Jackson reflects on his first six months as Chatham’s superintendent

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Editor’s note: Dr. Anthony Jackson, Chatham County Schools’ superintendent, spent time with the News + Record on his 6-month anniversary in the position. Here’s a report from that conversation. First of two parts.

The listening and learning mode of Dr. Anthony Jackson’s first six months as Chatham County Schools’ superintendent has put him in a position help lead what he describes as “next-level” conversations he hopes will move the system from “a space of good to a space of great.”

Jackson came to Chatham from Vance County on July 6 after being recognized as the North Carolina Superintendent of the Year in 2020. An educator for more than 30 years, he’d spent five years in Henderson after serving in the same positions in the Nash-Rocky Mount system and in Henry County in Virginia.

“I didn’t want to come in with grand proclamations about what we should be until I really had a clearer sense of who we are as a community and as a school system,” he told the News + Record in a wide-ranging conversation.

What he learned in that “pretty exhaustive” listening mode, Jackson said, is that Chatham has “a very, very strong community that’s focused on providing good experiences for kids; we have a strong school system that’s supported throughout the community — by the business sector, by parents, by our staff, by those who were previously patrons of the school system.”

There haven’t been any disappointing surprises.

“All I see right now are just tremendous opportunities to grow the school system from a space of good to a space of great,” Jackson said. “That sounds cliche, but it’s true. If I had to say one thing that I want to make sure that we’re focused on, it’s not allowing good to be the enemy of great. I’m pushing everybody to say we’re good right now, but there’s still room for us to improve and get better. That’s what I’ve found from our 30,000-foot view.”

From ground-level, Jackson says CCS is looking at what he describes as the opportunities and pathways he and the administrative staff and school faculty can explore.

“We can look at programs we don’t have right now and find ones that may add value to what we’re doing,” he said. “We can look at our current programs that are really, really good and that can be enhanced. For example, our dual language, AVID, and our fine arts programs … Those are phenomenal and have a lot of support from our parents. But where can we leverage more opportunities for our students and even expand what we’re doing there? Are we courageous enough to have these conversations? Do we look at making sure that those programs are offered in every school if they’re not currently? These are the next level kinds of the conversations I want to engage in.”

Here’s more from the conversation:

You’ve been in a number of different school systems. It’s probably difficult to do, but can you compare cultures? How would you classify the learning culture of Chatham County Schools? In comparison to other places, do you think about how you might be able to make an impact and a positive change?

I think about culture, but I think about it singularly. I look for similarities first, and here’s what I know: regardless of the community that I’ve served, the school system is the vehicle that parents use to ensure the hopes and dreams of their kids are realized.

So that’s one cultural norm that you’re going to find whether you go to the poorest part of the state to the richest part of the state, to the most educated and the most challenged part of the state. So I don’t do a lot of comparisons. I’m taking the time to listen and learn because every community has its own unique flavor and culture.

The learning culture here involves parents who have very high expectations of the school system, for the outcomes of their children. So I have to set and calibrate the work that we do to make sure that every single thing that we’re doing lines up with what parents are expecting of us, and what our community expects for public education, and what most importantly, what our children deserve.

How do you go about developing and framing your vision for the school now that you have your feet on the ground? And how do you communicate that to your staff?

I’m a relationship builder by nature, so a lot of that is going to be through direct communication with staff through setting the stage. From the day I got here, I’ve been trying to get them to understand who I am. I share with the staff and everyone who will listen, my four core principles around The Four Agreements [from the book of the same name by Don Miguel Ruiz — Be impeccable with your word; Don’t take anything personally; Don’t make assumptions; Always do your best].

I asked for space and grace through the leader learning and listening process, so that I can get to know them. And then as we got through that, I told them that one of the key areas around building up the strategic plan now is for us to rally around a belief that we have one school system that’s delivering our product in 20 locations, and that parents deserve the quality of that, no matter what …

So it started all the way back at my first meeting with the entire group, which was our convocation, where I shared with them for this year, I wanted to learn the heart of the organization. The second layer of that now is how do we put all this together?

I’ve heard from you. Now, how do we come together and make this work? Because at its root, I would only correct one thing: It’s not my vision, it’s our vision. I want to set the stage so that we are all understanding that while I get to hold the leadership mantle, I want to make sure that the vision that I’m espousing for this community reflects all of those voices that are heard.

So I listened first, and then I moved through that. But right now, I will share it anywhere. And my message is pretty consistent. They’ll tell you, I am always talking about we are one school system delivering our product in 20 different locations, and that every single parent deserves the absolute best. Whether they’re in Bennett, or whether they’re at the other end of the county, there should be no difference in the quality of our product that we provide to our families.

Delivering the best for the students: What does that look like?

It really does mean that we have assessed the needs of every single part of our community. So one of the things that came up was fine arts opportunities across the district. Well, if we have dance and drama at one side of the county and not at the other side, then we’ve got a gap to fill. We’ve got to make sure that those students who have that capacity and desire have that opportunity.

Now, if we offer it and nobody wants it, that’s one thing. But we should say that they should still have the opportunities to say, that’s an area that I would like to have access to. And so then it’s incumbent upon us to figure out a way to share those resources and make that available to every student regardless of address or zip code. So I want to be able to go to any school and have access to the same programs that I would in any other school in the county or have access to some mechanism to participate in that particular program.

What’s your assessment of student performance right now? Since it’s a measurement of the product the system provides, can you discuss the district’s plan to move the needle on performance and maybe some problem areas?

We just received access to performance data of our students, giving us some predictive data around some areas we need to focus on. So in a very systematic way, we’ve invested in some tools to help our schools disaggregate that data, to use it as a predictor, but also to use it as a formative tool to help build out individualized plans, not only for each school, but for each student.

So my expectation is very clear — that every single school will perform better each year. And that they will take data and look at those areas that are not strong, focus in on those areas, target those areas and improve in those areas. I don’t expect that they’re going to be perfect, but I do expect that every school will make progress every single year.

We are basically a school system that should not have challenges around low-performing schools. We have the resources, we have excellent teachers, and we have an excellent, excellent support system for them.

So again, my expectations are very clear: that we are going to get better every single day. We will not use the pandemic as an excuse for why students cannot perform; we will use it as an opportunity to sharpen our skills and meet their needs differently. So that is our core work: student performance.

Every single school in Chatham should be able to meet or exceed growth; every single school in Chatham should be able to earn a school performance grade of C, B or better. And every single child in our school system should reach the finish line with a very well-defined plan for what they do after they finish here — whether it’s going to work, to the military, or to a four-year college, they should leave here with a very well-defined plan for their next steps. And they’re leaving us with experiences that will give them options.

I’ve been very clear about that since the day I got here. That’s our core work: teaching and learning. And on the other side of it is student performance. We expect that we’re going to have high performance in our district, and that we should be the leaders in the state, not the followers when it comes to academic performance.

What kind of leeway do you give your principals when they’re looking at the data and working with their teachers? When they see problem areas, how much room do they have to experiment or innovate or try to change things in order to improve those numbers?

We have a really good instructional support team who are engaged with our schools on a regular basis. The principals do have some level of autonomy in that area, but we have to have a predictable system where we know we’ll get outcomes. And you can nuance that for individuals and schools.

I’m a big believer in innovation. But I’m also a believer in making sure that you’ve done your homework to ensure that now is the right time for that particular innovation. Considering the impact of the pandemic and the impact of the academic pause that we had to take, we must realize that we don’t have time to experiment at the level that we want because we’ve got a short period of time to close gaps for kids. But where we have tried and true programming that we know will get us the results, I think we have to double down and make sure that we’re doing those things with fidelity.

So for example, AVID — we know that works. We’ve got to double down and make sure that our kids have access to all the tools and that our teachers are trained well, to do that. Now, if a principal wants to nuance that and add to that, conversation can be here. But we got to have the baseline of things that we must make sure are going to make a difference for every single child.

I love innovation, but not at the not at the students’ expense. There’s a difference between innovation and experimentation. For those tried and true things, we have a research base to say they will work in these conditions. For experimentation, we’re trying something new to see if it works. We’ve had to slow down a little bit on the experimentation because time is not on our side. I believe that right now, we have to be extremely urgent about meeting the needs of our kids, particularly those who have had the most daunting impact from the school pause and the impact of COVID-19.

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