these words carry racist and classist undertones.
“I didn’t expect … private school kids being so blunt and saying things like, ‘I thought that Buford was sketchy’ and getting right to the point. I thought there was gonna be a lot of beating around the bush like, ‘my parents wanted me to go for art’ and things like that, and a lot of responses were very direct,” Hendricks said.
Some respondents from the private schools said they perceived they had an “edge” over public school students and were much more academically prepared for upper-level classes.
Alternatively, several respondents who attend public schools said they felt they were able to get just as good of an education at the public schools as they would have in private schools without having to pay tuition.
Respondents who attended Walker and Buford said they were aware of the bad reputation the public schools have among some families, but many of these respondents said the reputation is inaccurate.
“Buford has a really awful reputation that I don’t think it deserves,” one respondent wrote.
Margaret Anne Doran, also a senior at Charlottesville High School and Youth Council member, had a similar experience to Hendricks. While some of her friends went to private school, her parents kept her in city schools.
“It was never an option for my parents to send me to private school, I mean I’ve talked with my mom about this … my parents are pretty big pushers for public school,” Doran said.
Hendricks and Doran said that while they both have friends who went to private middle schools, some private school students would be condescending or act like they had a better education.
While both said their experience at Buford was not perfect, they agreed the issues had nothing to do with the school itself and were just typical challenges all middle school students experience.
“Middle-schoolers just struggle, I mean girls can be really mean in middle school, and that is just characteristic [of middle school],” Hendricks said. “I’m sure private school kids went through the bad things in middle school too.”
Hendricks and Doran agreed that racism and classism are big factors in the reputation of the two schools.
“People would say, ‘we go to school in the hood,’ like that has a racist undertone, but people do say that though, along with other words like that,” Doran said. “And I remember just being like, ‘guys, Buford is a better school than [some other schools].”
Both students said they were grateful their parents kept them in public schools.
“I learned how to take care of myself and advocate for myself in a public school setting, I learned how to ask for help, things like that,” Doran said. “I’ve had a whole slew of just really fabulous teachers at Walker and Buford.”
“I think going to Walker and Buford and being around a bunch of people that didn’t look like me and had different levels of wealth than me and my family … I think it was a great reflection of what the world is like, instead of going to a school where 75% or 90% of the kids are white and wealthy. I also think it made me think about things at an earlier age,” said Doran, who will be attending Kenyon College in the fall.
Hendricks said because she was in a diverse group of students at Walker and Buford, she started to notice inequities even within the public schools, including how her honors and AP classes were mostly made up of white students when the schools at large were racially diverse.
“Obviously, private school kids were in classes already with other white people, but my honors classes were with all pretty much majority other white students from the age of 10, and I think that made me think about greater problems in society at a much, much earlier age than people who went to private school,” said Hendricks, who is headed to UVa.
Hendricks and Doran said they hope the City Council will take their findings and try to work toward solutions, especially as reconfiguration conversations are happening between the City Council and the School Board.
Hendricks said she thinks physical updates to the school buildings would help provide students with better resources and also improve the reputation of the schools, but that Charlottesville’s legacy of racism and classism must be addressed, as well.
“White flight in Charlottesville has been characterized and prevalent for a really long time,” Hendricks said.
“I don’t really know how Youth Council would solve that. But just putting out more knowledge about it makes people think more, because I don’t really know how many people actually think that this is a problem, and it is,” Hendricks said.