When Sabrina Hendricks was about to start fifth grade at Walker Upper Elementary School in Charlottesville, she got upset after finding out that most of her friends she’d gone to Venable Elementary with were being pulled out of Charlottesville City Schools by their parents to attend private schools.
Hendricks’ parents wanted her to stay in the public school system to be around her peers who came from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and to support the public schools, rather than pay to send her to a private school with mostly upper-income, white students.
“When they said that, I kind of got it, but I mean when you’re 9 years old, you just want to go where your friends are going. You don’t really care about greater racial issues,” said Hendricks, now a senior at Charlottesville High School.
But as Hendricks got older, she started to think about the bad reputation Walker and Buford Middle School had among white families, and realized how much of this had to do with race and class. As a member of the Charlottesville Youth Council, she and fellow council members decided they should research the issue further and see what could be done about it.
The Youth Council is a group of 17 local students who advise the City Council, inform the community about issues that affect youth and make recommendations on how they feel Charlottesville can be a better place.
“I thought about it and I realized that when parents send their kids to private schools, those high amounts of resources are going elsewhere, and it just really kind of set off this fire in my soul that it was hurting my hometown, it was hurting the public schools and the kids who don’t necessarily have a choice about whether they can go [to public or private schools],” Hendricks said.
“When I brought that up, everybody was pretty behind it and were really focused on it and it kind of matched our theme of dealing with more racial and social problems inside of our schools, so it kind of went along with what we’ve been working on,” Hendricks said.
Together with the UVa research students who were advising them, the council decided the best way to gather data would be an electronic survey. That way, they could collect quantitative data and also anecdotal evidence and stories from participants.
They specifically wanted to learn more about why families were pulling their students out of Walker and Buford for private schools and then sending them back to the public school system to attend Charlottesville High School.
The Youth Council also researched the history of the two schools, which were originally founded as junior high schools in 1963. Students zoned to Walker came primarily from white, more affluent communities, whereas students zoned to Buford came from predominantly Black and/or low-income communities. The schools were, in effect, segregated due to zoning.
Good for the kids for taking on the racism of white parents, many of whom are liberal Democrats, as well the others who are right-wing Republicans. And as Margaret Hagerman explored in her amazing book White Kids, this stuff gets passed down to white children very, very early and they just articulate it bluntly, just like they will do when they are adults and send their little Maddies and Connors to white private schools.
Hendricks said Youth Council members noticed a pattern of students using words like “sketchy” and “ghetto” to describe Walker and Buford in the survey, which really disturbed them. Hendricks noted that these words carry racist and classist undertones.
“I didn’t expect … private school kids being so blunt and saying things like, ‘I thought that Buford was sketchy’ and getting right to the point. I thought there was gonna be a lot of beating around the bush like, ‘my parents wanted me to go for art’ and things like that, and a lot of responses were very direct,” Hendricks said.
Some respondents from the private schools said they perceived they had an “edge” over public school students and were much more academically prepared for upper-level classes.
But hey, don’t my kids just deserve the best schools? It has nothing to do with racism!