Everything changed for Shay Carter-Shifflett when she became certified in culturally responsive teaching practices.
She started partnering with her parents more and in different ways and realized how her own culture affected the way she set up her classroom and helped students.
“I listened more,” said Carter-Shifflett, a teacher at Woodbrook Elementary School in Albemarle County. “I always felt like I was the good listener. But now, the story hits me differently. One thing that I think really sticks with me is that I have to build the students up as far as believing in themselves.”
Next school year, all new teachers will be required to complete the CRT training, either earning a micro-credential or certification, within three years. The division is working on a plan to extend that requirement to current instructional staff members, as well.
Albemarle school officials have said that culturally responsive teaching practices are key to closing achievement and opportunity gaps among students. Since the certification program started, 209 employees have earned the certification or micro-credential. The new requirement means a significant expansion of the program that has steadily grown over the years. Participation will increase by 70% in 2021-22, according to division projections.
“The new requirement really validates work we have been doing,” said Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, adding that it means a different way of doing business for his department.
Typically, the district hires about 180 teachers each year.
Recently, the division recognized 69 educators who earned either the full CRT certification or the micro-credential, a program that introduces CRT practices and characteristics but is not as in-depth as the certification process. That’s the largest group since the program started in the 2015-16 school year when four teachers earned the certification. Albemarle was one of the first school divisions in the state to create and offer a CRT certification.
Carter-Shifflett said that earning the certification in 2018 helped her learn more about herself as she dove into understanding her own lens and culture and how that influenced her.
“And what could I do to make sure I was bringing my best self as an educator to make sure these students went after their wildest dreams but keeping in mind their culture and their context and making sure I was keeping their parents as the expert of their child and learning.”
Carter-Shifflett, who taught first grade virtually this past school year at Woodbrook, has taken on a leadership role at the school and helped to train other teachers on CRT practices.
With the new requirement, administrators will look to educators like Carter-Shifflett to inspire their peers to take on the certification challenge. The year-long process takes educators through training modules about recognizing their cultural lens, engaging diverse learners and building partnerships with diverse families.
“She lives and breathes this,” Woodbrook Principal Kristen Williams said. “She’s such an encourager, so we tried to join the Shay bandwagon.”
At the beginning of this past school year, 13 Woodbrook staff members started the CRT training and six earned the certification or micro-credential, Williams said. To be certified, educators must apply culturally responsive teaching practices in their classrooms and demonstrate how their strategies improved student performance and narrowed achievement gaps.
“Even though there are some people who are not officially signed up, it’s on their radar to do, because of the vulnerable, safe space we have created but also the expectation that, hey, we’re going to hug the cactus and have to go have some hard conversations about topics that make you feel uncomfortable,” Carter-Shifflett said.
To support the expansion of the training, the school division budgeted $359,710 for the coming fiscal year to hire three additional equity specialists and to cover other expenses. The program began with one full-time staff member, Hairston said.
“What has worked for us over the last five years is a slow and gradual process,” Hairston said.
Since the training program began in 2015, nearly 15% of the division’s instructional staff have completed the training, and those educators are spread throughout the county. Mountain View Elementary has the highest concentration of certified staff, at 30%.
Hairston said that with the expansion, he wants to be more strategic about pushing into schools and which teachers get certified. For example, at a middle school, one goal could be to get all the math teachers from sixth to eighth grades to go through the certification process.
District officials are aiming for a gradual improvement in student achievement growth data starting in the 2023-24 school year, according to budget documents.
Hairston said one of his goals is to figure out the percentage of certified staff needed in a school to positively affect total school achievement.
Williams, at Woodbrook, said she didn’t think the school would see a significant shift in student achievement data until they had at least one or two teachers per grade level who have gone through the training.
“Because it has to hit vertically,” she said. “It can’t just be in kindergarten and in third grade. What happens in first and second? So, if you say one to two per grade level, so it’s not just percent, but where they fall within the school.”
Beyond the certification, CRT practices will be embedded in the district’s tool used to evaluate teachers. Additionally, the state will assess teachers on cultural competency.
Hairston said the state guidelines for cultural competency almost mirror the division’s CRT training program, which was recognized by state officials last fall.
Williams said inspiring staff members to take on the training will be essential.
“If we are intentional about voicing how this is a big part of our school and what our expectations are and then we continue to be transparent about our own journey and why this is important, I think that you can’t help but join,” she said.
Williams and Woodbrook’s assistant principal, Janet Underwood, earned their CRT certification this year. Implementing CRT practices at the administrative level entailed auditing data on office referrals and books in classroom libraries and encouraging asset-based conversations among school staff.
The asset-based approach is focused on students’ strengths and areas where they can improve. Underwood said she started listening for that approach in different staff meetings and has seen growth.
More broadly, Williams and Underwood worked with Woodbrook’s equity team to build a more cohesive school community. Williams became principal of the school in 2019, a year after the building was expanded and enrollment nearly doubled.
Williams said that when they analyzed data on students who were sent to the office for disciplinary problems, 60% of the students were from the group who joined the school in 2018.
“So, the relationship wasn’t there,” she said. “Those kids didn’t feel connected, and the parents and the teachers didn’t feel connected to them.”
Williams said that she knew her job was to bring the school back together as one community, and the CRT work helped with that. This past school year, they implemented a year-long program to celebrate the school’s diversity and relating it to the students’ experience.
“Now, I’m very intentional about thinking about even the smallest of things that need to change in order to create big change,” Williams said of the training. “… It’s slow; it’s painful. You have to be OK with this coming in small steps because everyone is on a different continuum and you have to respect where they are. But you have to be willing to push and expect progress.”
Looking ahead to next school year, Williams said CRT is informing the class placement process.
“We see this as an opportunity to reboot our school when we bring everybody back in,” she said.
In a difficult school year, Williams said it was not easy for her and Underwood to keep their eye on their CRT work.
“But it ended up being the most important part of the work we did this year,” she said.
Underwood said CRT provided a perfect way into thinking about learning recovery in the coming school year and meeting students’ social-emotional needs.
“That is meeting each student where they are and partnering with their families to look at strengths,” she said. “I just think that’s so incredible. I think that will help us tremendously.”
For Carter-Shifflett, becoming certified affected her as a person, parent, friend and educator.
“Every which way around,” she said. “I am hopeful that we will have a large push for more culturally responsive educators to make sure we’re being culturally congruent with our instruction and our daily practices, and also laying the foundation that it’s then built upon as they continue throughout their academic journey.”