Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni visits Hylton High School

Qarni challenges students to engage in meaningful conversations and make things better  

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Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni visits Hylton High School

Hylton student leaders, administrators and teachers with VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni

Hylton student leaders, administrators and teachers with VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni

Hylton student leaders, administrators and teachers with VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni

Hylton student leaders, administrators and teachers with VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni

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Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni visited Hylton High School on Oct. 17. Qarni led a round table discussion with student leaders from Hylton’s Student Activities Leadership Council (SALC), as well as representatives from the Student Council Association (SCA) and the Watchdog, Hylton’s student news publication.

Qarni told students he was at Hylton to say hello and see how their school year was going.

“I want to hear what’s working well and what could be working better,” said Qarni. “This is a safe place. I work for you (students).”

“After hearing him say that he worked for us, the students, I was more interested in the conversation because I felt important,” said Junior Iqra Ali.

Students discussed a variety of topics with Qarni.

“From talking about pressing topics like school safety, feminine hygiene and providing learning resources, he successfully left everyone with a satisfied outlook on the future of our school policies,” said Senior Michele Edwards.

“As a group, we presented him with some questions that most would find uncomfortable and choose to avoid, but he was honest and open with us,” said Senior Stephanie Annis. “He took our concerns seriously and admitted when he was uncertain about some things. He gave as much detail as he could provide and even gave us the information we would need to reach out to others concerning our problems.”

Virginia Student Councils Association (VSCA) President and Hylton SCA President Daniella Saforo shared that the VSCA had discussed the need to address equity, including safety, access and transportation. She asked what the Virginia Office of Education is doing to address equity concerns.

Qarni assured Saforo that equity is the number one priority and discussed the need to see everything through an equity lens and to reflect that in how resources are allocated. Across Virginia there are 132 school divisions serving 1.2 million students. His office is finding that some schools are well resourced while others are under resourced.

Qarni said he’s aware there are differences from school to school, even within Prince William County Schools (PWCS). He noted that the PWCS School Board is under new leadership and assured students the board is addressing equity issues like school boundaries.

Other students had questions about finding money for new textbooks and equipment in their own classrooms.

Qarni shared that the state received $70 million for textbooks and instructional materials. He shared his own experience serving on a textbook committee as a teacher and discussed the decision making process.

“I was amazed by Mr. Atif Qarni’s ability to answer every inquisitive student with precision,” said Edwards. “Not only did he provide a response for every question, but he also provided a solution.”

“We need to look at the research and determine what resources, from textbooks to equipment will be most meaningful for students,” said Qarni. “Write to your school board members. Tell them it’s great, but can we make it better?”

Civic engagement was a major message of the discussion with student leaders.

“Mr. Qarni took the time to meet each and every one of us and encouraged us to reach out to him and continue advocating for what we believe in,” said Annis.

“I encourage you (students) to have meaningful conversation,” said Qarni. “Please don’t give up. Be assertive, meaningful and thoughtful in your approach. Change does occur.”

Many students had questions about keeping the curriculum relevant, from history to sex education classes.

“There are old policies in place and the classroom stays the same,” said Annis. “What are you doing to work with the changes?”

Qarni shared that the curriculum is always being reviewed and revised.

“We try to be inclusive and keep every perspective in mind,” said Qarni.

Qarni said his office is trying to provide adequate resources for schools to get creative. He wants to make education more relevant for all students. Although many schools offer Advanced Placement classes, Qarni shared there are very few STEM offerings, like computer science. He would like students to have a head start coding so they can have a heads up for computer science jobs like those coming with Amazon.

Ali said, “I was fascinated to hear about the goals and steps that the Board of Education plans on taking to help future generations succeed.”

The new Profile of a Virginia Graduate takes a holistic approach to education. It went into effect last year, beginning with the class of 2022, students who are now sophomores. The profile focuses on the 5 C’s: critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication and citizenship. A profile of a Virginia educator is also underway. In Qarni’s perspective, schools should aim to develop “quality individuals who really care about each other.”

Qarni shared with students that he wants to make things better for students and their families. He told students his goal is to create a seamless pathway for students from high school to beyond. He wants to look at a community college package that identifies industries where people can “really improve their quality of life.”

Social and emotional learning, along with creating a culturally responsive classroom are major goals for his office. It all ties together to form the classroom culture.

Annis shared her own experience as a student living with Type 1 diabetes.

“I noticed throughout schools they attempted to include me, but they are not educating about it (Type 1 diabetes),” said Annis. “Teachers are informed about my condition, but they don’t actually know what it is. What are we doing to educate about this condition and others? There are still many negative and false stereotypes and stigmas surrounding it.”

Culturally responsive classrooms focus on the whole student, including their emotional and mental well-bring. They try to address the needs that we all have. He talked about what relevant diabetes lessons might look like in different contents from science to health.

Qarni shared that he thinks both students and teachers are under too much pressure. He wants to take the pressure off students and see them have a meaningful school experience.

“We are getting away from high-stake testing and grading,” said Qarni. “They have to change. They have an adverse impact on the quality of education and how you (students) do.”

A few changes could go a long way to improve things for students and teachers.

Saforo commented on the lack of diversity among teachers and administrators and asked what is being done to address it.

Qarni said, “We have beaten education so much in 20 years that there’s a lot of negative branding.”

As a result, it’s difficult to recruit and retain educators. His office is reviewing how they evaluate teachers and the state’s recertification requirements to see what they can do differently to ease the pressure.

Qarni understands the pressures many educators feel and respects the important work they do.

“Teaching is the most noblest profession,” said Qarni. “Teachers are inspiring students at all levels.”

Qarni is an advocate for both students and educators.

“It meant a lot to me that Mr. Qarni was able to take time out of his busy schedule to meet with some students,” said Senior Jaden Spady. “His visit made it clear to me that he truly cares about the people he impacts as the Secretary of Education. After his visit, I realized that my fellow students and I actually have a way to voice our opinions on issues that are important to us.”

Throughout his visit, Qarni was greeted warmly by many of his former students and colleagues, some of which were participating in the discussion. Others were excited to see him in the halls and library.

Hylton English Teacher Tiffani Washington greeted Qarni with a hug when she saw him in the library. For many years, she worked across the hall from Qarni at Beville Middle School.

“I was not surprised at all by Atif’s appointment as Secretary of Education,” said Washington. “Atif’s passion for education and his dedication to change make him the perfect person for the position. It is critical for positions such as that to have someone that has the experience of being in the classroom and sees first-hand what goes on.”

After leaving Hylton, Qarni headed to Beville Middle School. He shared that he visited Gar-Field High School last year.