To reduce racial disparities in Virginia schools, advisers say more of the numbers should be public

By: - May 5, 2021 12:02 am

Richmond Public Schools seniors outside their graduation ceremony. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Genisus Holland was a high schooler at Maggie Walker in Richmond — one of Virginia’s competitive governor’s schools — when she and her classmates were assigned an end-of-year writing project.

“You could either do a sonnet, a rap, or some other poem,” said Holland, who’s now a freshman at George Mason University. She remembers clearly the moment when one of her White teachers asked her friend, a fellow Black student, what he planned to write for the assignment.

“She goes up to him and says, ‘So I assume you’re doing a rap?’” Holland said. “And the entire class just went a little silent.” It wasn’t the first time she had felt uncomfortable at Maggie Walker. But for her, the question highlighted some long-standing challenges Black students face in Virginia’s public schools.

Amid a nationwide reckoning over racism in the criminal justice system and elsewhere, advocates and education leaders in Virginia are quietly working to address some of the racial disparities in K-12 schools. In more than half of all local divisions, Black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than their peers. State data also shows persistent racial academic achievement gaps. 

In 2018 — the most recent year for which results are available — Black students scored at least 10 percentage points lower in all five subject areas on state standardized tests. Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University also recently found that Black students are sharply underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses.

“Some people express shock over these numbers, but the truth is we’ve known these numbers for a long time,” said Dan Gecker, president of the Virginia Board of Education, at a meeting earlier this year. The challenge, for board members and administrators, is figuring out how to address them.

A large part of the task has been taken up by the African American Superintendent’s Advisory Council, a group of nearly three dozen teachers, administrators, parents and former students appointed last September “in response to the acute equity issues” within Virginia schools, according to the state Department of Education. In March, members presented the State Board of Education with a dozen recommendations for reforming racial inequalities in public education.

More than a third of them aimed to establish new measures for holding schools accountable. Members called for public reporting on student-teacher racial ratios, a response to growing calls for more diversity among Virginia educators. While 52 percent of students in Virginia are young people of color, 82 percent of teachers are White, according to a sweeping report by the Virginia Commission on African American History Education. 

That lack of representation is limiting for all students, Holland said, who may go their entire student careers without having a non-White teacher.

“A lot of people grew up with only one type of teacher and one type of narrative,” she said. “So that added perspective is something we need. And for me, anytime I saw a Black teacher, I felt so good about it because I could see myself in my education.”

Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Other public data points, according to the recommendations, should include demographic enrollment in gifted programs and individual school scores on discipline disproportionality — the uneven rates of suspension and other forms of punishment among different student groups. All of those factors could contribute to a broader assessment of school climate, a still-loosely defined measure of how well each school fosters inclusivity and fairness. School climate should also have its own separate score, according to the council. But other education experts worry that without new help from the state, officials will just be giving struggling schools another negative metric to track. 

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for VDOE, emphasized that those recommendations haven’t yet translated to any statewide policy changes. But Virginia’s growing focus on addressing educational disparities has recently attracted nationwide attention. VDOE was bombarded with questions in late April after conservative news outlets reported on another initiative — currently still in development — to significantly restructure high school math classes. A few days earlier, Fox News reported on another suggestion to consolidate the state’s standard and advanced diplomas.

Over the last year, recommendations have also translated to specific policy outcomes. A few months after the Commission on African American History Education issued their own list of proposals, state legislators passed one of them into law — a bill requiring Virginia teachers to be trained and assessed in cultural competency

Just a few weeks ago, a BOE subcommittee discussed the possibility of adding discipline disproportionality as a school accreditation standard. Right now, it’s just a suggestion. But any revision to those standards could change how schools are assessed and rated by the state.

“The underlying thing through all of this is accountability,” said Jim Dyke, a former state secretary of education who served on the superintendent’s advisory council. “In other words, looking at this data and figuring out how we use it to make real changes.”

That pathway isn’t quite clear. The council specifically called for discipline disproportionality to factor into the state’s standards of accreditation, which could require schools with large disparities to take corrective action. Measures like student-teacher racial ratios and enrollment in gifted programs could be publicly reported in the state’s School Quality Profiles, which might enhance public transparency but wouldn’t necessarily lead to required changes.

Defining “school climate” is another challenge. John Gordon, a council member and superintendent of Suffolk Public Schools, suggested it could incorporate metrics like the number of on-campus incidents involving race (as an example, he cited multiple reports of high school football players using racial slurs against an opposing team). But VDOE would ultimately be responsible for developing some kind of uniform assessment.

There’s already some work in place to do that. Jennifer Piver-Renna, the director of VDOE’s Department of Data, Research and Technology, said the agency recently issued new climate and working conditions surveys with specific questions on race — including asking students if adults are good at “addressing racially motivated behaviors.” This school year, it’s also changing the way it collects disciplinary data, transitioning from a narrow focus on suspension and expulsions to include a broader range of outcomes. 

Those include whether — and how often — students are removed from class and sent to the principal’s office, she said. The new school surveys also gauge whether students are receiving instructional services when they’re suspended or expelled.

“It gives us that little bit of nuance to know what schools are providing to students,” she said. “When we think about that iceberg of exclusionary discipline, we’ll be able to capture more of what’s under the waterline.”

Whether any new measures should factor into school accreditation is an ongoing debate. Anne Holton, another former secretary of education who now serves on the BOE, said one of her main concerns is giving already-struggling schools “another way to fail.” Over the last three academic years, there’s been little change to the list of schools in Virginia identified for improvement. And it’s not clear whether schools already struggling with academic growth would fare any better when it came to discipline disproportionality or fostering an inclusive learning environment.

“It may be a good thing if we’re identifying new schools with things they need to be working on,” she said. “But if we’re just telling the same schools another way they’re failing, then you have to think about whether it’s useful.” JLARC, a state watchdog agency, has also identified broader systemic problems within VDOE, including an underfunded Office of School Quality that’s largely been unable to help local school divisions make meaningful changes.  

“One of the things we’ve talked about is that the department has got to have that tool in place,” Dyke said. “They’ve got to be able to monitor what these districts are doing and make sure that when they adopt these correctional plans, they are in fact held accountable.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.