The Chesterfield County School Board on Tuesday voted to reform the system’s selection process for the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School to boost access and increase diversity.
School officials previously had set a goal of having the demographics of students admitted to the school mirror those of the public school system by 2025. More than half of the county’s students are of color, state data show. Fewer than 5% of county students picked to attend Maggie Walker in the past five years have been Black and fewer than 5% have been Hispanic.
The new admissions process designed to reach that goal aims to make selection more inclusive for students at schools that historically don’t identify gifted students for the program.
During the first phase, the county will select the top students from each individual middle school, with slots allotted in proportion to the size of the schools’ eighth grade class. During the second phase, top candidates from the division who were not selected in phase one will be offered admission.
The vote comes amid scrutiny of Chesterfield’s gifted programs from the NAACP’s Chesterfield branch and as a task force state Secretary of Education Atif Qarni launched this year to research diversifying schools like Maggie Walker bears down.
“One of the things that we have found is that the division level selection assumes that the life experiences, the learning experiences of students in our large county are the same,” said George Fohl, the gifted education coordinator for the district. “By moving to the school level selection... we increase access and opportunity to those students by comparing to their peers rather than ranking them in such a large division.”
Chesterfield school officials since 2018 have been working to revamp gifted identification, something that Maggie Walker graduate Carrie Kahwajy has been pushed for as the Chesterfield NAACP’s education chair. The issue, Kahwajy said, is the lack of identification of gifted students early on in their education careers. While she appreciates the progress, she said the addendum itself won’t be enough. Instead, she said teachers need to be doing a better job of referring students to talented and gifted programs in the district and help them navigate the process.
“The modeling shows some progress, but it’s not enough,” Kahwajy said in an interview. “And so if that’s where they’re stopping, I would be concerned.”
The lack of diversity in governor’s schools and talented and gifted programs is common across the Richmond region. In 2019, Richmond Public Schools sent 39 students to Maggie Walker; 30 were white. Hanover County Public Schools has not sent any Black or Latino students to the school since 2015. Of the 179 students Henrico County sent last school year, 15 were Black and three were Hispanic.
The school itself is undertaking its own work to create a culture that is more friendly to students of color, a process that caused members of the regional board to question if it would lower standards to try to diversify the school.
Just 4% of Maggie Walker’s freshman class is Black and 4% is Hispanic. 21% of the class is Asian, and 61% is white, according to numbers the school provided.
Chesterfield County’s contribution was comprised of the following: 85 white students applied and 45 were accepted; 28 Black students applied and 3 were accepted; 31 Hispanic students applied and 6 were accepted.
Right now, students have to take an admissions test to get into Maggie Walker, which is something Kahwajy said she would like to see eliminated.
The Fairfax County School Board just voted to do so for the system’s Thomas Jefferson High School, among the most elite schools in the country.
“Anything that is being done to open the door wider for students to attend Maggie Walker is certainly supported by our school,” head of the school Bob Lowerre said in a statement, of Chesterfield’s changes.
The regional board that governs Maggie Walker is scheduled to examine its own admissions test this week, Lowerre said.