Bernard Hairston doesn’t mind stirring the pot.
“I’ve never been a traditional person in thinking and doing, so it gets me in trouble,” said Hairston, the assistant superintendent for school community empowerment in Albemarle County who is retiring next month.
For more than 40 years, Hairston has worked to improve outcomes for historically marginalized students. In Albemarle County, he’s spearheaded the implementation of the division’s anti-racism policy and championed culturally responsive teaching, among other initiatives and programs.
He started working in Albemarle County in 1992.
Hairston said in a recent interview that he’s retiring now because he feels that a strong foundation has been laid for continued progress.
“Oftentimes, others with a similar vision can have a greater impact on expanding the foundation that has been established,” he said.
That foundation includes a team of equity specialists, policies that ensure equity is part of School Board decisions, and a division-wide requirement that teachers earn either a certification or micro-credential in culturally responsive teaching.
Culturally responsive teaching practices “teach to and through” the educators’ and students’ backgrounds, Hairston has said.
For a teacher, this can look like one-on-one conferences with students or communicating regularly with parents in whatever form works best for them. Administrators who have gone through the credentialing process have encouraged asset-based conversations among their staff. The asset-based approach is focused on students’ strengths and areas where they can improve.
To be certified, educators must apply culturally responsive teaching practices in their classrooms and demonstrate how their strategies improved student performance and reduced achievement gaps. The micro-credential in culturally responsive teaching is an introduction to CRT practices and characteristics but is not as in-depth as the certification process.
Albemarle was one of the first school divisions in the state to create and offer a CRT certification, and the program was recognized by state officials in 2020.
The requirement for teachers is the result of years of work from Hairston and his team to show the value and impact of culturally responsive teaching. When the program started in the 2015-16, four teachers were certified. Last school year, 69 educators completed the program.
Scores on the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests have increased for many students taught by teachers who have earned either a micro-credential or certification, the division said in the news release announcing Hairston’s retirement.
Leslie Wills-Taylor, an equity education specialist, was part of the first group to earn a CRT credential and is now part of the team reviewing the submissions from teachers who have gone through the program this year. She said the team saw a record number of submissions.
“I think that it’s really ironic that this is Dr. Hairston’s retirement year because he’s getting to see the submissions nearly doubling, if not more,” she said. “He’s starting to see some really exponential growth of a seed of an idea from over a decade ago. He’s been extremely perseverant, and he really has an unwavering belief in the impact that teachers can make in the lives of Albemarle County Public School students.”
Wills-Taylor, who has known Hairston for nearly a decade, said that without his vision, the culturally responsive teaching likely wouldn’t have the traction it does now. Personally, she’s also benefited from Hairston’s support, she said.
“I have grown so much as a result of the leadership opportunities that he’s helped to create within the office of community engagement,” she said.
She’s learned from Hairston to never stop learning along with the value of having teachers teach teachers.
“The main thing that he’s taught me is that culturally responsive teaching can be fun,” she said. “You can expand your practice. But the bottom line is that it’s not effective until we see increases and academic engagement and academic growth.”
Wills-Taylor said that even though Hairston’s retiring, his wisdom is embedded into the CRT credentialing process and his department’s work.
Th division has not yet announced who will be replacing Hairston, but Hairston said that person should be willing to challenge the status quo and make sacrifices.
“The person following me will not have the challenges that I had in order to navigate the institutional inertia that’s in place that doesn’t allow you to address issues around equity, diversity and race,” he said. “So the door is open. You just have to keep it open, and it’s gonna take a strong individual who’s committed to the work.”
Hairston is leaving at a time when much of the work he has championed is facing criticism from staff officials and parents. For example, the anti-racism policy that he worked with students to draft and has helped to implement was challenged in court with a group of parents alleging it discriminates against students. An Albemarle County Circuit Court judge recently dismissed that lawsuit, though the defendants have said they will appeal.
“I don’t have a problem with walking away right now, because what my mama has always shared with me is you deal with right and wrong,” he said. “… The folks that we have been training up in Albemarle County Public Schools, if they can easily frame what’s right and what’s wrong, they will continue this work.”
He added that those who see things differently will continue “with what they’re doing,” and pointed to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to show that progress takes time.
“We are eventually going to get it right,” he said. “With me and the work that I’ve done, the foundation has been set. People understand the need for this work. They value this work, and they’re going to keep on doing the work because they believe in right versus wrong, and right will always supersede wrong long-term.”
Burley and M-Cubed
Howard Witt first met Hairston at a breakfast recognizing the academic achievements of local high school students. His first impression was that he was a “tornado of a man.”
“He’s so full of energy and inspiration and motivation,” Witt said. “He’s just this irrepressible force in motivating the kids, advocating for them and praising them.”
Following that breakfast, Witt talked with Hairston and learned more about 100 Black Men of Central Virginia — a local organization that Hairston helped to start. Witt ended up joining the organization, which annually puts on a two-week summer academy known as M-Cubed.
The program, which began in 2009, is geared toward Black boys in middle school. The three M’s stand for math, men and mission, and the academy aims to help students improve their algebra skills so they can take Algebra I by eighth grade. That allows the students to access more advanced math classes in high school.
“It’s using algebra as a gateway subject to improve the quality of life and experiences of being a successful student,” Hairston said of M-Cubed.
The program has increased the number of middle school black males who succeeded in advanced math classes, according to the division, and was named a grand prize winner of the Magna Award from the National School Boards Association in 2013.
Hairston created M-Cubed following his experience as principal of Burley Middle School, where he worked for nine years from 1997 to 2006. He had a strong group of Black boys in sixth grade and he wanted them to be ready for Algebra I. So, he set up a summer school program.
“I recruited a high school algebra teacher from Monticello High School to teach one semester of Algebra I in a six-week summer school class to prepare Burley students, but primarily that cluster of African-American males, for algebra in the eighth grade,” he said.
Becoming principal of Burley wasn’t part of Hairston’s plan. He had originally planned to become a college professor to teach future educators. But, once he started at Burley, he didn’t want to leave.
“I’m just telling you just how special this place was,” he said. “It took me nine years to even consider leaving.”
This included building relationships with the school’s alumni who attended Burley when it was a high school for Black high schools. That included working with Burley alumni to share the school’s history, commissioning a new painting of Jackson P. Burley and meeting Burley’s daughter in 1997.
After meeting with Burley’s daughter, Hairston started coming up with plans for the hallway that today serves as a walk of fame to the former high school.
Looking back, Hairston said he and Burley were meant to be. When he started at the school, he said Burley was in the bottom quartile of student achievement, but when he left, Burley students were excelling in several areas.
“That’s because of the focus and the commitment of the teachers who really just got behind some of those crazy ideas that I had and just accepted them and started doing things differently than they had always done,” he said.
Hairston grew up in Martinsville and was part of a group of students who integrated the high school, an experience he said helped him better understand race relations.
After graduating from Norfolk State University, he earned a master’s degree from Virginia State University and developed a curriculum that integrated space technology and the industrial arts The National Aeronautics and Space Administration paid for his master’s degree and his first teaching job was to pilot the curriculum he developed.
Five years later, Hairston was named Virginia’s Industrial Arts Teacher of the Year, which he said is one of the top accomplishments in his career.
That was a proud moment for his mother.
“To be a first-generation college graduate who became a teacher of the year meant so much to my mother,” he said. “That was probably the first time that I’d been recognized for something that big.”
The relationships with students and his workers also have been a highlight. His secret to his success, he said, is to surround himself with better who are much smarter and more charming.
“It’s been a very engaging, enlightening and enjoyable experience because of the collegial relationships that I’ve been able to establish with so many educators who are sincere and committed to working with students to make life experiences better,” he said.