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Richmond school board to consider specialty school admissions changes

Superintendent Jason Kamras speaks into a microphone while standing in front of a brick wall.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News File
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras speaks at River City Middle School during the first week of classes in late August.

The Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School and others have been criticized for lack of diversity.

Richmond Public Schools administrators recently recommended changing admissions processes for two of the city’s specialty schools — Richmond Community and Open high schools — as well as the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.

Currently, one slot for the top performer at each middle school in RPS is reserved for admission to Maggie Walker. Superintendent Jason Kamras’ administration wants to expand that to three slots from each middle school. The regional governor's school has been criticized for its lack of diverse admissions; 8% of students admitted in 2022 were Black.

There’s not currently a set number of slots at city middle schools reserved for Richmond Community or Open high schools admission; the administration has recommended reserving three slots at each middle school for admission to these schools as well. Additionally, the recommendations call for reserving half of all slots at each school for economically disadvantaged students — with the slots reserved at middle schools counting toward that total.

'Almost a third of the seats each year at Maggie Walker are going to private school students, and that just does not seem equitable ... .'
RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras

Under the proposal, three total slots will also be reserved for students previously enrolled in private school or who were being homeschooled — but will be capped at five slots. Right now, there is no cap on the number of these admissions.

“Almost a third of the seats each year at Maggie Walker are going to private school students, and that just does not seem equitable, given that the overwhelming proportion of students in Richmond are going to Richmond public schools,” said Kamras during a virtual town hall Thursday night. “So, we wanted to address that.”

The proposal — which received pushback from some board members when it was initially presented — represents individual recommendations from members of an equity enrollment commission. It will be up for a vote at the Sept. 18 school board meeting; the district opens the application process for specialty schools in mid-October.

Navigating specialty school applications

Anne Forrester, an RPS teacher who has helped students navigate the specialty school application process, likes the idea of reserving more slots for students — including for economically disadvantaged students across the district — at each middle school.

“I think those sorts of proportions or guarantees would go a long way to level the playing field,” Forrester told VPM News. Overall, though, she thinks the proposals are a “Band-Aid on a huge gaping wound, until every single [district] high school is a school our students want to be at, that are wishing they could attend and are applying to attend or wanting to transfer to.”

Forrester said right now, a lot of the specialty school slots go to students from certain schools — or to students coming from private schools. Data presented at Monday’s school board meeting shows that over 20% of applicants to the Maggie Walker for the ’23-’24 school year came from a private school.

Over 60% of students across RPS are considered economically disadvantaged. Christal Bacon, a former RPS teacher who has also helped students navigate the specialty school application process, appreciates that the plan will reserve 50% of specialty school slots for economically disadvantaged students. She said it mirrors the overall student population.

“That might be the fairest thing to do,” Bacon said.

The district has also proposed a series of measures to raise awareness about the schools, including creation of staff support teams to help students apply for specialty schools. Additionally, the district wants to hold more informational meetings and open houses for students and families to learn more about their options.

RPS has also proposed some changes to the application process itself. Instead of asking students to submit writing samples from home, RPS plans to require essays to be written in-person. Crystal Foster, an RPS parent, said it’s more fair this way — and the proposed process will ensure students are the ones writing essays, not parents or AI.

“That’s one thing that I’m advocating for,” Foster said. “All those essays need to be done [at school].”

'They can’t apply to something that they don’t know about. The real issue is getting into these communities and teaching these kids about the schools in the first place.'
Christal Bacon, a former RPS teacher

Both Forrester and Bacon said that raising awareness and increasing in-school support for students applying are critical components of making the process more equitable.

“They can’t apply to something that they don’t know about,” Bacon said. “The real issue is getting into these communities and teaching these kids about the schools in the first place.”

Bacon has envisioned a job where she travels around to every school in the district and holds informational presentations about the specialty schools. Bacon attended Richmond Community high herself and wants other students to have an experience like hers — which included an annual class trip.

When Bacon was teaching Thomas H. Henderson Middle School students virtually during the pandemic, she developed a project for them to research the district’s specialty schools and create a roadmap for their own journeys through college.

At first, she said many students — especially students of color — knew nothing about the city’s specialty schools.

“But by the end of it, I did have students come to me and say, ‘You know what? I think I really do want to go to Maggie Walker’ or ‘I think I really do want to go to Community, like you did,’” Bacon said. “That’s the biggest reward you can get, seeing a child’s eyes light up about planning their future.”

Bacon said that awareness and education about the schools should start in elementary school. At Henderson, she said, some students had already developed an opposition to taking a foreign language class — credits she knew specialty schools look favorably upon.

“We were brainstorming ways — myself and the language teacher last year — on how we [can] get these kids to understand this, that you need this class, you need to take Spanish in order to apply [to a specialty school] and be competitive,” Bacon said.

Additionally, not many of her Henderson students had been exposed to volunteer opportunities, which the specialty schools also take into consideration. She arranged another class project where students wrapped Christmas presents for charity and calculated how much wrapping paper they’d need in advance, based on the size of the packages.

Forrester, who used to teach English-language learners at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School and is now in the same role at Richmond High School for the Arts, said anything the district can do to centralize the specialty school application process would help even the playing field.

“I do think that students with parents with more time and resources are at an advantage, and really my students are at a disadvantage, because their parents don't have the time or resources, the language skills or the technology access,” Forrester said.

She said having more staff that are paid to help students navigate the online application portal would help. And when she’s helped students with their applications in the past, she hasn’t been able to tell what components they’re missing, unless she reaches out to the division’s central office.

Should the proposal pass, Luke Hostetter, director of enrollment placement and planning with Richmond Public Schools, said they’d consider providing transportation to Open High School. Right now, transportation to Richmond Community and Maggie Walker are already provided, he said.

Hostetter said Code RVA wasn’t included in the proposals because “it has a separate selection process” that features a randomized lottery. No changes were suggested to Franklin Military Academy’s admissions process, either, because he said “it already is reflective of the overall RPS student population with regards to that economically disadvantaged demographic.”

The Appomattox Regional Governor’s School also wasn’t included in the proposal because the selection process is largely driven by auditions and portfolios.

“However, we know that a student's economic circumstances may have a significant impact on their access to artistic and musical training,” Hostetter said. “So, this is something we're recommending further study to determine how to best address in future years and future cycles.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.