Rasheeda Creighton and her friends felt pride as the Black History Month program they’d worked hard to put on at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School wrapped up.
It was 1995 and the magnet school had opened just four years earlier, with few Black students enrolled. They needed one another, as Black teens navigating a white institution and feeling the pressure to succeed.
On that day they had tried to claim their space with a celebration of Black culture, and of one another. But they couldn’t have it.
Someone piped up from the crowd: “Why isn’t there a white history month?”
“At 17, we were so hurt, and nobody stood up for us,” Creighton said. “We went backstage and cried.”
Creighton went on to succeed as a consultant and an entrepreneur. But while her life has changed since that day, she worries that not much has changed for Black students who are still there.
A month of demonstrations spurred by the police killing of George Floyd has seen swift changes in leadership at law enforcement agencies, the toppling of Confederate monuments and promises from officials to tackle systemic racism.
Creighton and fellow alumna Carrie Kahwajy want the fierce urgency of now to extend to the regional magnet school, which is named for the first Black woman in America to charter a bank and last school year welcomed only 54 Black students out of 754 — about 7%.
Statewide, 1 in 5 public school students is Black but only 1 in 10 children enrolled in a gifted and talented program was Black during the latest school year for which state numbers are available, 2016-17. One in three students — a total of 61,279 children — who attended the 12 school systems that feed into Maggie Walker are Black, state data shows.
Black and brown children historically have been underrepresented in gifted and talented programs nationwide; this is not new. Researchers have time and again identified wide disparities. A Vanderbilt University study, for example, found that among students with high test scores, Black third-graders were half as likely as their white peers to be included in gifted programs. (They also found that having a Black teacher largely eliminated those disparities.)
What is new, Creighton and Kahwajy hope, is institutions’ willingness to act. That starts with listening to the experiences of Black students who are and have been enrolled, said Creighton, who launched a survey earlier this month of current and former Black students and parents of Black students at the school about their experiences. The isolation and school culture have taken a toll, some participants responded.
Bob Lowerre, the head of the school at Maggie Walker, recognized the need for the institution to take stock of its own role in perpetuating systemic racism and injustice in a letter to alumni sent as mass protests over police brutality unfolded across the country. The school’s regional board on June 18th adopted a resolution condemning racism.
Lowerre, who is white, said that although he can’t control which students receive admission to the school, he is responsible for the experience students of color have when they arrive.
“That is what we haven’t done well,” he said.
Black students who took Creighton’s survey reported microaggressions — insensitive comments about someone’s race — as well as feeling left out and not having a positive social experience. In fact, she and Lowerre suspect that Black students might not want to attend the school because of the lack of representation in the student body that has lasted since its founding.
When Maggie Walker first opened, it was on the top floor of Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School. During her first year, Creighton remembered students at Maggie Walker making comments about the majority Black school.
“The microaggressions, they eventually wear you down,” she said.
What she’s seen in the survey hasn’t shocked her. But although she expected it, she is disappointed that children who enrolled nearly 30 years after she cried backstage still feel targeted.
“I feel like we failed, because the students who are coming through don’t know that they aren’t alone,” Creighton said. “We can influence change in a different way, and I want to think about how we support students.”
Change will take a collective effort across school systems that feed into the school, which recently placed eighth among America’s best public high schools on a list from Niche, a school ranking website that takes into account federal education data, graduation rates, SAT/ACT scores and teacher quality, among other things.
Individual school systems select which students will attend, and pay for a certain number of slots annually.
Richmond Public Schools did not provide admissions data by press time. Henrico County schools reported that 6.7% of its Maggie Walker attendees are Black. No Black or Hispanic students from Hanover have gotten into the Maggie Walker Governor’s School since at least 2015, according to data sent from the county school system. Maggie Walker had only nine Hispanic students during the 2019-2020 school year.
Over the last four years, the percentage of Maggie Walker slots that have gone to Black students in Chesterfield County Schools has ranged from 4% and 9%.
The problems with underrepresentation extend beyond the school, said Kahwajy, who is leading an investigation into racial equity in county schools for the Chesterfield Branch of the NAACP.
The probe, which has not yet been released, found students of color were underrepresented across the county’s gifted and talented programs, including in the number of students sent to Maggie Walker.
“We must change the processes for gifted identification,” Kahwajy said. “The problem with Chesterfield County is that they aren’t identifying any students of color in their gifted program. Change takes time, energy, and money. Without the funding there, we’re working an uphill battle.”
In 2015 Civil Rights Office data, Black students in Chesterfield made up only 7% of the district’s overall gifted and talented enrollment, even though Black students made up 26% of the school district’s makeup.
Kahwajy is focused on redrawing school attendance zone lines to foster equity.
“Currently, the gifted centers are placed in the higher income districts and school sites,” she said.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Dorothy Heffron said changing zones wouldn’t be enough.
“When we have schools that are underperforming and we’re not seeing equity, I’m worried that redistricting conceals the bigger issue,” Heffron said.
Heffron said she was shocked to learn of Black students’ stark underrepresentation at Maggie Walker. “What’s troubling about it is that it does not reflect the diversity and student body of Chesterfield County. Of course then we need to unearth why. Why does it look like this?”
Kahwajy said she is surprised that the county’s School Board, which saw 100% turnover in last November’s elections, has not done more to address equity since taking office in January.
A spokesman for the school system said in a statement that Chesterfield is working to improve the governor’s school selection process.
“Chesterfield Schools is working closely with the planning committee at Maggie Walker Governor’s School to overhaul the application process to ensure it is more inclusive,” said CCPS spokesperson Shawn Smith.
Kahwajy and Creighton said addressing the pipeline issue is a first step, but that the school itself also needs to tackle cultural challenges. Creighton is hoping the survey results will guide that process.
“It’s not the academic piece,” she said. “It’s really the social piece of it. Some students are saying things to [Black] students and they aren’t being checked. Sometimes a student is the only Black student from their district to come to the school.”
“That’s where the trauma comes in,” she said. “Your students need as much education and correction as your faculty and staff do, and awareness.”
That faculty is mostly white, Lowerre said, which he hopes to change.
For now, he has tapped the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, an organization that works with schools and businesses to address racism and other forms of inequity, to lead freshman orientation. Eventually, he wants the orientation to be phased into all grade levels, but says the school doesn’t have the money to do so right now.
Creighton said she will end her survey at the end of the month. Kahwajy will continue her investigation of Chesterfield County Public Schools. In September, Lowerre will welcome a new freshman class. He doesn’t yet know how many of those students will be Black.