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Chesterfield County Public Schools employee training opportunities cannot have elements of CRT

Chesterfield County Public Schools employee training opportunities cannot have elements of CRT

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Before employees of Chesterfield County Public Schools enroll in a training course, they must sign a form promising the session doesn’t include critical race theory.

The school district settled on the form this summer instead of making the trainers promise that CRT — the legal, scholarly theory pioneered decades ago to analyze race and systems that has become a lightning rod among conservatives across the country — “is not part of their agenda,” Chief Academic Officer Sharon Pope wrote in an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“It is far easier to ensure that our employees, for whom we fund their PD [professional development] training, understand that CRT would not be something they should bring back to fold into their daily/classroom work,” wrote Pope, who did not respond to interview requests sent through a schools spokesman.

The district’s swift rejection of certain training courses is in response to a direct order from the School Board: This summer, board Chairman Ryan Harter, speaking for the entire five-member, all-white, predominately Republican board, denounced critical race theory. Harter didn’t stop there. He also said that going forward, a quarterly list of all professional development for schools and central office must be presented to the School Board, so that senior staff and the board may review the materials before the training occurs.

The same day Harter denounced CRT, saying that “in Chesterfield our goal is unity and not division,” a year-old contract with Virginia Commonwealth University focusing on race and implicit bias in K-12 settings expired. The school system chose not to renew it.

The moves were a stark departure for a board that had voted a month earlier to observe Juneteenth, recognized Pride Month for the first time, condemned racism and promised an inclusive school environment two weeks after George Floyd’s murder by police roiled the nation. Critical race theory debates took center stage at school board meetings across the country this summer, even where the academic theory is not part of curriculum.

The topic has seeped into Virginia’s governor’s race, in which Republican Glenn Youngkin has called education the most important issue. Youngkin told a crowd outside the Loudoun County Public Schools administration building in June that if elected, he would ban critical race theory being taught in schools on his first day in office.

“I am keeping a watchful eye and ear [for] CRT in our schools,” Harter wrote in a June 11 email to a resident. “I will never support the main context of CRT in dividing children based off their skin color.”

Harter’s email described the exact opposite of what CRT actually is, said Janel George, an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

“It is not about castigating students because of their race,” George said. “It’s about acknowledging how society is ordered and constructed to create racial difference.”

Harter, who in June declined to explain his understanding of critical race theory, again declined to answer questions this week and referred to his June 1 statement.

When the School Board condemned racism, member Kathryn Haines read a statement on behalf of her colleagues that included a piece on systemic racism: “Change is hard and it is human nature to hold on to the way of life, the community that we know. In Chesterfield, in Virginia and in the United States, however, preserving that which is comfortable too often preserves a system that gives benefits to one group (white people) to the detriment of another (people of color) and that places the values of one community (white) over another. This is called institutional or systemic racism. We must dismantle institutionalized racism, and we think we begin with honest conversations about racism and the steps that we need to take to heal as a county.”

The majority of students in Chesterfield aren’t white, but nearly 4 in 5 school employees are. An audit ordered by the School Board found Chesterfield’s teaching materials were “culturally insufficient.” In the social justice category, for example, the audit found the curriculum was taught through a white lens.

Harter responded to a parent who was troubled by his rejection of CRT, saying he disagreed with the parent’s opinion that the School Board was preventing conversations about race and racism.

“Over the last 18 months, we have taken steps further than any other previous board to ensure all our children regardless of their skin color or cultural [background] feel accepted and understood. You are correct that CRT is an academic theory but, it is not part of Virginia-approved curriculum or CCPS approved curriculum,” Harter wrote in an email the Richmond Times-Dispatch obtained through a FOIA request.

School Board member Debbie Bailey, a veteran Chesterfield history and civics teacher, expressed conflicting views of CRT in emails to parents and residents. In one email, Bailey said, “I do not support CRT in CCPS K-12 education.”

Yet, in another email, Bailey wrote: “I taught social studies for 34 years and I would agree with you that American history should not be ‘whitewashed’ as you say and facts should be presented accurately reflecting our nation’s history — the good, the bad and the ugly. If you are defining CRT as a proper historical representation of our nation’s past then I would agree with you.”

Bailey did not respond to a request for comment.


School Board member Dot Heffron questioned the intention of the board’s plan to have professional development opportunities reviewed after a former principal’s request was denied.

In a June 11 email, Heffron wrote: “One of my principals was denied the option of using district improvement funds for a school-wide professional development, citing an email that PD [professional development] that was based in Critical Race Theory would not be approved. I was under the impression that the division would review PD [professional development] for content and alignment of division core values per our adopted strategic plan. The messaging states that any CRT-based PD would be flatly denied. Was this the intention of the board?”

Harter responded, “I believe the intent was for central office and school board members to be aware of trainings taking place at schools.”

The former Chesterfield principal seeking to attend a VCU-led training ended up giving back the $800 in funding, instead of revising and resubmitting the request. Attempts to reach the principal were unsuccessful. The denial came only 10 days after the district’s contract with VCU about anti-racism expired.

Joshua Cole, a former Chesterfield principal who is executive director of the Office of Strategic Engagement within VCU’s School of Education, said in an interview that for the past three years his office has led training courses in schools and businesses about cultural responsiveness, anti-racism and diversity, equity and inclusion.

While the work began before Floyd’s death, the interest in talking about anti-racism has only grown in response to his murder, Cole said.

Before Floyd’s death, the office had six contracts for diversity, equity and inclusion trainings, which jumped to 26 contracts, including 10 currently active ones, after Floyd died.

There are three rules of engagement in the VCU sessions: for everyone to be present, real and uncomfortable. The sessions look to help people trust, develop empathy and get to know one another.

“We [the VCU team] are going to be transparent, real and honest about our implicit biases [in the sessions],” Cole said. “I can speak to that very intentionally as a white man in this field and my experiences and growth and the uncomfortableness of that.”

Equity session options include, but are not limited to: Understanding Implicit and Institutional Bias; Leading Uncomfortable Race Conversation; Developing a Deeper Understanding of Power, Privilege and Perspective; and Principles of Anti-racism.

In the new equity statement from VCU’s School of Education, the school seeks to “improve equitable educational opportunities and outcomes for students, teaching practices in PK-12 and higher education and educational policy.”

“We support teachers, leaders, professional staff, and other stakeholders in their work to dismantle policies and practices that disproportionately harm historically marginalized students and communities,” the statement said.

Since August, VCU has covered diversity, equity, inclusion and cultural proficiency with schools, districts, the YMCA of Greater Richmond and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, according to information from a FOIA request.

Critical race theory is not diversity and inclusion training, George said.

“Kimberlé Crenshaw [a leading scholar in critical race theory], said it’s a verb, not a noun. It is a way of looking at how law can in some way be complicit in replicating racial inequality,” George said.

The nationwide conservative backlash to teaching about systemic racism is building momentum not only to attack segments of public education, George said, but also as an issue helping conservatives to build their base ahead of the midterm elections.


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