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Kenya Hunter talks about her investigation into Maggie Walker admissions with VPM's Megan Pauly

woman in front of Richmond Times-Dispatch building
Kenya Hunter stands in front of the Richmond Times-Dispatch building. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Maggie Walker has accepted white students at a much higher rate than Black students for the past 20 years. Kenya Hunter of the Richmond Times-Dispatch walks through her recent reporting with VPM's Megan Pauly.

Read the series at Richmond.com:
Part I | Part II | Part III

Megan Pauly: Kenya, thank you so much for talking with me. You've just published an in-depth, three-part series this week, culminating over six months’ worth of reporting about the history and current school climate and admissions rules at the Maggie Walker Governor's School in Richmond for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Really outstanding, important work, Kenya. Tell me about what led you to start looking into these issues in the first place?

Kenya Hunter: First off, I appreciate you for having me. I started looking into the governor's school last year during the George Floyd movement, which spurred its own movement in Richmond across institutions. Being the education reporter, Richmond, and Virginia, has a lot to discuss when it comes to race, segregation and education. A parent reached out to me and informed me that the Maggie Walker Governor's Regional School Board had signed a pledge to be anti-racist, and what I gathered was that some people really wanted to test Maggie Walker on that. 

So then I looked at some of the stats from Chesterfield, and they were stark: not a lot of Black students, not a lot of Latino students, a lot of underrepresentation. And so, then I was introduced to Rasheeda Creighton, who graduated from the governor's school program before it was Maggie Walker. Rasheeda graduated in ‘95, when it was on the third floor of Thomas Jefferson. So I talked to her and she had been working to get Black alumni together, and they started a survey to kind of get a climate of how Black students were feeling at the school and I ended up reporting on just how Maggie Walker wanted to change and have more representation. That's how we found out that 7% of the students out of the then 754 were Black and even less Latino. And that's how it started. And I just started following it ever since from the talks of a strategic plan that alumni were not happy about, to what Dr. Loweree is doing to help with the school culture there as well.

Pauly: Tell me about the history of this school. It sounds like a lot of people don't know a lot about it and how it came to be named after civil rights trailblazer Maggie Walker herself.

Person smiles
Kenya Hunter (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Hunter: So Maggie Walker the governor's school was once Maggie Walker High School, one of two Black schools during legal segregation in Richmond Public Schools. What's interesting is that the other Black school was Armstrong High School, which now houses the Richmond Alternative School. They're not far from each other at all. It's a lot of rich Black history. Before it [Maggie Walker] was the high school, it was a Black college for women that was a sister college to Virginia Union, and I believe it later merged with Virginia Union. The history is great, and people here have so much pride in the Maggie Walker High School legacy. If you go and talk to old Black folks in Richmond, they talk a lot about the Walker-Armstrong Classic, which was a really big football game that was a storied rivalry between Walker and Armstrong. I mean, I've heard numbers up to 35,000 people that it would draw to Richmond. And so that's really the Black history of it all. A lot of Black history icons went to Maggie Walker, which I know is drawing some complicated feelings about where the governor's school is now. It closed in the 70s. I know people were really, really hurt by it closing and so when Tim Kaine was a city councilor, he kind of turned it into this project to revamp Maggie Walker into the governor's school. There was one city councilor who voted not to endorse the plan to move the governor's school into Maggie Walker. And looking through our archives, I recall his words being that it won't be called Walker High School and just having some dissent on the legacy of the Black history there. I know that there were some complicated feelings about having a lot of students from various areas bussed in to come to the governor’s school and it wasn't an RPS school. Some didn't feel like it prioritized Richmond public school students.

Pauly: How is this governor's school different from other public schools? Who even attends the school now, from which school districts and who decides how they get in?

Hunter: The governor's school is different because it's a regional school so it's not necessarily a Richmond public school. You know, like it's not under RPS. I believe fiscally it is. But in reality, it's not a school specifically for RPS students. It's not a zoned school. The governor's school feeds from 14 districts. A majority of the students come from Henrico, Richmond, Hanover and Chesterfield, Chesterfield being the largest that participates. So that's who attends the school. Who decides how they get in... that's an even more complicated one, because the school is also regionally governed. So every locality decides who they're going to send. Maggie Walker’s administration only owns the culture of the school and the admissions application process. From there, they create a composite score for students, and then they send those back to the district, and the districts decide based on that composite score who they're going to send over to the governor's school.

Pauly: What is their admissions process now?

Hunter: So right now, I know that some people really feel like there's an over reliance on this two-part admissions test. One is an achievement test that I've been told is 10th grade level. And then there's an aptitude test that really is meant to measure how kids think. The planning committee doesn't see why they continue to administer a 10th grade level test to 8th grade students. They don't think it makes sense. I know that there are teacher recommendations and the essays that have different weights on them. Right now, I believe the governor's school administration is considering making the essay count for a bit more because they want to just specifically learn more about their students instead of over-reliance on a test.

Pauly: And so I understand that Maggie Walker's governing board is slated to consider a revamp of these policies later this month. Is that right?

Hunter: Yes, I believe next Thursday. I know there's been some concerns about admissions tests in the past and this thought of lowering the standards of admissions if the test is removed, but a lot of experts really believe that there is no such thing as lowering standards if there is bias in a test. What a lot of them mean when they say bias [is] you're talking about the things that different kids are exposed to in different parts of Virginia. Some kids have access to tutoring, others don't. And so I think there's some room to question how Maggie Walker and other regional governor’s schools are measuring who is going to do well. And I think the thing that's interesting is that the planning committee at Maggie Walker, which is made up of the gifted and talented coordinators at the school, they really believe that who does well on the admissions test isn't necessarily an indicator of who's going to do well at the school. What they've determined to be a really good indicator is how well they're doing at school when they apply. Are they getting good grades? And then also, how determined are they to continue doing their work? That's what they consider to be the indicators of who's going to be a good student at Maggie Walker. They've definitely determined the achievement test specifically as more of a barrier than an indicator of who's going to do well.

Pauly: You interviewed multiple generations of Maggie Walker students and alums who shared very different experiences at the school. Tell me more about these differences?

Hunter: One of my favorite parts of reporting the project was talking to Emmett Jafari and his granddaughter, Mariam. Emmett went to Maggie Walker High School. He was class president. I believe he played in the Armstrong-Walker Classic. He really loves Maggie Walker. He loves his high school. And then hearing how Mariam experiences the building differently, one of the things I found interesting was that Mariam told me she didn't really have a necessarily incredibly overtly racist experience at Maggie Walker, but had a lot of thoughts about how the school teaches history. So I think what was interesting was hearing how the both of them really experienced the building so differently, and yet walked the same hallways. So I think that those complex feelings come from wanting to see Maggie Walker, the high school and have that nostalgia. This part of Richmond that really meant a lot to Black folks. But then understanding that the legacy of gifted education in general has locked out Black students, which then, in turn prevents Black students from coming to Maggie Walker. 

And then there's the culture piece of it to where a lot of students, alumni, especially recent alumni, have this feeling that they weren't protected. There's a part in the story where I talked about an Instagram page called POC at Maggie L. Walker. Gov School. Some of the claims are really I think devastating, where you have teachers who are being accused of embarrassing Black students by way of microaggressions. I remember one of the ones I saw that stuck out to me was a discussion about a student who felt embarrassed because a teacher asked her to describe what happens when your hair gets wet. And that can be embarrassing when you're a Black student, because your hair is different. 

It stuns people who went to the high school to hear that Black students are feeling uncomfortable inside of a building named after Maggie Walker, because that's not how they felt when they got there. And I know that oftentimes, when we think of segregated schools, specifically, say, Black schools, we think of a lack of opportunity. But when you talk to the Black alums, they remember a culture of feeling loved by other Black teachers, and not having to do the whole code switching thing that a lot of us Black folks have to do when we're in professional settings. They remember that and they remember being affirmed in their Black existence.  

Pauly: You mentioned the culture and climate issues that students have raised, what is the administration doing to address that? What do you think needs to be done to change that?

Hunter: The administration is doing a lot right now. They are doing a lot of cultural competency training, which is interesting, because it's way ahead of what the state is recommending, and I'm hearing that the teachers are really open to it. Dr. Loweree just hired Dr. Lisa Williams as the assistant director at Maggie Walker. She's the first Black woman to hold that role. I think that's really interesting, and she really is passionate about getting the culture to where they'd like it to be as well. And I know some of the small things have been done. If you walk inside of Maggie Walker, there are a lot of the artifacts from the Black high school still there, but they were on the third floor. And so they've moved some of those down. So that way, it's the first thing you see when you walk into the building.

Pauly: Your reporting uncovered some really alarming statistics about the lack of Black students being admitted to Maggie Walker from other districts. One statistic was that white children were nearly four times more likely than Black students to gain admission over the past 20 years. And your reporting shows that this is not a new problem; there was a civil rights complaint filed in 2013 alleging the school admissions process showed clear evidence of persistent bias against Black and Latino students.  

Hunter: This isn't the first time people have talked about this issue. It's an issue that got brought up before it was even Maggie Walker Governor's School. It was brought up when the school first started. I quoted the former director of the governor's school and the story we found in the archives; he told the Richmond News Leader that the lack of diversity wasn't his fault. It was a matter of who was prepared by the localities, which I think some people have thoughts on. I know that in Richmond, a majority Black school district, they don't send a lot of Black students to the governor's school. In fact, it's overwhelmingly white students. 

I do know that people have good research now. And a lot of this research is about how teacher recommendations play a role in gifted education, who's identified as gifted and how some of these opportunities are locked from economically disadvantaged students who are more likely to be students of color in Virginia. So a lot of organizations are taking steps to try to move forward and what's interesting is that in Virginia there are a lot of people in state legislature who want to see something done about it. There are a lot of people within the VDOE who want to see something done about it. And then education Secretary Atif Qarni wants to see something done about it, too.

Pauly: Can you talk about the role recommendations play, why that's happening, and what other experts you've talked to say about that?

Hunter: One expert I spoke with told me that you're lucky if you talk about advanced education at all, during your teacher training. There aren’t similar guidelines to gifted enrollment or identifying gifted kids or offering gifted services as there are for students with disabilities like IEPs, and things of that nature. I know that teacher bias does affect who is identified as gifted. And one thing that I wish I had reported on more is boys. We didn't really analyze it, but just at a glance, I remember seeing that for males who had applied to the governor's school, there was a disparity there too. I remember talking to one of my sources about this, and him telling me that when you're bored in class, you might act out. And so that might affect who teachers view as gifted. They might be acting out because they are incredibly bored in school and they're not being challenged. So yeah, teacher bias can affect who is seen as gifted, because a lot of teachers aren't really deeply trained on how to identify a kid as gifted. I think of Tiyanna Stewart, who was doing math really early, and then her mom brought her work to her teacher and the teacher said, “but look at these two mistakes she made.” If not for a Black woman being in the room, Tiyanna's mother would have never figured out how to get her identified as gifted. And I can only imagine this happening in a lot of places.

Pauly: You've also reported that there's been a recent increase in the number of Black students admitted to Maggie Walker from Chesterfield County Public Schools. And I understand there was a policy change that led to that increase. Can you talk about that, and if this is a policy you've seen implemented elsewhere?

Hunter: Chesterfield switched their selections process from solely county-wide to starting at schools. So they reserve a certain number of slots for every school, and then they move to division-wide. So they still do have some division-wide selection, but it starts out at getting the top students from as many schools as they can, which I find to be really interesting. It was passed unanimously by the Chesterfield County School Board. I have seen something similar up at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, which has been the subject of a lot of this discussion of diversity. This year they dropped the admissions test, raised their GPA requirement and also reserved a certain number of slots for every feeder school district. And this year, TJ let in a really diverse class, more diverse than normal. I believe it's still under represented for Black and Latino students, but about a fourth of their class was economically disadvantaged, which is a stark increase from what was maybe less than 5% of the students there being economically disadvantaged.

Pauly: There was legislation proposed this past General Assembly session related to this issue. Tell me about that and why it ultimately didn't pass.

Hunter: So HB 2305 was a bill that required the Virginia Board of Education to create some guidance on how to address pipeline issues at certain feeder middle schools. Because the thing that a lot of people talk about is how at these gov schools, [students] come from a select few middle schools. I know that’s the case in Richmond; they just did their open enrollment, and as far as specialty schools go, most of the applications come from Albert Hill, Binford and a lot of private schools. So there was this discussion of fixing the pipeline from every middle school and making sure that people were aware of the governor's school’s opportunities too because I think a lot of what might drive this [lack of diversity] is just people simply not knowing. I've talked to people who live in different sides of one county, and the talk of where kids are going to go to high school starts maybe in the 6th grade, whereas for everyone else, they're like, “why wouldn’t I just go to my zoned high school?” So I think that bill was really about getting this in front of people, holding information sessions and just giving best practices on how to do that.

The bill passed the House and then it got to the Senate Health and Education Committee where there was a really robust discussion between the senators. And I remember it being incredibly controversial, and a lot of people are surprised to see that it failed and that it didn't even make it to a full Senate vote. There was a lot of backlash to the bill, specifically from senators Dick Saslaw and Chap Petersen, both in Fairfax where Thomas Jefferson is, and that really dominated a lot of the discussion. Dick Saslaw said that a lot of his constituents who are immigrants were really offended by the bill. He said that they had done a lot of work to improve their own situations, as far as overcoming adversity for their kids to have opportunities to get into Thomas Jefferson. Sen. Petersen said similar things. I recall people using some terms like “anti-Asian,” and Sen. Petersen believed that the bill had some anti-Asian undertones.

Pauly: There's also been a national conversation about whether or not gifted programs should even exist at all or not because of concerns about equity. You reported that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that the school system there will be phasing out its gifted enrollment program. Do you think that this is likely to ever happen in Virginia? Have you heard anything from your sources about that?

Hunter: I think people have complicated feelings about the abolition of governor’s schools. I know some people really believe that kids should not have to leave their school to access things like the governor's school. I also know that people really believe that gifted students deserve gifted services, and so I haven't really heard the appetite for the complete abolition of these programs. But I think that there have been some questions on how to rethink it, and if kids should have to leave their schools. I don't see the governor's schools going anywhere anytime soon in all honesty, because people really value the opportunities of the governor's schools. If they didn't value it, I don't think we would see bills like HB 2305 or these discussions around diversity, because I think people in Virginia really believe that the governor's schools have really good opportunities to offer. Some of the kids, they go on to do really incredible things. And I think it's a matter of trying to figure out how can we make sure all of our students have access to opportunities such as the governor's schools. 

Pauly: Thank you so much, Kenya for your time and talking to me about your important reporting.

Hunter: Thank you for having me. Megan, I really respect you as a fellow education reporter here in Richmond, so it's always good to talk.

Pauly: Likewise.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.