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Jenkins education bill gets committee approval

A bill from Suffolk delegate Clinton Jenkins that would require teachers to receive cultural competency training and for history and social science teachers to be trained on Black history  has cleared the House Education Committee.

The bill, HB1904, now goes before the full House of Delegates after the 15-6 vote to report the bill out of committee.

The bill would require school divisions to include an evaluation of cultural competency for teachers, principals and superintendents. Those who seek an initial license or are renewing a license from the Board of Education would have to complete this training.

Also, teachers certified to teach history or social sciences would have to complete instruction in Black history, and each division school board would have to put into place policies requiring teachers and other board employees holding a license issued by the state board to complete cultural competency training at least every two years.

The bill is a byproduct of a proposal from the African American History Education Commission, established in August 2019, in which the group looked at the state’s history standards and professional development practices.

While Jenkins did not present the bill during a Jan. 18 committee meeting, Dels. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) and Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), who serve on the committee, spoke on its behalf.

Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) asked about whether there was thought to include requiring a competency in Native American history as well.

In response, VanValkenburg, who is also a history teacher, said in the last General Assembly session, it passed legislation taking the work of the commission and building on it into other areas. The bill is part of building on it, VanValkenburg said, and a bill relating to inclusive education and reassessing curriculum and looking at how the state trains teachers to broaden historical perspectives.

Davis then asked how much it would lengthen the process to receive or renew a teaching license if teachers have to have competencies in multiple cultures.

“I’m just wondering how far this goes to how long it will now take to renew your license,” Davis said.

VanValkenburg said it is important that teachers can teach all children, and teach all of their history.

“That should be incredibly important because when kids go to school, one thing that ties them to their school is understanding who they are and who their ancestors are,” VanValkenburg said, and how they fit into history.

“And so, if you want to just say, ‘Hey, we don’t need to teach those things because those folks aren’t important.’ Well, that can be your position, but that strikes me as incredibly antithetical to the whole point of public education, and so I would argue that we should want teachers who know more about these things, whether that’s a separate class for all those different things, I think that’s a ridiculous thing to say. But does it mean that educators are going to learn more about other people in Virginia? Sure.”

Gov. Ralph Northam and state Secretary of Education Atif Qarni have expressed support for the bill.

“The African American history education had multiple missions, so one of the things was also to do a standards revision — look at the curriculum and standards revision,” Qarni said, “as that revision is occurring that runs in tandem with what this bill is proposing, the part about getting professional development in African American history is really important.”

Suffolk Public Schools is one of 16 school divisions around the state that have debuted an African American studies class. The class is for juniors and seniors and is offered at Lakeland and King’s Fork high schools.

The full-credit class includes African American history from precolonial Africa through the present. It also introduces key concepts from the early beginnings in Africa through the transatlantic slave trade, the Civil War, the Emancipation, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. It also highlights African American voices and their contributions to the state and to the United States.

If the recommendations of the commission are heeded, the class will be a graduation requirement for all Virginia public school students and Black history will be incorporated into all history courses, at all levels.

“Please understand that African American history, Black history, is American history,” Qarni said, “and we have really outdated standards and curriculum and an antiquated way of teaching history and social studies, so as we’re making those reforms, we also have to concurrently make the reforms in professional development.

“The cultural competency piece, the language is quite clear,” Qarni said, “and as Del. VanValkenburg mentioned, the work is underway with making sure that we’re inclusive of all of our communities in the Commonwealth.”