Charlottesville Schools' New Approach to Teaching

Aug 1, 2019

It’s been nearly a year since the New York Times and Pro Publica accused Charlottesville of providing separate and unequal education in its public schools.  The story noted white children were four times more likely to be in programs for gifted kids while half of all black students could not read at grade level.

Principal Adam Hastings says it's not enough to offer equal opportunity. Public schools must also assure success.
Credit Charlottesville Public Schools

Adam Hastings is the principal of Walker School in Charlottesville. He came here in 2007 and was surprised to find a largely segregated city.  

“My wife and I were a young couple," he recalls."We went to go buy our first house, and the real estate agent, who was a very nice gentleman, pulled out a map and drew a red line down Cherry Avenue, and he said, ‘You live north of Cherry Avenue, because in this community, white people live here and black people live there.”

But students from black and white neighborhoods would eventually meet at Walker – a school for fifth and sixth graders.  About 40% of students are white, 40% are African-American and 20% represent other ethnic groups.  Here, Hastings says, is where Charlottesville must begin to address the inequalities of its public education system. 

“It’s not enough to provide opportunity," Hastings says. "It’s about ensuring success.”

In the past,  Walker took some kids out of regular classrooms and provided them with special programs for gifted students.

“They’re wonderful programs.  Our kids adore being in those programs.  That said, not every kid has access.”

Charlottesville tried expanding the programs – making a conscious effort to include more African-American students who didn’t score as well on standardized tests, but that was not a good solution.

“As we pulled more kids out of the class, those fewer who remain and don’t get those services feel it even more acutely that they’re not getting access to that thing that their friends are getting," he explains. "At 10, 11 and 12 it’s not hard to internalize that and say, ‘Wow, there must be something wrong with me if I don’t get access to that.’”

So the district is moving to something new – a philosophy articulated by a University of Virginia professor of education who’s consulting with local teachers.  Carol Tomlinson has written 32 books on differentiated learning – keeping children at different levels of readiness in a single classroom, bringing reading, math and arts specialists in to work with small groups and individuals, so every kid has an enriched experience. 

“The days in this building of remediating, where we just talk louder and slower and hope that you get it the second time – those days are gone,” Hastings says.

This approach can also benefit the brightest students according to Maureen Jensen, lead coach and facilitator of gifted services in neighboring Albemarle County.  That’s because kids who are great readers may not be so good at math, and those who excel with numbers may struggle with letters.  Better, she says, to address the needs of individual students in real time.

“Who’s really excelling right now in fractions?  Not because they got a gifted label in 2nd grade but currently right now in fractions they’re acing everything.  So let’s enrich fractions or let’s accelerate fractions,” she explains.

UVA Professor of Education Catherine Brighton says differentiated learning puts more pressure on teachers.
Credit University of Virginia

At UVA, Professor Catherine Brighton says differentiated education puts more pressure on teachers at a time when they’re in short supply.  After all, they’re expected to juggle the different needs of every kid in the class.

“It can feel at times overwhelming," she says.

But, Brighton adds, this is really nothing new. 

“I mean we’ve always had students who come to school with different backgrounds, different experiences, different motivations to learn, different facility with the English language, and so teachers have figured out ways to address that.”

Some parents insist their children will be bored or frustrated in a regular classroom, and some teachers figure this is just the flavor of the month.  We’ll look at those concerns in our next report.  

PART TWO

Special programs for gifted kids are nothing new.  Most public schools had them a hundred years ago, and after the Soviet’s launched Sputnik, the nation paid increasing attention to the best and brightest students.  Now experts fear that approach has widened the achievement gap between white students and children of color, prompting many districts to reconsider the way they teach.  Charlottesville, for example, will take a whole new approach when school opens later this month.

Charlottesville High School's Matt Shields dazzles his AP physics class with creative demonstrations.
Credit University of Virginia

A typical physics lecture could make your eyes glaze over.

But when Matt Shields taught advanced placement physics to kids at Charlottesville High School – it was literally a blast.  Here, he set propane on fire as it moved thru a flute-like device to demonstrate the nature of sound.

As the volume of a music note rises, students move to the edge of their seats in amazement.

Parents of these students were likely pleased that their kids had the chance to study with a gifted teacher who enriched the course with intriguing demonstrations, but most students at Charlottesville High didn’t qualify for AP Physics or any other honors classes.  African-American kids were the least likely to get in, and last year the New York Times and Pro Publica attacked the city for segregating students – steering them into separate and unequal tracks.

At the same time, scholars like Sophie von Stumm at the University of York in the UK were arguing that this approach to teaching was not good for a country committed to equal opportunities for all.

Professor Sophie von Stumm says tracking is not the best way to educate the nation's kids.
Credit University of York

“Countries that don’t track students tend to have more equal outcomes in terms of student achievement," she says. "On average they also tend to have higher levels of achievement.  Finland transitioned from a system of tracking, and it now is the most successful educational system in the entire world.”

At Walker Upper Elementary School in Charlottesville, where tracking began, Principal Adam Hastings said students didn’t actually like the practice.

“Our kids tell us, ‘Pulling us out for the honors classes is a horrible thing!’"  he says. "Both the kids who don’t get pulled out and the kids who do get pulled out say, ‘Wait a minute!  Why do you divide us like this?’ They may be young, but they’re not stupid.”

Von Stumm says tracking can be hard on the self-esteem of students not selected for special programs, and when bright kids move into honors courses it can also destroy their confidence.

“They were performing really well relative to the other kids in primary school," she explains. "When they transition into a high ability secondary school and they learn with surprise that they are no longer top of the class, and for some of them that has very negative effects on their motivational levels for learning.”

So this year Charlottesville will move to something called differentiated learning, where teachers and specialists in reading, math and the arts work with individuals and small groups of kids in the same classroom to enrich their learning experience at whatever level is right for them. Principal Adam Hastings knows some teachers are skeptical.

“We are an industry where the pendulum swings.  We do this this year.  We do that next year.   I hope that this discussion around equity is here to stay.”

And parents of some kids who might be branded as gifted predict their children will be bored or frustrated in a regular classroom.  Professor von Stumm says they need not worry.

“Either they start teaching the other kids, and we know that this is actually really beneficial for their own learning if they learn how to communicate facts and knowledge to other children, or they seek their learning opportunities outside of the classroom, for example the local library or the chess club or the debate club,” von Stumm says.

And Charlottesville says gifted children will still be challenged through individual and small group instruction.  Hastings says this new approach – working to ensure the success of every student -- won’t always be easy, and he predicts it will take a generation to see how well it works.