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Maggie Walker's Diversity Complex

The governor's school serves as a beacon of educational excellence but for too long has sidestepped one of our government's founding principles: equality.

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Within the context of the city's segregated past, the Maggie Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies occupies the building of a formerly segregated city high school. Today the campus is home to one of the metropolitan area's premier educational institutions, drawing students from throughout the region. Ironically, the once all-black institution, named for a celebrated African-American female banker, serves a student population that is disproportionately white and overwhelmingly privileged.

During the past 10 years, black students have applied to Maggie Walker at nearly four times the rate they have been accepted. Blacks comprise only 7 percent of Maggie Walker's student body even though they make up nearly 34 percent of the metro area's population and well over 20 percent of the school's applicants.

Recognizing these persistent inequities, two years ago the regional School Board commissioned a study by four Curry School of Education faculty members at the University of Virginia. Their task was to identify and recommend best practices for the recruitment, identification and retention of underrepresented gifted minority students. The findings and recommendations from that report were presented in June, and the Maggie Walker School Board and administration should move as quickly as possible to implement the recommendations. 

The report outlines several easily implemented recruitment strategies such as offering a summer academic outreach program, recruiting potential students beginning at the fifth- and sixth-grade levels and adding information to the school Web site emphasizing opportunities for diverse students. These certainly can be instituted during the upcoming school year.

In addition, many of the recommendations for identifying and selecting students could — and should — be implemented for the next round of applicants. Maggie Walker's current procedure uses multiple measures to evaluate students. Fifty of the possible 100 points are based on performance on several different ability and achievement tests; the remainder is earned through teacher recommendations, grades, a writing sample and a judgment about the degree of rigor in students' middle-school programs. The school then combines performance on each of these measures into a single numerical score.

Unfortunately, this averaging process renders the unique strengths and weaknesses of each student invisible to the admissions committee. And it often results in a situation in which students admitted to the school are separated by statistically insignificant decimal points from those placed on the waiting list.

The U.Va. study recommends that the admissions committee instead examine each student's data separately, rather than as a single composite numerical score, basing admissions judgments on a review of a full profile of his or her achievement and potential. This would establish an admissions process similar to those used by selective colleges and universities.

The U.Va. report also identifies other concerns to be addressed once underrepresented minority students are admitted to Maggie Walker. It advises the school to create a formal mentoring program for minority students, and a process for documenting reasons for withdrawal from Maggie Walker.

Based on our work with the school for a number of years, we suggest that the hiring of additional black and Latino faculty members also should be a top priority for the School Board and administration, to generate greater community support and help the school attract and recruit a more diverse pool of student applicants.

A number of other recommendations from the report likely will require more detailed study prior to implementation. For example, the admissions committee will need to begin collecting data to examine the reliability and validity of existing standardized tests, teacher recommendations and other data in predicting academic success at the governor's school. Maggie Walker should also consider — given its emphasis on government and international studies — whether Algebra I is an appropriate prerequisite or, alternatively, a roadblock to admitting otherwise-qualified students as the study suggests.

The consistent underrepresentation of black students at the school raises questions of both power and privilege. Maggie Walker serves as a beacon of educational excellence but for too long has sidestepped one of our government's founding principles: equality. The recent U.Va. report underscores the idea that excellence and equity are not mutually exclusive, and offers numerous strategies for promoting equal opportunities for our region's children. We encourage the Maggie Walker School Board and administration to begin fulfilling the school's mission to create “citizens who understand and celebrate diversity” by exploring and instituting such strategies immediately. S

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is a graduate of the Maggie Walker Governor's School and a doctoral student in urban schooling at the University of California-Los Angeles. Paul Fleisher is a former educator who taught gifted students in Richmond Public Schools for 27 years and serves on the staff of the Richmond Peace Education Center.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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