CCS board votes to expand educational programs reflecting equity commitment

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Just weeks after more than 20 Chatham residents expressed outrage to the Chatham County Board of Education over J.S. Waters School’s mock “slave auction,” one common thread stitched together the board’s Monday night meeting: equity.

Dr. Amanda Moran, assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support, proposed expanding the AVID program. AVID — an acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination — is a nationally recognized nonprofit college readiness system designed to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.

After Moran’s presentation, the board voted unanimously to approve an additional $87,000 in district funds to expand the AVID program to all K-8 district schools for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year, bringing the total price tag to roughly $138,000.

Board member Jane Allen Wilson said she’s spoken with various students who have been positively impacted by the AVID program, and for that reason, she fully endorsed expanding the program to all K-8 schools in Chatham County.

“I get the sense it really builds confidence in them,” Wilson said.

The equity focus continued when Jackson shared his thoughts on the success of One Chatham, an initiative he has spearheaded to “collectively create success” across the school system through innovation and relationship building. Jackson said the overarching goal of One Chatham is to help ensure all students in the school system have access to a quality education.

Last Friday, more than 175 attendees gathered at the Chatham County Agriculture and Conference Center in Pittsboro to share feedback with school officials on opportunities to improve the school system, Jackson said.

“While we can’t open the doors and have everybody in one room at a time, we really feel like we’ve tried very, very hard to provide opportunities for people to have input,” Jackson said. “To have 175-plus community members come together all from different areas of our county to really talk about the future and to help us build a pathway towards the Chatham County Schools that we all want for our children was absolutely exciting.”

Chris Poston, Chatham County Schools’ executive director for excellence and opportunity, outlined the school system’s next steps to continue advancing its equity commitment.

Poston stated that on March 22, district leaders, school leaders and CCS staff members participated in a virtual training event called “How to Talk to Your Kids about Racism” and hosted by Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE), a Pittsboro nonprofit.

Poston outlined other steps being taken by the school system to address racial incidents in schools, including the implementation of professional development with school leaders that focuses on culturally responsive teaching practices and leadership, as well as additional guidance to all staff and stakeholders on how to address bullying and harassment in the schools.

Poston added that focus groups from the school system will visit schools and gather feedback related to equity throughout April. The school system will also work with focus groups of students in schools where racial incidents have occurred.

In addition, Poston said the school system is developing a process to revise the current Student Code of Conduct for simplicity and clarity, and has made a commitment for the upcoming school year that all CCS employees will receive equity training.

CCS is also endeavoring to partner with community agencies, and Jackson has recommended creating two new positions — a community engagement coordinator and an excellence & opportunity instructional coordinator — to address the issues that led to the J.S. Waters incident.

Finally, Poston said, the school system is dedicated to improving its messaging among students, faculty, staff and the larger community with regard to its commitment to equity.

Other meeting business

• In other business, the school board unanimously approved $24,000 in funding for a phonics initiative called “fundations” — a multisensory, systematic phonics, spelling and handwriting program for K-3 students, according to the software developer’s website.

Moran stated the school system is complying with SB387, the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, which mandates that protocols and interventions must be in place to assist all North Carolina students with the science of reading.

Carla Murray, the school system’s executive director for elementary and middle grades instruction, said “fundations” was by far the most consistent of all the literacy programs school officials considered and that the software’s professional development opportunities made it the standout literacy program.

• Moran also announced the school system had been awarded more than $312,000 in school safety grants. The board unanimously approved a resolution to spend the funds on improved security cameras in schools.

• Tony Messer, Chatham County Schools’ chief finance officer, presented a proposed $41.3 million budget for local expenditures. Messer said that with regard to total funding per pupil, Chatham County ranks 48th out of 116 school districts across the state.

Messer added that it costs the school system $1 million to fund 13.1 teaching positions, thus a significant piece of the overall budget is dedicated to teacher salaries. The board unanimously adopted the $41.3 million budget.

• During the public comments portion of the meeting, Justin Lessler, a concerned parent, recounted four occasions in recent months where the bus that transports his child to and from Pittsboro Elementary has either been extremely late or canceled altogether. Lessler suggested the school system implement technology that can provide parents with accurate answers when they inquire about the status of a specific bus.

“I recognize this is a trying time for staffing and late and canceled buses are probably inevitable right now, but it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask that in this age of convenient, digital communication that we have some advance warning,” Lessler said. “We should be able to call and get accurate information (about) where a child is supposed to be when we call the school.”

Mark Simmons Jr. proposed the school board reach out to the N.C. National Guard and request their assistance with bus driving and substitute teaching needs in the district.

“What better way to serve your community other than to help get kids to school?” Simmons said. “And it would be great for the morale of the teachers to know they have soldiers at school to help support them.”

• Finally, Chris Blice, assistant superintendent for operations, honored the members of the Northwood High School girls basketball team and their head coach, Kerri Snipes. Last month, the Lady Chargers defeated Enka, 70-42, in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A title game. The resounding victory, Blice said, marked the school’s first-ever state basketball championship.

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