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ANDREW SHURTLEFF/THE DAILY PROGRESS Bright Star preschool teacher from Woodbrook Elementary school Shay Shifflett speaks during the 4th annual Equity Conference held Saturday at Jack Jouett Middle School.

Marian McCullough, a teacher at Woodbrook Elementary, felt something was missing in how she was engaging families and students. So, she worked for the last year to earn her certification in culturally responsive teaching.

“I realized that, even in elementary school, students are well aware of the strengths that they bring,” said McCullough, who is finishing her third year of teaching. “I felt that CRT encouraged me as an educator to think about the strengths of my students and the ways that I can empower them to be autonomous.”

McCullough is one of 23 educators who earned a certification in culturally responsive teaching during the 2018-19 school year. 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.

At the beginning of the school year, 55% of McCullough’s students were projected to pass their Standards of Learning exams, she said. By the end of the year, 94% were expected to pass.

The 2019 cohort of CRT teachers was recognized Saturday at the Albemarle County school division’s fourth annual equity conference. Twenty-five other educators earned a micro-credential in culturally responsive teaching, a program that introduces CRT practices and characteristics but is not as in-depth as the certification process.

This year’s group of educators — the largest since the program began in 2015 — includes administrators, instructional coaches, school counselors and teachers. The division has seen demand increasing for CRT and its other professional development opportunities focused on equity.

Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, told the educators who attended the conference, held at Jack Jouett Middle School, that culturally responsive practices “teach to and through” the educators’ and students’ backgrounds.

To start Saturday’s conference, seven students spoke about their experiences with teachers in this 2019 cohort.

Chloe Thomas, a third-grader at Woodbrook Elementary, was in McCullough’s class. She said she didn’t like McCullough at first because she was a strict teacher.

“Sometimes, strict teachers are the nicest teachers,” Chloe said. “They are only being strict because they want you to grow.”

Other students praised how their teachers took time to listen to them and learn about their family and culture.

Hairston moderated the panel discussion and asked students about the cultural connection their teachers made and how they worked to build a relationship.

Chloe said McCullough got to know her through one-on-one conferences at which she could share how she feels and ways in which she wants to grow. In one meeting, Chloe said she asked for more help with division.

“She’s nice to me, and she understands me,” Chloe said in an interview.

She also appreciated how McCullough would keep her mom in the loop.

“She emailed my mommy a lot,” she said.

Chloe’s mom, Jamesa Anderson, said she has seen her daughter prosper in McCullough’s class, and she wants a similar experience for her younger daughters. She has four children attending Woodbrook.

“She really built a bond with Chloe and has a really close relationship with her,” Anderson said. “She let Chloe lead a lot of things in her learning. She really put her in the spotlight.”

Through her teaching methods, attitude and response to students and parents, McCullough made Chloe feel at ease, Anderson said.

“She made my child feel comfortable in class and learning in everything she did,” Anderson said. “... I wish I had a teacher like that growing up.”

During Saturday’s conference, the new group of credentialed educators presented their use of CRT strategies. McCullough, who teaches in a second- and third-grade classroom, focused on building partnerships with students and families.

“I always say family partnership, by any means necessary, is really important,” she said.

In the past school year, McCullough has sent weekly emails to parents and called them, tailoring the communication to whatever worked best for parents. For one student conference, a parent was able to participate via FaceTime, she said.

Next year, McCullough said she wants to do more to make connections with families authentic and relevant to what they want to know.

Of the one-on-one student conferences, she said, “I feel that it’s a really important thing for teachers to start shifting their practice so that school fits students and not the other way around.”

Educators who want to earn the certification attend several professional development sessions centered on recognizing their cultural lens, engaging diverse learners and building partnerships with diverse families.

At the end of the year, they submit a 10-page paper and a portfolio of student work and then present to an assessment team that determines certification.

“It’s extremely hard work,” said Leilani Keys, an equity education specialist in the division.

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Katherine Knott is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7263, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter. For all the latest news on local schools, subscribe to The Cheat Sheet here.

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