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Exclusive Interview, Tons of Photos: Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni’s Whirlwind First Four Months on the Job

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Back in December 2017, I interviewed U.S. Marine Corps veteran, teacher, two-time Democratic candidate, Pakistani-American and Muslim American Atif Qarni a few weeks before he took office as Virginia’s Secretary of Education. Now that he’s been on the job for nearly four months, and after traveling from one end of the state to the other visiting schools, I thought it would be a great time to catch up with my friend Atif again. So, we sat down in Arlington on Friday and talked about what he’s been up to, what he’s seeing and hearing, what his goals are over the next few months, etc. See below for highlights from our discussion (bolding added by me for emphasis), as well as a slew of photos from Lee County to Roanoke to Southside to Hampton Roads to the Eastern Shore to Winchester to Richmond to Northern Virginia to…yeah, pretty much everywhere. ūüôā

*Atif says that “the four months have been a very pleasant experience; there’s a perception that, for some reason, folks don’t really get along, but in Richmond I mean folks really work well together, so it’s been a very positive experience for me.” Atif praised the rest of his team – Deputy Secretary of Education Holly Coy (K-12); Deputy Secretary of Education Frances C. Bradford (higher education); Rose Minor, Special Assistand to Secretary Qarni; and Chidimma Uche, Special Assistant to Secretary Qarni. Note that Uche was also there for the interview as well and will also be quoted, below.

*On Medicaid expansion, Qarni said it would free up a lot of dollars, with perhaps $111 million allocated to the “education space” – teacher salaries, social workers, school psychologists, the at-risk add on, etc.

*”On pre-k, the First Lady and Holly Coy have the lead; they’re coming up with some models of where we want to go in this area. Also, we’ll see some announcements in early June about where we’re headed. The bottom line is that “there’s going to be a lot of focus on early education…we want to get pre-school for as many 3 and 4 year olds as possible, especially for our most vulnerable students, because research just shows that if we’re investing in children early they have a higher quality of life,” helps close the achievement gap, etc. Also on this subject, Qarni doesn’t believe there’s been a single state in the country that’s done an excellent job in this area.

*However, Qarni said, “this is very doable, very possible; we do feel there’s a lot of support, a lot of stakeholders engaged…a lot of bipartisan support behind it…So our hope is that we want Virginia to be a shining example for the entire nation and we will put together a great model in the next few years that everybody can be proud of…We’re working very diligently to get it started…and then once we get it going…We’ll look back in 15 years from now and this time in the Governor Northam administration and say, hey, this is where a strong foundation was laid for early education.”

*”On the teacher shortage, there are about 935 positions, according to recent data, that are vacant, where there’s not a fully credentialed teacher in that position. The biggest numbers are in special education and elementary education. But every school division is different. What we’re finding is there’s some school divisions where there’s a shortage of math and science teachers…as opposed to some school divisions, it might be special education teachers. So our approach has to be regional in that regard. And then part of that is that we need to focus on salary increases, which is a little bit challenging, because local divisions control salary increases. However, we’re trying to look at different proposals and plans to see how we can focus on that. What I have often heard is that doing a sustainable salary increase plan that’s very robust is it’s not possible, but I don’t really believe that; I do feel that if we put our minds together and really work together, I think we can have a long-term, sustainable plan in place. So we’re working hard on that.

*”But salaries are not the only thing; working conditions right are also on other things. For some school divisions it’s class sizes. For some school divisions, it’s infrastructure. So one of the things that I’m finding is that in rural school divisions, there are a lot of buildings – across the Commonwealth there are a lot of buildings that are very very old – but I’ve noticed in a lot of our smaller school divisions where there haven’t been major building upgrades buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, they’re in really bad shape…Challenges are very different everywhere in the state, so we kind of all need to work together. But again, keep in mind that we need to have a regional focus in looking at challenges, because what the challenges you see in Lee County are very different from Arlington; what you see in Eastern Shore is very different from Fairfax or from Hampton Roads or from Charlottesville. So that’s the thing from our perspective –¬†there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. So as we are trying to make any policies or having any budgetary discussions, we need to have that regional focus.”

*”The last bucket¬†I wanted to talk about is using our education system and having a transition to the workplace is very critical; the governor is very passionate about career pathways. We¬†feel that CT and STEAM-H…we want to focus on all that, because the traditional model of an individual working in a career for 30 years, that doesn’t exist anywhere, so you want to provide more agility for individuals so they can move around to different career pathways, because people are living longer, they’re gonna have multiple careers…”

*So we’re moving in a really good direction. We have with the Every Student Succeed Act passed in 2015, and [the U.S. Department of Education] just approved the state plan – the Virginia Department of Education and our office received a letter from Betsy DeVos – so the thing is that will give us a lot of flexibility…and in return gives the school division a lot of flexibility and…a lot of autonomy, so there’s a movement away from…standardized testing…and more of a focus on performance-based assessment….It’s a positive shift…everybody’s bought into that…We’re in a very good time for education and we will look back 10-15 years from now and say there’s a lot that happened under the Northam administration that laid a very strong foundation.”

*Qarni talked about his ongoing tour of the Commonwealth, which has so far taken him from far Southwestern Virginia to Southside to the Eastern Shore to Richmond to Winchester to Northern Virginia to…pretty much everywhere, in other words. “We made a decision that why don’t we plan our visits according to the superintendent regions so we can try to blanket as much of the state as possible [note: there are 132 school divisions, 1.3 million K-12 students in Virginia)…We also want to focus on dual-enrollment…that’s why we’re going to a lot of the community colleges also…We’re seven weeks in…We started with Lee County, the region that’s furthest away from Richmond – Elydale Elementary, which is the furthest K-12 school on the tip…closer to six state capitols than ours…We wanted to send a message that we care about all school divisions, all children equally. We want to be very very inclusive in our practice. And nobody ever goes out that far, so we wanted to go out there and send that message, and then work our way in. And so we’ve spent a lot of time in the Southwest and Southside and down in Hampton Roads and Newport News…the Eastern Shore…the Roanoke Valley, the Shenandoah region. and now now we’re closing with the Northern Virginia.”

*In doing so, we are taking a lot of notes when we go in. And then we’re going to produce a very comprehensive report for the governor, we’ll even make it public, what we learned, what things are being done really well. Because I’m noticing that every school and every school division does something really really well. So we want to focus on the positive; you know me, I’m always focusing on the positive. And then also you know see what challenges there are and how the challenges are similar and then how those challenges are different. So we can have a very comprehensive report…We’re gonna be done around Memorial Day…we’ll produce a report around early June…We’re very thorough in our analysis…[Governor Northam]…is very careful in his approach; he wants to do this right, he wants to be known as the education governor because he’s really passionate about education…The governor is highly engaged in education.”

*During Teacher Appreciation Week, “the governor’s going to go in and teach a lesson…a biology class.” “There are a lot of businesses engaged in Teacher Appreciation Week…doing a lot more this year.”

*On the tour, one thing Qarni saw that he thought was really cool – Mr. Burns’ astronomy class at King George High School was “literally out of this world…he has three different lighting in there, all the different stars.” Another example was in Winchester – “we saw this Spanish immersion program in an elementary school that students from pre-k to 12 are in, where they learn their entire curriculum in Spanish…they looked at the Arlington model and then applied it there.” And “one of my favorite visits was Holly and I went to a school calls Warwick High School in Newport News, and the juniors were in lab coats…they took us to the health sciences lab, they have a great health sciences lab…very diverse school…economically diverse…racially and ethnically diverse…and I found it to be a great model. They have created a partnership with internships, helps students place them at the health clinics at the hospital. They actually had a doctor, an ob/gyn who actually came and started teaching them…actually folks from the field coming in…they’ve really invested in their health sciences program so that was something really really good.

*Even students in challenge situations, such as really old buildings, are doing well. If we give them more support, “they will do even better…Our education system is really awesome in my opinion…Our goal is to be the best model for the nation.”

*States have a lot of control and autonomy, so the Trump administration so far isn’t hurting us badly…We’re going to focus on the positive…We want to encourage our localities…I want people to be able to take risks and try innovative things.”

*Sometimes schools are performing great but their reputations are lagging behind, with great leadership and great teachers.

*Qarni wants to let teachers teach, protect teachers and school counselors’ time that they spend with students as opposed to doing “unnecessary clerical work.” “I truly believe we have some of the best educators…I’m not just saying that, I can prove it…Teachers are the nicest, kindest people in the world…they go into the profession because they care about people…They themselves for themselves as strongly as they can.”

*How much is riding on Medicaid expansion in the budget? “It’s absolutely necessary; it will help not only health care, but also in education and other funding streams…it will be huge…this is a long time coming, we should have had this a long time ago…we’ve lost billions of dollars…it will be a tremendous help…the Governor is fighting night and day for Medicaid expansion…We’re very optimistic…We’ll get it done.”

*Chidimma Uche added, “We have seen across the state literally teachers, administrators all but drop to their knees crying – I kid you not – just saying thank so much for coming here; you didn’t even have to make us a promise, you didn’t even have to tell us it was gonna get better by next year or by the end of this administration,” that they just appreciated the Secretary of Education coming to listen.

*Now, according to Atif Qarni, “I’m actually seeing a lot of superintendents talk about doing listening tours in their school divisions now, and some of the school board members asking them, hey we should do listening tours. They’re modeling their approach after us. And they’re actually going in to observe classrooms…Some of them have started to quote, hey, the Secretary of Education office is doing this, so that’s a great idea let’s do it…It is pretty cool when you see that happening…We want to set a good example.”

With that, enjoy the photos from Secretary Qarni’s tour of the Commonwealth’s schools. And thanks for his time in sitting down with me and catching us all up on his whirlwind first four months in office! I look forward to catching up again in another few months…