Alexandria, VA

It’s no secret that there is a lack of equity in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) and school staff are working to identify where staff and students say disparities are the most prevalent.

While the school system recently celebrated all ACPS schools being fully accredited, the announcement noted that achievement gaps continue to exist “particularly in math and English among Hispanic students, black students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.” Test scores over recent years have shown a narrowing gap among different groups but with room to improve.

Concerns about racial and socioeconomic hurdles in the school system were not just raised by disgruntled parents and students during the discussion over whether to split T.C. Williams High School, but by administrators like Principal Peter Balas and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings.

An audit report prepared by education consultant KickUp for last Thursday’s (Oct. 10) School Board meeting reported on an equity audit — a scheduled check-in following equity reforms initiated in 2017. The results of the survey seemed mixed, with students and staff praising many of the equity efforts but also pointing to several areas where more work needs to be done.

The audit said that of staff surveyed, 63% said they saw a noticeable relationship between student demographics and rigorous classes, while only 26% of students said it seemed like students were being placed in classes or groups based on race.

While the audit said that 80% of students surveyed said they believe their teachers help prepare them for to overcome education challenges, it said that “students at T.C. Williams Minnie Howard responded more negatively to a number of items in this category, relative to other schools.”

Students at T.C. ranked their school lower than other schools on items like “my teachers talk about things that are important to me” and “school is a place that helps me imagine my future.”

Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed at T.C. Williams High School indicated that it seemed like students were placed in classes and groups based on race, with nearly 60 percent of students at the Chance for Change alternative program saying they felt classes were grouped by race.

Concerns about the disparities in the school system were also present among school staff.

“While 79% of staff across the district agreed with the statement ‘efforts are made to foster respect between students from different backgrounds and identities,’ only 54.6% disagreed with the negative statement: ‘There are tensions in the school between students with different backgrounds and identities.'”

Concerns about equity were higher among staff in some schools. At Jefferson-Houston, a school that was plagued for years with accreditation issues, only 35.8 percent of staff said they believed students were being prepared to function as a member of a diverse society. Less than half the staff at the school responded positively to questions about physical integration at the school.

Nearly 60 percent of students agreed that there are tensions between students with different backgrounds and identities throughout the school system.

“Race is often an elephant in the room but is rarely addressed,” said Cheryl Robinson, Cultural Competency Coordinator for ACPS. “We’ve not had the conversations we need to have with our staff in order to help them think about and develop the skill and the will to want to do something different… We spend a fair amount of time talking about institutional racism and structural racism and how they are related to implicit bias because if you don’t name that, you can pretty much cancel Christmas.”

A second equity audit is planned for spring 2020 to check on progress over time.

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