PITTSBORO — When Dr. Anthony Jackson arrived at Chatham County Schools’ Pittsboro central office building for his first day as the district’s new superintendent, he knew the place was special.
A sparkly blue welcome sign standing nearly as tall as him greeted him, reading “Welcome Dr. Jackson,” and decorated with red cardboard balloons.
“That said a lot about the community and about the work,” said Jackson, who started as CCS superintendent on July 6. “And you know, it really cemented for me that I had made a good decision.”
Nearly a month after stepping into the new role, Jackson is focused on final preparation for the Aug. 23 start of the school year —which he hopes will resemble more of a pre-COVID routine than the last three semesters — along with getting to know the people of Chatham.
“I’ve been welcomed with open arms. It’s been just a whirlwind, this meeting a lot of people,” he said. “But I’m at my best when I’m engaging people and talking about things that are important to them, figuring out ways that we can find those intersections where I can support their hopes and dreams of a community.
“So it’s been fun.”
Jackson comes from Vance County Schools, where he was named the North Carolina Superintendent of the Year in 2020. He’s worked as an educator for more than 30 years, and is passionate about pursuing innovation and equity to better serve students.
Under his leadership at Vance County Schools, where he served since 2015, WRAL reported in 2019 that the school system’s graduation rate had increased dramatically, and the dropout rate had fallen to 2.02% from a five-year high of 5.25%. Before that, Jackson was the leader of Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools for four years and at the Henry County Public School System for three.
Jackson was drawn to Chatham for a few reasons, he told the News + Record: its commitment to innovation and technology, along with its pre-existing equity strategic plan.
“And just the diversity of the community,” he said. “A lot of people see it as a challenge, but it’s a wonderful gift to be able to see all of those things that make our community unique.”
Jackson was selected as superintendent from a pool of 45 applications submitted across 18 states and U.S. territories, the district previously said. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from East Carolina University, a master’s degree from N.C. Central University and a doctorate degree in education from Walden University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The search for a new superintendent began last January, when Dr. Derrick Jordan left his role as superintendent — a position he’d held for eight years — to join N.C. Superintendent Catherine Truitt at the Dept. of Public Instruction. He was replaced on an interim basis by Randy Bridges, a long-time educator and superintendent, who was hired to serve until the board found a permanent superintendent.
“Dr. Jordan led us and took us to new heights and has laid a foundation, and Dr. Jackson is going to take us to even greater heights — and we look forward to that,” board of education member David Hamm said at the county’s May 20 meeting, when the board unanimously selected Jackson.
According to district survey results, CCS stakeholders wanted a superintendent who would provide safe environments for students and staff, communicate with people across race and socioeconomic lines, has strong people skills and can work collaboratively to help children learn.
Board members also previously expressed a desire to find a superintendent with a vested interest in the community.
“We want a superintendent that’s going to be out there. Beyond what the survey says, a real people person that lives and connects with the community,” Hamm said in March.
Jackson’s done just that already. In addition to attending and planning a slew of introductory events, he’s made an effort to be out in the community — at thrift stores and gas stations, for example — to meet community members in non-school settings, too.
“I want parents to know that they have an advocate and a colleague and a partner with me, not with the school system, but with me — I’m always going to try to do what’s right for the kids,” he said. “Even when we disagree, I really want to be able to hear them and make sure I’m understanding them before I make any of those kinds of decisions. I’m a dad, my kids have benefited from good teachers and good schools, so I know what that means.”
In addition to facing the expected problems that come with the job — anticipating and planning for growth, listening to all stakeholders and making sometimes tough decisions — Jackson is also working to respond to challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While he rejects the term, “learning loss,” he said students and teachers alike lost valuable time with each other last year. In addition to finding creative ways to make up for that lost time, Jackson said an emphasis on social and emotional needs would be front in center in the classroom this year.
“I don’t know if we go back to that normal,” he said, “we get back to a routine, whatever that looks like.”
He hopes the school community can find ways to disagree gracefully in the coming year, particularly when it comes to the ever-changing and updated COVID-19 protocol. He also hopes people will “extend grace” to school administration as they make decisions, understanding they’re working to respond to new information as best as they can.
“People want answers fast — well, we could give you an answer, but it’s going to change again,” Jackson said. “So what we’re gonna really try to do is not contribute to the chaos, we’re going to try to contribute to giving parents clear information once we’ve had it.”
On Monday, the board of education called a special meeting for Thursday, to discuss personnel issues and “consider matters related to the recent updates made to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit,” which strongly urges schools to require universal masking for students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. That meeting will take place at noon.
In addition to being superintendent, Jackson is also a runner — he uploads inspirational videos to Twitter of himself logging multiple miles on the treadmill nearly every day — musician, traveler, husband and father.
And no matter how administerial his role, he’ll always consider himself an advocate for teachers and a cheerleader for students.
“I’m the biggest champion for teachers ever. I think what they do every day is magic,” Jackson said. “I want them to know that I know what’s hard and what’s challenging, but we need them to do that work if kids are going to be okay. So what you’ll find with me is that I will always come back and connect it to what’s right for kids.”
You can read the full interview with Dr. Jackson here.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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