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Could This School District Be a Model for Creating Lasting Antiracist Policies?

Albemarle County Public Schools have been working on policies and practices that promote inclusion and discourage discrimination since 2017.

September 13, 2021

Eleanore Catolico

Contributing Writer

Eleanore Catolico

Contributing Writer

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, school districts across the country began adopting institutional commitments to dismantle racism and oppression.

School districts in Detroit, Columbus, Ohio, Newburg, Oregon, and many other cities committed to reviewing policies and practices that may perpetuate systemic racism and instead create more inclusive school cultures. Implementing inclusive curricula, offering implicit bias teacher training, increasing school staff diversity, and improving academic outcomes for the most vulnerable students became the hallmarks of these districts’ equity missions. 

Some districts also hired equity specialists and collected data to help identify problems and offer solutions. The District of Columbia Public Schools has hired equity coaches, and Indianapolis Public Schools recently conducted an audit on hiring and retaining staff of color.

Albemarle County Public Schools in central Virginia may offer some lessons on how these initiatives can endure. After the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, a cadre of concerned students, parents, and staff petitioned district leaders to reexamine the detrimental policies, practices, behaviors, and structures etched into the tapestry of the system. High school students helped shape the district’s antiracism policy and the school board adopted the related resolution in 2019. 

“I’ve experienced racism in Albemarle County Public Schools, accepted being a practitioner of individual, institutional, and structural racism as a decision maker in Albemarle County schools, and I have no problem speaking the truth,” Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent of school community empowerment who oversees the district’s antiracism efforts, said in a video training for teachers on the policy. He is the second Black person to hold a cabinet position in the district’s history. 

“The school board must be serious about confronting this institutional system built on advancing whiteness,” he said.  

One issue district officials worked to address is disparities in enrollment in Advanced Placement courses. According to the district’s antiracism policy evaluation report released last November, only 13% of Black students and 18% of Hispanic students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes in the 2019-20 academic year. To reduce racial barriers to enrollment, the district changed the registration process to allow students to enroll in these classes before getting teacher recommendations. The district also eliminated the course override process, meaning parents no longer had to argue in writing why their child deserved a spot in an accelerated course

Overall, Albemarle’s unique latticework of equity initiatives run the gamut: There are active steering committees overseeing the policy implementation. A student equity advisory team serves as ambassadors to their peers and influenced the expansion of a smartphone app for students to report incidents of discrimination—a pilot program launched this year to teach concepts of bias and discrimination.

The district could be a model for other school systems on how to implement effective and maintainable antiracism efforts.

“American education has been the same way for 100 years. White supremacy and racism are baked into the system as they are in every other institution.”

Karen Waters-Wicks

Advisor, Albemarle County Public Schools

Student Leaders as Equity Ambassadors 

Albemarle County, Virginia, lies in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The county is home to more than 100,000 residents. The city of Charlottesville is enclaved within its borders. The most famous remnant of its colonial-era past is Monticello, the plantation owned by Thomas Jefferson. The school district enrolls about 13,500 students, of whom 61% are white, 11% are Black, 15% are Hispanic, 6% are Asian, and the rest identify as multiracial, according to fall 2020 enrollment data

Naquel Perry graduated in June from Albemarle High School with plans to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., this fall. He was a member of the district’s student equity advisory team, which began its work this past school year under the supervision of advisor Karen Waters-Wicks. 

Earlier in the year, the team began traveling from school to school and educating students on the district’s antiracism policy. The public awareness campaign proved crucial, Perry said, because many students didn’t know the policy existed. The districtwide outreach also helped the team document concerns and offer solutions. 

Those conversations weren’t happening before 2020, Perry said. During his freshman year, Perry and his classmates had to grapple with the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally amidst glaring silences. 

“No one wanted to talk about it,” Perry said. “Prior to last year, people were scared to acknowledge the crazy things that were happening.” 

He remembered becoming frustrated with adults who were “oblivious” and “swept things under the rug.” He wished the forums for difficult conversations were more accessible when he was in ninth grade. 

The student equity advisory team has also been integral in helping to empower their peers to speak up if they witness racist incidents on campus. 

“We talked about safety and discrimination a lot,” Perry said of the feedback he received from students. “We see racist stuff. It happens. What could we do when it happens?” 

Perry said his classmates needed a channel to report incidents and not be stigmatized. 

The district established an Anonymous Alerts online reporting system in 2013 to notify school officials of bullying and harassment incidents. Perry and the advisory team have also encouraged students to use the system to report incidents of bias and discrimination. The advisory team also helped give students a common language to better interrogate internal bias and privilege, which laid the groundwork to have more honest conversations. 

“Microaggressions. A lot of people hadn’t heard that before,” Perry said. “Every human being has bias. The way it affects you may be different.” 

Much of the team’s work transitioned to virtual spaces when district leaders closed school buildings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The students have organized virtual town halls on COVID-19 health disparities and ways to create safe and inclusive environments when instruction in physical classrooms resumes. 

“We are all a work in progress. We are all doing our best, and we do have to fight,” Western Albemarle High School student Diana Kim told a local radio station in June. 

The boots-on-the-ground student leadership of Perry and the rest of the team was grounded in community organizing principles, faculty advisor Waters-Wicks said. She has given students the tools and the framework, such as a consensus decision-making model, wherein the internal charter, bylaws, and structure of the group must be accepted by all. The group is also working toward growing its membership and having equal representation reflecting all high schools and middle schools. 

Fostering a culture for honest conversation may sound simple on its face, but it’s a necessary foundation to reframe narratives and transform hearts and minds. 

“American education has been the same way for 100 years. White supremacy and racism are baked into the system as they are in every other institution,” Waters-Wicks said. “When we elevate our shared humanity, that’s going to spell out generational equity. Get outside of your comfort zone. Get to know someone different from you that you might not otherwise. Understand your cultural lens. Understand what’s made us. Ask them about theirs.”

Creating Antiracist Lessons for Young Learners 

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, many staff members at Joseph T. Henley Middle School felt throttled by the sudden disruption to life. 

“The whole world just shut down,” Principal Beth Costa said. “It was traumatic for many of our teachers.” 

The pandemic, and later on the protests of George Floyd’s murder, also took a toll on student mental health. Teachers wanted to become more responsive to student struggles. They collaborated for months to develop the Courageous Conversations curriculum, which includes lessons meant to help students better understand bias and discrimination. 

It's one of many steps taken to affirm and reflect the experiences of students of color within the district's learning materials, another goal of the antiracism policy. Researchers have found that an inclusive curriculum proves beneficial to students by cultivating a sense of belonging and boosting academic engagement

A separate subcommittee oversees these efforts, which include the creation of an antiracism vetting tool to help educators identify bias embedded in classroom materials, culturally-relevant student activities, online discussions and workshops on antiracist literature instruction, and a culturally responsive social studies curriculum called “Reframing the Narrative” that is geared toward middle and high school students, among others. The 11th grade social studies curriculum now includes the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, which explores topics such as slavery, mass incarceration, and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Henley piloted the antiracist lessons for its young learners this past year. The school, located in the small, rural community of Crozet, about 12 miles west of Charlottesville, serves about 900 students and is predominantly white. The plan is to implement a version of the curriculum across all district middle schools.

During the early stages of drafting the lessons, teachers realized the curriculum needed to be scaffolded in a way that was developmentally appropriate for the learner. 

“As they age, they are able to have a different understanding that there is institutionalized racism, prejudice, justice,” said Elena McIntosh (New York, ’05), who teaches math and English as a Second Language. McIntosh is part of the team that helped develop the antiracist lessons. “These are things eighth graders talk about all the time.” 

The curriculum is presented during morning meetings with groups of students. Teachers ask students to explore these questions: Who am I? What is my identity? Who is my community of students? Understanding the meaning of community can then lead to deeper understandings of bias, discrimination, and justice, concepts introduced at the seventh and eighth-grade level. 

As the antiracist lessons began, the principal also tempered the concerns of a small cohort of parents who have expressed discomfort over the concepts being taught. 

“It’s a dialogue and a conversation” that helps students better understand themselves and their community, not to accentuate individual differences, Costa explained. She has also told concerned parents their children may opt out of the curriculum.

Such concerns reached district leadership. School board members and Superintendent Matthew Haas released a statement in July responding to parents concerned about critical race theory being taught in classrooms. 

“Adding critical race theory to our curricula has not occurred, nor are there any plans to do so. Reports to the contrary are false,” according to the statement. Board members and the superintendent also explained the purpose and mission of the antiracism policy and described the corresponding initiatives as “non-negotiables.” 

A number of K-12 schools in other states are taking similar approaches to implement curricula that are more inclusive of historically marginalized groups. Oregon’s education department plans to introduce ethnic studies standards available for teaching this school year, and the standards will become a state requirement beginning the 2026-27 academic year.  Likewise, the California Department of Education adopted a voluntary K-12 ethnic studies model curriculum in March. The New Jersey legislature recently passed a law requiring the instruction of diversity and equity courses.

Changing How Racist Incidents Are Handled

In Albermarle County, students from the Asian American and Pacific Islander club also offered feedback to Costa and school staff. They said that if a racist incident occurred, there usually would be too much focus on the perpetrator and not enough support for the student who was the target of the discrimination. Those concerns helped the school reshape the protocol in handling such incidents, informed by a restorative justice framework. 

Before, a teacher might have handled such an incident inside the classroom. Now teachers must notify a school administrator when a racist incident happens, so they may better monitor patterns of behavior. It’s also vital to educate the perpetrator, understand the root of the act, and work toward changing the behavior, Costa said. 

As for the student who was the target of the act, Costa stressed that this engagement should be individualized and led by the needs of the student and the family. She asks them how much they want the school to be involved and what ways to act. 

Don’t assume a mediation or restorative justice circle is always warranted, she said. 

While Albemarle schools have made considerable strides in its antiracism work, Costa has identified a continued need for more robust teacher training. 

“We need ongoing professional development to build our capacity to facilitate these conversations,” she said. “We’re on a continuum of skill level and comfort. We want to make sure students have a safe space.”

Building Student and Parent Partnerships 

For special education teacher Kristina Kilagallen-Collier (Alabama ’13), helping her students achieve success in the classroom often starts through meaningful engagement with families. This especially holds true for her students, who fall on the autism spectrum and often encounter barriers to learning. 

“Our students and families have so much strength and knowledge,” said Kilagallen-Collier, who teaches at Western Albemarle High School. “I ask them, ‘What should I know about your child?’”

She is one of many district teachers certified in culturally responsive teaching, which Albermarle school officials said is key to reducing academic disparities between student subgroups. The program, established in 2015, trains teachers to acknowledge how their personal cultural lens affects instruction, understand and value students’ cultural backgrounds, and tailor lessons to their unique needs. 

The district is working on expanding the program. More than 200 teachers have completed the certification process since 2015. The district projects about a 70% increase of teachers receiving either a micro-credential or full certification in the upcoming school year. All newly hired teachers must earn at least a micro-credential within three years of their start date, and officials plan to require the training for all staff by the end of next year. So far, there’s buy-in from many district employees in support of the antiracism work. According to a 2019-20 community survey, about 48.5% of employees supported the work, which represents 158 out of 326 total employee respondents. 

The expansion of the program comes as Virginia’s board of education revised its teacher performance standards to include cultural competency skills earlier this year. Teachers must be able to employ teaching strategies that “result in culturally inclusive and responsive learning environments and academic achievement for all students,” according to the department website. The Virginia school board plans to issue guidance on the new standards by December, and local school boards will have to approve policies and require staff to undergo training once every two years. The new requirement only applies to licensed school staff employed by districts, but the board encourages districts to consider offering training to all individuals who work inside school buildings, including volunteers.  

As part of Albemarle’s certification process, Hairston said teachers must also demonstrate how these strategies positively impact student performance. The goal is that students will show academic gains and develop critical thinking skills, without over-reliance on teacher support. 

“We want to shift students from dependent learners to independent learners,” Hairston said. 

As someone living with a disability, Kilagallen-Collier said it’s imperative for her to challenge disability and ableist cultures in the classroom, which hinders students’ academic success. She makes sure parents are engaged in their children’s goal settings stated in their individualized education plans. She provides support to help students and families advocate for their learning needs, such as requesting necessary accommodations. 

“People think you’re a miracle worker. No, my kids are kids,” she said. “There’s a lot of stereotypes about autism and disability. If you have low expectations for them, they’re going to internalize that.”