City schools hope gifted program change will narrow achievement gap

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Charlottesville school leaders are hopeful that a change to the division's gifted program will help close the achievement gap between different racial groups on standardized tests.

The state released Standards of Learning test results on Tuesday for all public schools.

In Charlottesville during the 2018-19 school year, 89 percent of white students passed the English reading tests, compared to 68 percent for Hispanic students and 48 percent for black students. The school division had a similar gap in reading performance during the previous school year.

In science, pass rates for white students increased to 90 percent but fell for Hispanics to 62 percent and for black students to 40 percent.

"No matter how good or how bad the data is," said Charlottesville Schools Community Relations Specialist Beth Cheuk, "the response is always going to be, we wanted to do better."

Cheuk said the city is changing the way its gifted program, Quest, is operating this coming school year. In the past, gifted students would be pulled out of normal classrooms to receive specialized instruction from a gifted teacher. This year, students will not be separated, and gifted teachers will come to all classrooms to benefit all students.

"Instead of serving a small number of students who get pulled," Cheuk said, "we'll be serving all students with the strategies that have historically been associated with gifted."

Recent Charlottesville High School graduate Trinity Hughes was passed over for gifted programs when she was in elementary school.

"I was like, 'Well, dang! I'm in these regular classes and all my friends are [in Quest],'" Hughes said. "You sometimes start questioning yourself."

But Hughes later qualified for some honors classes at Charlottesville High School and she recently got accepted to Radford University.

"It felt awesome," Hughes said. "I was, like, 'I have somewhere to go!'"

Hughes thinks that opening up the gifted program may help motivate more students in the city.

Community activist Tanesha Hudson has been tracking the SOL results, and other standardized testing, for years. She's also encouraged by the city's adjustment to the gifted program.

"All kids want to do better when people around them are doing better," Hudson said. "Separating kids, it does make you feel some type of way."

Cheuk said the school division is also working to add more diversity to its teaching staff.

"It's probably our most diverse and talented class in many years," Cheuk said. "We're super excited about that."

Studies show that minority students perform better when they have minority teachers.

"Just seeing somebody that looks like you and them having the same experiences helps a lot," Hughes said.

"Teachers need to be trained in a way that they understand certain childhood experiences that black kids go through," Hudson said.

Hudson said she doesn't think the achievement gap will disappear until there is a stronger connection between the schools and the parents.

"We have to connect the students, the parents, the teachers, the support staff," she said. "These people should be able to sit in a conference room and communicate to one another."

She also says parents need to make sure "that their kids are reading, writing, studying, and doing what they need to do." But she says schools need to be aware that some students, particularly minority students, may need additional attention.

"If you know that this child is coming from a generation of family members that never went to college, those are the kids that you have to push ten times harder," she said.

Hudson hopes the state will increase funding for local schools to enable them to hire more support staff. But in the meantime, she said she is confident that Charlottesville schools have the right leadership in place with Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins.

"I do think that they're on the right track and moving forward," Hudson said. "I think Dr. Atkins does a good job. I think she's adamant about diversifying the schools."

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