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As national politics continue to fuel debates about American citizenship and immigration, the Albemarle County Public Schools division is calling on teachers to embrace diversity in their classrooms.
About 70 division employees attended a daylong professional development conference at the DoubleTree Hotel last week to support the implementation of Culturally Responsive Teaching concepts across county schools.
The county’s Culturally Responsive Teaching initiative began offering professional development for teachers in 2014. The program is informed by years of research by the division’s Office of Community Engagement.
Thursday’s professional development session was the first to target the division’s instructional coaches.
“Because these educators work with teachers of all experience levels in every school building, we are broadening the opportunities for CRT practices to be infused into everyday classroom practices,” said Tim Shea, legislative and public affairs officer for the division.
At the conference, teachers examined how their own cultural heritage and their students’ backgrounds influence their pedagogy, and brainstormed ways to engage more students at their respective schools with greater cultural awareness.
“The way students respond to us is affected by their home life and culture,” said Sarah Stallings, an English teacher at Monticello High School. “It’s important for all students to see some things from home represented in their classroom environment.”
Instructional coach Kimberly Gibson said that recognizing cultural influences on teaching and learning is “not a crutch or an excuse.”
“There is an emotional and scientific basis for this,” Gibson said.
Some at the conference said CRT could help teachers deal with school-level repercussions of President Donald Trump’s policies on refugees and immigration.
Stallings said she recently learned that one of her students who had been skipping class was deeply concerned that her stepfather would be deported.
“That bridged the gap between a national policy and a human being in my classroom,” Stallings said. “I don’t know what it is like to be her, but I can empathize with her.”
Steven R. Staples, Virginia’s superintendent of instruction, on Wednesday issued a memo defending the right of school boards and administrators “… to take steps to convey that their school is a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, regardless of immigration status.”
Gibson said the county’s Culturally Responsive Teaching initiative reaffirms Albemarle’s commitment to inclusivity.
“This awareness will help our community, and surrounding communities, know that we are working on this from the inside out,” she said. “Maybe our schools can be a model for our society.”
Albemarle County awarded its first Culturally Responsive Teaching certifications to four teachers last year, following a rigorous evaluation by a panel of school division staff and University of Virginia faculty members. Six more teachers will be considered for certification this year.
Leslie Wills-Taylor, of Woodbrook Elementary School, was one of the CRT-certified teachers who led last week’s conference.
Wills-Taylor said Culturally Responsive Teaching did not require educators to familiarize themselves with dozens of cultures from around the world. Instead, she encouraged teachers to look for universal patterns across cultures.
As an example, Wills-Taylor described the tendency of North American and European cultures to celebrate individual success, in contrast to the emphasis on collective accomplishments seen in Asian, African and South American cultures.
The Albemarle school system has become more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse since CRT was introduced. Students identifying as Hispanic now make up 12.5 percent of the division’s enrollment, up from 5 percent in 2006. County schools enrolled 1,393 students with limited English proficiency last fall, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.
Instructional coach Lars Holmstrom said Albemarle was not implementing CRT to serve any particular demographic.
“It’s for the kids born in Scottsville, and for the kids born in El Salvador,” he said.