A middle school teacher in Prince William County was appointed Virginia's next education secretary by Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D).
The announcement that Atif Qarni — a civics, economics, U.S. history and math teacher at Beville Middle School in Woodbridge — would join Northam's Cabinet was made at the school Thursday by the governor-elect.
Qarni's appointment is unusual: A teacher hasn't stepped directly from the classroom into the Cabinet for at least a decade, according to the Virginia Education Association, one of the state's confederation of teachers.
Qarni said he will bring a vital perspective to the position, in which he will be responsible for providing guidance and support on education policy.
"I bring a lot of field expertise, which was really needed," the 39-year-old said. "This is a dream come true as an educator, because I can work on a larger scale now."
His priorities include addressing teacher pay, bringing Internet access to all school districts and lowering class sizes, particularly in Northern Virginia, where he said overcrowding is acute.
Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association, heralded Northam's choice and called it evidence of the governor-elect's willingness to listen to teachers. The association endorsed Northam in the 2017 election.
"When it comes to change in the way our public schools operate, too often our teachers and support professionals have been dictated to instead of given the opportunity to generate solutions to the challenges we face," he said in a statement.
Tim Keenan, Beville's principal, said Qarni makes students his priority and is involved in school activities outside the classroom.
"He is beloved," Keenan said. "We're very proud of him."
Qarni unsuccessfully ran for the House of Delegates in 2013 and for a state Senate seat two years later. He documented the struggles he faced as a Muslim seeking public office in a 2015 op-ed in The Washington Post. In that piece, Qarni wrote that Democratic leaders told him to drop out of the state Senate race because a "Muslim would never win."
On Thursday, Qarni said in an interview that he feels Virginia Democrats have made strides in recent years. He added that Northam did a "phenomenal job" listening to marginalized communities, including Muslims, during the campaign.
"A lot has happened, especially in the last year or so," Qarni said. "I do feel the party actually listened to folks on the ground."
Qarni was named Dale City Teacher of the Year in 2016 and previously taught night school to Prince William students seeking their GEDs, according to a news release from Northam's office.
He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marines Reserve and was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the release stated.
He holds a bachelor's degree in sociology from George Washington University and a master's in history and a teaching license in secondary education from George Mason University.
Northam made two other appointments Thursday. Holly Coy, who was appointed deputy secretary of education with a focus on K-12 by McAuliffe in October 2015, will continue in that role, the release stated.
Fran Bradford, associate vice president for government relations at the College of William & Mary, was also appointed deputy secretary of education and will focus on higher education.