Lexington School Board Talks Diversity

Work Session Devoted To Curriculum, Recruitment

The Lexington School Board met in a work session last Wednesday, July 22, to discuss racial equality and diversity education within the division.

“This is certainly a hot topic nationwide,” Superintendent Rebecca Walters said at the start of the meeting, “and communities and schools across the country are meeting to figure out the best way to move forward.”

After a large call to action from public commenters at the Rockbridge County School Board meeting this month, the Lexington School Board, which shares the high school with the county, sought to address residents’ concerns about diversity education in their classrooms.

Two focus areas emerged from the Board’s discussion of making strides for more racial inclusive learning: curriculum and school staff.

On curriculum, Walters echoed comments from county School Board Chair Wendy Lovell, who told listeners at the July 14 regular meeting the curriculum at the local level is set by state standards.

“The Virginia Department of Education is looking at revisions,” Walters said, adding the new state Commission of African American History Education has formed this year to review content and resources used in Virginia classrooms.

“As early as this fall, some high schools are introducing African American history courses,” Walters said. “We’ve reached out to RCHS to see what their thoughts are.”

She added there would be a delay in implementing such a course at RCHS due to teacher licensing.

“What is the natural timeline?” Board member Owen Collins asked of full implementation of a curriculum with new standards.

Walters said the state is able to change standards “pretty quickly,” but the implementation of a totally new curriculum is a multi-year process. As curriculum plans trickle down to local schools, teachers may enter a crossover phase where both old and new standards are used in the classroom.

“I suggest we find out as soon as we can what the new standards may be, so that we can supplement those materials for teachers to where we could potentially enter a crossover phase before other schools,” Board member Glenn Sullivan said.

Sullivan also inquired of current professional development opportunities for culturally sensitive teaching available for Lexington City Schools’ teachers and staff.

“We’re in the throes of planning our teachers’ return,” Walters explained. Along with professional development dedicated to phase three reopening, LCS is looking at recommended virtual webinar training opportunities in a range of topics to promote classroom racial inclusivity. In the “infant” phase of planning that aspect of professional development for this year, Walters said, teachers may be given the option to complete any two of the many webinars suggested.

“Everyone has bias,” Board member Tammy Dunn said of the room for choice in diversity education training. A teacher may feel like they may not need to be trained in one of the subject areas, Dunn explained.

“Eventually there should be across-the-board in-service training for all teachers,” she said.

“This is such a big topic, we will need to consider our needs and determine as a division what our next steps are,” Walters said. She turned to the possible development of a “school improvement team,” in which administration at Waddell Elementary and Lylburn Downing Middle School could create one or two goals for their respective school, narrowing problem-solving to a common focus area.

“I think we should bring everyone to the table to talk about this,” Collins said of such a team. “Especially if we have goals to point to, where by this date, we have this percentage on this improvement.”

Collins added people with “long experiences” in Lexington may offer a better sense of context to issues that need to be addressed at the schools.

Dunn suggested engaging a few students in the improvement teams. “Their viewpoint is very relevant to this,” she said.

Board members agreed a broad outreach to Lexington residents in finding solutions would benefit the division.

- - - Turning to another “hot topic,” Walters directed Board discussion to the issue of the lack of racial diversity in division staff.

During the July 14 Rockbridge County School Board meeting, over two hours of public comment took place, in which several former students urged the Board to seek Black and persons of color in their teacher hiring process. Commentators stated the lack of diverse teachers, mostly at the high school, had a negative impact on their learning environment. Many former students indicated to the county board July 14 they were students of Lexington City Schools as well.

“Hiring persons of color is something we are always thinking about,” Walters said to the Board.

As part of its current recruiting practices, LCS posts job openings on its division website, Facebook, newspapers, and online job boards. LCS administration has also staffed tables at job fairs at universities around the state. Perspective educators of any race are in high demand, Walters explained. She shared their most recent trips to Virginia Tech and Radford University were not well attended. LCS’ planned job fair appearances at James Madison University and Virginia State University were canceled due to the pandemic.

“A strategy mentioned to us is to hire earlier in the year,” Walters said. “We typically do not have openings then; we are typically fully staffed early in the year.”

In discussion of broadening the teacher recruitment, Board members acknowledged Lexington’s obstacle of size.

“Folks stay,” Walters said of Lexington staff. “Folks stay their entire career, 15, 20 years. That presents challenges.”

According to Walters, LCS receives between one and seven applications for their job openings, with most receiving fewer than five. Thinking over her tenure as superintendent, Walters recalled LCS receiving about10 applications from persons of color over the last five years. Of these 10 applications, two were for custodial positions, four were for paraprofessionals, three were for teachers and one was a school nurse. Walters said nine of these applicants were interviewed and one backed out without feedback. LCS extended offers to five of these applicants, with three accepting, then one later turning down the role.

“We look at every application that comes in,” she said.

“I think it would be helpful to maybe find a way to summarize [this information] to communicate what we are doing,” Collins said of LCS next steps.

“The more we share information with the community, and keep letting people know this is what we’re doing, it will stop some negative feedback,” Dunn said.