Wanting the ‘absolute best school year possible’

Chatham Superintendent on COVID, his Twitter account, resources for Spanish-speaking students and his ‘wish list’ for the rest of the school year

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Editor’s note: Dr. Anthony Jackson, Chatham County Schools’ superintendent, spent time with the News + Record on his six-month anniversary in the position. In part one, last week, Jackson discussed school culture, communicating his vision for CCS to his staff, what it means to deliver the best service for the county’s students, student performance and innovation. Here’s the second part of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

You mentioned before about COVID not being an excuse. We’re going into year three now. Is there anything new you’ve found that’s worked particularly well in terms dealing with the challenges the pandemic has thrown at you and the school system?

I have to be their cheerleader and remain relentlessly positive about the possibilities that we can get something out of this. Our teachers deserve to hear their leaders saying we can do this. Our kids deserve to hear their superintendent saying, “I believe in you. You can do this.”

We’re going to keep going, to make sure that we are providing them with everything we have at our disposal. Yes, we all get fatigued around the day to day, but that’s why I’m encouraging people to take care of themselves. I’m encouraging people to lift each other up, to build stronger networks so that when you get tired, you’ve got somebody else you can look to. When you’ve run out of ideas, you can ask a colleague.

I spoke with our assistant principals about building your circle, to make sure that you don’t have to be the martyr or the perfectionist in the crowd — that you have a group that you can depend on.

I believe that, even through all of this, we made one commitment and one commitment only: that we were going to try to keep our kids in as regular a routine as possible, to stay focused on that and not back away. And we’ve done that. We’ve gone six months and not had to close a classroom or school, which is as close to a normal school year as they’ve had. So if you’re tired, it’s because we’ve tried to keep things regular. And I’m not tired of that yet, because our kids deserve it.

Your Twitter account gets a lot attention. I want to ask you about it, particularly how you use it for inspiration as you’re doing your daily runs on your treadmill …

It’s my personal Twitter account. A few years ago, I had a health scare, and through that journey I learned that I was not taking care of Tony. I recognized that being healthy required an intentional commitment to myself. It started as a personal accountability tool.

There’s the Apple Watch that keeps up with your steps but I needed something a little more intentional. The Twitter messages were really just to myself, but I’m glad that other people have been able to kind of grab on to those. It’s really funny when people say, “Yeah, I know you from the running videos.” And I’m like, “That was never the intent.” Those videos were about trying to encourage me to stay healthy so that I could do the best job for the folks who depended on me, not to mention to stay around a little longer for the people who really depended on me — my family. That’s how it grew, and if it’s helping somebody, great, I’m glad, but it helps me stay on track.

How is the district increasing and maintaining its commitment to resources for Spanish-speaking students?

We’ve recognized that we have diverse needs across our district and have tried to ensure that our resources and attention are equitably distributed. We make sure we have built relationships with our Spanish-speaking liaison and expanded those programs. Our E3 [Equity and Excellence for Everyone] team is looking at making sure that we are intentional about directing resources, translators, and all of those kinds of things to be supportive of those families — and not as a response, but an intentional, proactive and preemptive behavior. In fact, we are looking for another district translator right now so that we can ensure that.

And, quite frankly, we have to really talk about just ensuring that we recognize that we have 31% of our student body who are from homes where Spanish is spoken. At some level, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are attentive to the needs of those parents so that they can access school. We have a responsibility to ensure that those students are seeing themselves in the materials and things that we present and provide for them in our schools. And most importantly, we are totally committed to our dual-language program. Across the district, we’ve expanded that program, and I’m going to continue to encourage our board to expand it even further.

We will continue to look for ways to ensure that we are meeting the needs of those students.

What’s your staffing vacancies picture like right now?

We presented a report to the board in January. And at that time, we had 88 vacancies in the district, and I believe there were 21 teacher vacancies. At that point, now, it’s just a moving target. It’s a very different environment. The bulk of our vacancies is now in a lot of the support roles — child nutrition, custodial, bus drivers, things like that.

It’s going to be a challenge in our region to find people. I wish there was a way that we could get people certified to drive a bus a lot faster, but they come, they apply for the job, and it’s going to take at least six to eight weeks before they can ever get to the seat of a bus. So we know that that’s a challenge.

The job market has shifted. And so we’re going to have to be equally as flexible to change our model. And it’s very difficult. I tell people all the time — we can’t have students in school and allow staff to work remotely. Those two don’t work. So that’s not one of those things that we can do easily, but we’re working at it, we’re doing some things to be as competitive as possible.

I would say that if there’s anyone who wants to substitute, wants to be a custodian, nutrition worker, or wants to be a teacher, we will talk with you. In fact, we will support you and help you find a place that works for you and works for your schedule.

What’s on your wish list right now, for the rest of the semester?

I really want kids to know we want to land the plane safely, to have as normal a remainder of the school year as possible with all of the rites of passage that they deserve, for the first time in three years. I want our 5th graders and middle schoolers to have natural transitions to middle school and high school; kindergarten kids to have their end-of-the-year celebrations; high school graduates to have a normal commencement. That’s what I want.

I’m very careful about using the word “normal,” but as routine as possible, so students can walk away from us saying, “I had the best school experience they could give me; it wasn’t perfect, but they worked really hard to give me the best school experience possible.” If I can do that, and I can look those seniors in the eye as they walk across the stage or those middle schoolers and 5th graders, and say we did the absolute best job to give you a regular school year, then I’m going to be happy.

I want to look our teachers in the eye and say, “We supported you through this. We were your cheerleaders and gave you everything we had.” And most importantly, if I can look parents in the eye and say that I partnered with you and did the absolute best job for your children this year, then I’m OK. That’s my wish list, that we can meet the needs of those three groups in a way they recognize that we did it so that your kids can have the absolute best school year possible.

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