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Albemarle schools team leading equity effort receives state award

The team leading the Albemarle County school division’s equity efforts is among four recipients of a new state award created to recognize those who have made significant contributions to the advancement of equity in education for Virginia students.

Led by Assistant Superintendent Bernard Hairston, the equity specialists are Ayanna Mitchell, Leilani Keys, and Lars Holmstrom. They’ll be formally recognized Thursday in a virtual ceremony that will be livestreamed on the Virginia Department of Education’s YouTube channel starting at 1:30 p.m.

The Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity is named for a Virginia education equity pioneer who secretly taught Black people who were enslaved or free to read and write when it was illegal to do so.

Thursday’s ceremony is part of EdEquityVA week. The VDOE has spent the week highlighting efforts to expand opportunities and improve outcomes for all students and hosted two symposiums on the topic.

In Albemarle County, the specialists and Hairston are working to close achievement gaps among student groups, eliminate differences in the outcomes of school disciplinary practices and improve family partnerships and curriculum, according to a division news release.

The equity specialists led a range of efforts, including the Culturally Responsive Teaching certifications that started in 2015. Since then, about 142 teachers and administrators have received the certification, earned a micro-credential or both.

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. The micro-credential in culturally responsive teaching, a program that introduces CRT practices and characteristics but is not as in-depth as the certification process.

“By focusing on policy, instruction, and collaborative leadership, this leadership team is closing educational opportunity gaps in our schools,” schools Superintendent Matt Haas said in a statement. “Their concentration on advocacy, inclusiveness, cultural responsiveness, and educational innovation is working,”

He recently earned a micro-credential.

The growth in the CRT training has been driven with individual teachers and schools taking on the program rather than a top-down mandate.

“It has been a long time that we’ve been in this work,” Holmstrom said. “But it started as a grassroots movement, and it’s really grown exponentially from there.”

Four educators participated in the first CRT cohort. During the 2019-20 school year, 63 educators earned either the certification or micro-credential.

Ashby Johnson, principal of Jack Jouett Middle School, said that culturally responsive teaching ensures that all students are at the forefront along with all educators and what they are doing in the classroom.

She is certified along with several of the school’s teachers. About 10 are going through the training this school year and seven did so last year. That has helped to build collective efficacy among the staff, which helps to be more successful.

“Jouett as a school and Albemarle as a division is not down with this work,” she said. “It’s not over. In some ways, it’s just beginning, but we are moving in the right direction.”

For other interested divisions or schools, she said that the vision and focus always has to stay on the forefront and at the core of what you’re doing.

“And the reason we’re doing it is because all the students are not being successful,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that every day that’s what we’re working towards.”

In addition to CRT certification, the team has worked to implement the division’s new anti-racism policy, produce equity reports, organize book studies that focus on what it means to be equitable in education and craft the equity checklist for new policies. They also lead a team of the Diversity Resource Teachers at the different schools who leads a monthly professional development session with their coworkers.

Hairston said the team’s efforts on equity, anti-racism and culturally responsive teaching serves as their framework for equity as they work to influence student outcomes.

“Even though culturally responsive teaching is our brand, we have evolved,” Hairston said. “We realize that all of those pieces have to come together in order to move us to that cultural shift that we need to make in Albemarle County Public Schools.”

With the state award, the division will continue to be a model for other school divisions.

“We often receive calls from other school divisions looking for some sort of manual to do the work,” Hairston said. “Our advice when they reach out to us is that our work can be replicated, but it’s got to be personalized to who you are. Because our work is personalized to Albemarle County Public Schools.”

For example, the division’s culturally responsive teaching model centers on three characteristics — cultural lenses, instructional design and learning partnerships.

Holmstrom said their work is replicable in other school divisions if they have a good team, leader and program.

“It’s important to remember that it’s hard work, but there are pathways so it’s not uncharted and it’s not unknown,” he said. “It just takes some digging in.”

Lars credited Hairston with having the longtime vision for this work.

“He has encouraged people that whole time and had the enthusiasm to bring people along,” he said.

Mitchell joined the team about a year ago. She said that as an equity specialist, she’s become more intentional about their work and keeping culture, students, partnerships and race at the center of everything she does.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in a whole lot of things, because there’s so many equity things that need to be done,” she said. “… If you focus on working with staff to build them up so that they can lead and then just identifying leaders who want to lead and keep building that up, I’ve seen that momentum, and I’ve seen how that shifted the culture.”

Moving forward, Mitchell and the other equity specialists are looking to expand the CRT certification and micro-credential program to other groups of division staff members, including those who work in the central office. Historically, the training was geared toward classroom teachers and school administrators.

Mitchell said becoming a culturally responsive organization is the division’s next step. That will take a lot of work, but she said people are interested and want to do it.

“This isn’t like the equity specialists who are making something,” she said. “It’s because of all the individual people who are part of the program who contribute their perspective and understanding of their role that helps to make this grow and develop into a stronger program.”


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