Equity Specialist Team Receives Virginia’s Top Education Equity Award for Success in Division Schools

Albemarle County Public Schools’ team of equity specialists this week received the Virginia Department of Education’s Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity. The award honors individuals and organizations that have “demonstrated a sustained commitment to eliminating inequities or remedying the effects of inequities in education” in one of four categories—as an educator, school leader, policy maker, and organization or team.

This commitment, State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said, includes efforts to close opportunity and achievement gaps; the elimination of disproportionality in school discipline, graduation, and dropout rates; expanding access to gifted education and advanced programs; and improving supports and outcomes for English Learners.

The division’s equity specialists include Ayanna Mitchell, Leilani Keys, and Lars Holmstrom and are led by Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bernard Hairston. The team will be formally recognized tomorrow afternoon in a virtual ceremony with Governor Ralph Northam and First Lady of Virginia, Mrs. Pamela Northam; Virginia Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni; and Lane.

The ceremony will be live streamed tomorrow afternoon, December 3, beginning at 1:30 on the VDOE YouTube Channel.

The Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity honors those who have made significant contributions to the advancement of equity in education for students in Virginia. The focus of the division’s equity specialist team has been on closing achievement gaps in standardized testing results, eliminating differences in the outcomes of school disciplinary practices, and improving family partnerships and curriculum.

“It’s vital for all of our educators to understand where and why some of the voices of our students are not being heard, whether because of tradition, socioeconomic backgrounds, or an overarching lack of awareness,” Hairston said.

The solution, he added, is to develop practices that are educationally transformative and can be replicated for every member of a school community. “Our goal is not only to reach all student and faculty populations, but to have a sustainable impact on their learning. Evidence shows that addressing inequities will lead to higher levels of academic achievement,” he said.

Among the equity team’s achievements has been the development of the division’s unique evidence-based Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) model and the creation of a Diversity Resource Teachers program. As part of CRT, educators can be certified or earn a micro-credential in the program.

The CRT program supports all students by using teaching strategies and practices that incorporate their cultural values and knowledge into the learning approach for each student. Each school has a diversity resource teacher who delivers professional development on a monthly basis. Equity specialists also deliver professional development and training to all educators, using, for example, school-based book studies of such research, like Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain and Courageous Conversations About Race.

“By focusing on policy, instruction, and collaborative leadership, this leadership team is closing educational opportunity gaps in our schools. Their concentration on advocacy, inclusiveness, cultural responsiveness, and educational innovation is working,” said Superintendent Dr. Matthew Haas, who himself has earned a CRT micro-credential.

Two years ago, Albemarle County Public Schools became one of the first school divisions in the country to adopt an anti-racism policy, which commits the division to “establishing and sustaining an equitable community that achieves the school division’s equity mission to end the predictive value of race and ensure each individual student’s and staff’s success.” The policy rejects all forms of racism as destructive to the division’s mission, vision, values, and goals.

Mary Peake was born in 1823 in Norfolk and educated in Alexandria until, at age 16, she was denied access to continue her education. She then began secretly teaching Blacks, both free and enslaved, to read and write. Her devotion to teaching, it is said, led to a literacy rate in Hampton, Virginia, that was among the highest of any Black community in the south. After she died from tuberculosis at the age of 39, the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation occurred under an oak tree that was the setting for her outdoor lessons. The oak tree still stands on the campus of Hampton University.

In establishing the Mary Peake Award for the 2019-20 school year, the state department of education noted that Peake was one of Virginia’s first education equity pioneers. The award, the department said, recognizes her contribution and continued inspiration.

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