COLLEGE PREP SCHOOL CONFRONTS SYSTEMIC RACISM WITH EXPERIENTIAL CURRICULUM

Renaissance School, geographically, has a front-row seat for the ongoing contentious conversation on racism in Charlottesville. It is situated across the street from the Albemarle County Courthouse, the Grant statue, and the lawn where the May, July, and August 2017 white supremacist rallies in part took place. It is also across the street from the sidewalk marker of the former slave auction block, and the plaque memorializing the Jim Crow-era unprosecuted murders-by-lynching in Viriginia (including that of John Henry James) that was installed on July 12 of this year. It is two blocks from City Hall where the debate has been waged, two blocks from Lee Park, and facing the courthouses where decisions have been handed down on freedom of speech, right to assembly, and whether the statues stay or go. As a school with an emphasis in the arts for all students, it has been engaged with the debate on public art since its inception in 1999, and especially since renowned sculptor Melvin Edwards was selected in 2012 to design the yet-to-be-installed Vinegar Hill Monument. 

This context has prompted Renaissance School, in its 20th year as a college prep school for high ability students in the arts, sciences, and humanities, to examine why their school and greater community, which strives to be welcoming and inclusive, remains disproportionately white, and what the school’s role is in dismantling institutional racism in education in Charlottesville. As with any contentious, complicated topic, the work is ongoing and there are no simple solutions. 

On Wednesday September 25th the school participated in the downtown monuments guided education tour with Dr. Andrea Douglas of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and Dr. Jalane Schmidt of UVA. These leaders spearheaded the effort that culminated in the addition of the John Henry James Lynching Historical Plaque, as well as being instrumental community leaders in equity, diversity, and inclusion. Students learned about the symbolism, history, context, and purpose of various statues and other monuments in Charlottesville, and how they contribute to contemporary discourse. 

On Thursday October 10th, the entire student body of Renaissance School visited the African American History Museum in Washington, DC. Prior to the trip, students attended a lecture by faculty and architect Dhara Goradia, contrasting the symbolism of various DC sites, including the museum, government buildings, and the Vietnam Memorial. On the day, students were given four hours to explore the museum. They were encouraged to honor the museum’s layout, which starts at the bottom and moves up, but were allowed to navigate it as they wished. Most students and faculty chose to explore alone, at their own pace. It was an emotional experience for many. 

“It was important that we took a walk and had dinner together afterwards,” said Head of School Sara Johnson. “History is a heavy thing to process. Spending the day at the museum is part of our efforts is to integrate a better, more holistic understanding of our country’s history. Simply talking about it in the classroom isn’t enough. This is about making better citizens and community members.” 

That same evening, faculty members attended a program at The Center entitled “Eracism - What’s Happening in Charlottesville & Albemarle Schools”, led by Juandiego Wade of the Charlottesville City School Board. This was an informative opportunity for the school to learn about the recent initiatives by the city, including hiring Denise Johnson as their Director of Equity and Inclusion, and eliminating the Quest program for gifted students. 

These events are part of an extended process of addressing racism and building diversity at Renaissance School. The following is a timeline of major events and initiatives of recent years provided to all students and faculty; the conversations in classrooms are ongoing. 

May 30, 2015: Commencement Speech by Damani Harrison

February 22-24, 2016: Monuments Walks, Topic “Controversial Art” - Charlottesville & Richmond

February 8, 2017: Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville KY

May 27, 2017: Commencement Speech by Dr. Andrea Douglas

June 2017: Summer Reading - The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

October 2017: Leslie M. Scott-Jones & Charles Owens Conversation on Healing Through Art

February 9, 2018: Beloved Charlottesville / Point Made Learning Faculty Facilitator Training - I’m Not Racist… Am I?

March 2, 2018:  I’m Not Racist… Am I? School Viewing & Conversation, Facilitated by Jay Pun and Clarence Green

March 2018: Boston Immigrant Experience 

June & July 2018: Curry School Research Project on Recruiting & Retaining Gifted Students of Color

July & August 2018: Partnership with IRC

October 1, 2018: Virginia Civil Rights Trail & Appomattox Courthouse

February 28, 2019: Freedom & Liberation Concert at The Jefferson Theater

March 2019: Pittsburgh Immigrant Experience

Summer 2019: Addition of Race & Diversity Committee, with Increased Diversity in Hiring (including 2015 Commencement Speaker Damani Harrison)

September 21, 2019 - A Night of Black Innovation in Music at The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center

September 25, 2019 - Charlottesville Monuments Walk with Drs. Andrea Douglass and Jalane Schmidt

October 4, 2019 -  Lecture on DC Architecture by Dhara Goradia

October 10, 2019 - All-School Trip to African American History Museum 

October 10, 2019 - Talk: Eracism - What’s Happening in Charlottesville & Albemarle Schools, at The Center

November 1, 2019 - Screening and Discussion of film “A Different Side…” with Daniel Fairley II

The Renaissance School mission is to have an ongoing conversation that encourages thoughtful consideration of the past, present, and future. Ms. Johnson says, “We aim to educate students in a way that exposes them to facts and ideas that, in the end, inform important decisions they will ultimately make as adults. We want to encourage thoughtful citizenship. This can’t be achieved  with lectures alone. This requires art, travel, literature, discussion, debate, and every kind of experiential learning.”

Renaissance School encourages gifted and talented students, including, explicitly, those students whose aptitudes may be overlooked due to societal biases, to attend their Open House on November 4. Renaissance School is Central Virginia’s college preparatory high school for high ability students in the arts, sciences, and humanities, and the 2019 Niche #1 High School for the Arts in Virginia. 

 

Contact: Bethany Farris, 434-984-1952, marketing@renaissanceschool.org