Jay Paul photo
Just off West Broad Street in the shadow of Virginia Commonwealth University, the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies is not a showy place. A brick and cinderblock structure, it was restored from the crumbling remains of Richmond's first school for black students, named for Maggie Lena Walker, the nation's first female black bank president and a prominent philanthropist.
But inside, a sense of excellence and accompanying privilege is clear. Though this is a high school, its walls are hung with drawings that look like the work of college graduates. In many classrooms, students are taking advanced college courses in physics and math.
Chosen from 12 Central Virginia localities, they are the kind of students who sometimes are "at risk" in regular high schools, says Maggie Walker director Fred Morton. "There's a belief that smart kids can get what they need without support," he says. So they're sometimes overlooked and unchallenged. "Profoundly gifted students," he says, "have special needs."
Which Maggie Walker appears to meet.
Phil Tharp, an administrator and among Maggie Walker's first students, will happily reel off the accomplishments of recent grads: One got his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the age of 22 and now works for NASA. Another grad, a young woman, works as New York City's lead counsel for environmental affairs. A third was a Jeopardy! contestant.
The 2010-2011 academic year marks the 20th anniversary of the Governor's School, and for students, parents and especially faculty, the milestone is significant. The school overcame sizeable obstacles — no permanent home for years, a paucity of funding and opposition because of its reputation as an elite, largely white school — to get where it is today.
"It was a very unique situation," says Pat Taylor, among the school's first four teachers in 1991. "We believed we could change the world one student at a time. But was there tension? Absolutely."
The school began with an idea — to create a place that would prepare exceptional students for leadership in an increasingly globalized world. The curriculum incorporates international content into every class, so that, for example, math students might learn about Asian mathematicians or theories that originated from the region.
During Maggie Walker's first year, 70 students attended classes in Thomas Jefferson High School, a magnet school with a largely black student body. The smaller school was expected to grow each year, while TJ students were to move to other schools. But the plan met with resistance from students, parents and city officials, who argued that Jefferson students were being big-footed from their own turf.
On one occasion, Jefferson students marched to City Hall, demanding that the Governor's School students leave, says Taylor, now retired. "We weren't trying to take anything away. But we were made abundantly aware that a tradition and a history at the school was being threatened."
Thus started a decade-long effort to find a different home, which climaxed with a 1999 proposal to renovate and use the old Maggie L. Walker High School, which closed in 1990 and had been left to deteriorate. On the day of the City Council vote, Councilor Sa'ad El-Amin protested, describing the racial breakdown of the school as "atrocious," according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article at the time. After a heated session, Council approved the renovation — only El-Amin ended up voting no — but with the caveat that efforts to increase black enrollment would be intensified.
A quiet force amid the fray was Bob Mooney, a powerful Richmond businessman and philanthropist who led the school's Renovation Foundation. He was instrumental in developing a persuasive funding scheme — a third of the $22 million would come from the sale of historic tax credits; a third from private donations, including Mooney's own sizeable contribution; and slightly less than a third from participating school districts. Richmond would get a spruced-up building and pay less than a 10th of the cost.
Ten years later, the school's reputation reaches well beyond Richmond's borders, and it's no easy task to gain admission. Applicants must complete Algebra I in middle school, attain at least a B average in core subjects in 7th grade, be recommended by two teachers and/or adults; and take writing and standardized tests during the application process. A board of administrators from Maggie Walker and all participating school districts then evaluates applications, setting a composite score for admission. After that, school-district administrators — not Maggie Walker officials — make the final decisions about who among their applicants will be admitted.
Tharp says the process is "about as egalitarian as you can get." Still, Maggie Walker continues to grapple with a race gap. This year, about 6.3 percent of its 717 students are black and 1.4 percent are Latino, according to a 2010-2011 report compiled by the school.
Tharp says Maggie Walker is working to promote itself among a wider group of students at a younger age — among recommendations made by a U.Va. research group contracted in 2009 by Maggie Walker to review its admissions process. That's vital, says Tharp, because generally students who go to Maggie Walker have been introduced to academic "rigor" in middle school and even in elementary school.
Economically disadvantaged students at Maggie Walker often have fewer options after they graduate, Mooney says. "We have a lot of super, super bright kids who can't go to the college of their choice" because of the expense." So he's working to increase the school's scholarship money for graduates; the 2010 graduating class received more than $8 million in college scholarships — an average of more than $50,000 per student.
Although the school's racial composition still disappoints, its honors and accolades do not. For the last three years, Maggie Walker has earned the rare distinction of not being included in Newsweek's top schools ranking because its students are too smart. Instead, Newsweek places Maggie Walker on a list of 21 "public elites," whose "sky-high SAT and ACT scores indicate they have few or no average students."
Maggie Walker's Battle of the Brains teams participate in the most difficult of the national and regional math, science and language competitions. And of course, seniors go off to top colleges, including Ivy League schools.
On a warm day last fall, graduating senior Molly Dawson played Maggie Walker tour guide for the day. Her long blonde hair swinging behind her, she walked the halls, pointing out classrooms, labs and theater and art rooms.
Demonstrating her nearly flawless Spanish, she chatted about her classes, including a college-level course in calculus. A city resident, Dawson was in a gifted program before she came to Maggie Walker. Still, this school is different, she says, because "everyone understands what you're saying. Here, everyone is interested in learning as much as they can. Here, it's OK to be smart."