State leaders praise CCS's summer learning at Virginia Cross event

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SILER CITY — A small group of state lawmakers, local leaders and education experts gathered at Virginia Cross Elementary School Monday morning for an event highlighting Chatham County Schools’ summer learning offerings — namely, a six-week program which concludes Thursday.

The event, hosted by the education nonprofit The Hunt Institute, featured a presentation from district administration on the various aspects of its summer programming — “Ignite Chatham: Empowering Learners” — a tour of classrooms at Virginia Cross and a panel discussion reflecting on what made the programming a success.

“We know that the past year and a half has hit some students and families particularly hard, including students with disabilities, English learners and students from low-income communities,” said Daniela Doyle, The Hunt Institute’s director of policy & research, who also has children at CCS. “As we think about how best to support them, we know we have to practice an additional degree of thoughtfulness.”

“Today,” Doyle continued, “You’ll have the chance to listen from leaders and teachers and other representatives in Chatham County Schools about how they planned for and implemented learning recovery for students with diverse learning needs this summer.”

Among the delegates assembled by the Hunt Institute were members of the North Carolina General Assembly, a representative from the Wake County Board of Education, state municipal leaders, CCS Board of Education Chairperson Gary Leonard and Chatham Commissioner Franklin Gomez Flores.

Superintendent Anthony Jackson addressed the group, noting that the event fell on day 15 of his tenure as the district’s new superintendent.

“Chatham County Schools, based on my assessment, has been uniquely positioned for this work,” Jackson said. “When you look at the impact and the intentional work that’s been done around the strategic plan of this district, looking at providing support for all students and innovation being the accelerant … It’s clear this summer learning has been an opportunity to do amazing things for young people to help them, even in the middle of a pandemic, win.”

CCS’s summer programming included 10 academic and enrichment opportunities offered to all students in the district — with more than 1,000 K-8 students and 400 9-12 students participating in academic programs, and 4,000 in the district’s various enrichment opportunities.

Not only did this summer see a big jump in students served — previous summers averaged about 300 K-3 students, the district said previously — but along with districts across the state, CCS also saw a drastic jump in federal and state dollars available to spend toward programming. Unlike many other districts, CCS already had an infrastructure in place for its summer programs which allowed it to more quickly maximize the potential of its $1.5 million 2021 program.

“We get results,” said CCS’s Amanda Hartness. “Our programs for summer have been highlighted over the last seven years at the state level, because (in) our programs we typically have larger growth than what we see at the state average for summer programs.”

Fittingly, the event was hosted at Virginia Cross, the top-ranked public school in the state for growth among schools where at least 90% of the students receive free or reduced-priced meals at school. The school’s previous “low-performing” status with the state — which was removed in 2017 — doesn’t tell the school’s full story, Hartness said.

Following a legislator’s question about what information to bring back to their fellow lawmakers, Hartness urged reconsideration of the current accountability model for schools. Currently, the model assigns “school performance grades” based on an 80% acheivement score, 20% growth formula.

“It really sets up our schools to someone who doesn’t understand (growth) to look like they aren’t doing well,” said Hartness, who is the assistant superintendent of academic services & instructional support. “That accountability model doesn’t help a school like Virginia Cross tell their story well.”

District administrators shared with delegates what makes Chatham’s programming different than in many other school systems: data-driven and district-written curriculum, provided materials and resources, an emphasis on social and emotional health and partnerships with more than 20 community partners to send CCS students to camps, free of charge for families.

Hartness and Leonard both praised Chatham commissioners for their support of Chatham schools, saying that prior to the influx of COVID-relief funds, increased local funds helped make up for the decrease of state support.

CCS administrators said challenges for the summer included securing staffing and writing curriculum — particularly after such a grueling school year adjusting to COVID-19 and on relatively short notice following state legislation requiring 150 hours of or 30 days of in-person instruction, among other things.

In the future, Hartness said more flexibility with the time structure would be helpful in planning, noting that the Monday through Thursday, 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule meant a large time sacrifice — and potential barrier — for students and teachers alike.

Still, walking through the halls of Virginia Cross — decorated with encouraging messages and filled with generally smiling students – it’s evident that the program is doing something right.

After a year of remote and hybrid learning, including a virtual summer program last summer, many students and teachers alike looked forward to an opportunity for completely in-person instruction.

In one Kindergarten classroom, students practiced the alphabet, with some matching colored cubes to pictures based on the letter they start with and others matching them to written letters.

Upon finishing her board, one student called out to her teacher, letting him know she finished.

“I’m going to have a good day forever!” she said before moving on to the next task.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.


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