By Kate Dula
Pittsboro, NC – This letter was sent to the Chatham County Board of Education members (Mr. Gary Leonard, Ms. Del Turner, Ms. Jane Allen Wilson, Ms. Melissa Hlavac, and Mr. David Hamm, and CC’d to the Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson) via email on 3/22/2022.
An Open Letter to the Chatham County Board of Education and Superintendent
Dear Mr. Leonard, Ms. Turner, Ms. Hlavac, Ms. Wilson, Mr. Hamm, and Dr. Jackson,
Our community needs unity, not further division.
I would like to offer my perspective as someone who grew up in a majority black community and a mom who is concerned that a focus on academic success for all students continues to be overshadowed in our public schools. And, I would like to share with you an example of a successful model for K-12 education which has proven that “equity through education” could be accomplished with great success long before the term “anti-racist” came into public discourse.
Racism exists and should not be tolerated.
I attended the March Board of Education meeting, as usual, and listened to the public comments. I understand an emotional response comes naturally when one hears that a child has been subject to a traumatizing event, no matter the cause. And, I wish to express my deep concern regarding events which have recently come to light involving racist behaviors by Chatham County Schools students. Every person, child or adult, deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and racism is antithetical to the values CCS espouses and strives to uphold. I personally find racist behavior reprehensible and do not tolerate it among those with which I associate. However, knee-jerk, emotional reactions to racist events are not helpful for furthering long term progress.
The March 2022 Board of Education Meeting
I have attended Chatham County Board of Education meetings in nine of the last ten months, and I have spoken publicly at most of those. I wished to thank you for following through with making masks optional, and I am grateful that my attendance at meetings over the past year has taught me much about the work CCS is doing in a broader sense. I was saddened to watch as most of those who came to the March 2022 meeting with such passion departed before much of the business of the meeting took place. I appreciated hearing Ms. Turner point out that many of those in attendance that night had not been present when public input was requested at the One Chatham strategic planning focus groups.
Like many parents and community members, I have myriad questions about CCS’s new policies and how they will be implemented. These are merely a few of them:
- How are organizations which provide “community based support” chosen or vetted? Must these groups conform to a certain ideology or receive certain training?
- How do you define a “restorative circle?” Who will be involved in these circles and what training will they have?
- Will those who may be accused, rightly or wrongly, of an indiscretion be given due process? What will that process entail?
- Have you carefully considered the tradeoffs, costs, and secondary effects recent policy changes may pose?
My biggest concern regarding the hastily-conceived approach being taken is that it seemingly appeases certain groups, who wish to escalate and avenge painful experiences, rather than serves ALL public school students for the long term. Rather than focusing on reactionary and punitive measures, we should dedicate our attention to positive and proactive ways to prevent abhorrent behavior from occurring in the first place. That work is accomplished by improving relationships, not casting a cloud over them.
I was born, spent my entire childhood through teens, and attended public schools in Hampton, Virginia, a city which has been absolutely pivotal to black history in this country (1619 events, origins of the Civil War’s contraband decision, pivotal in the lives of Booker T. Washington and mathematician Katherine Johnson, and hometown to a dazzling number of exceptional football players). Hampton’s modern population consists of 10% more blacks than whites (51% vs. 41%) and the city was a wonderful and formative environment for me as a child and young adult. I am proud to call Hampton my home. It is painful to see that the hard-won progress my many-hued peers and I enjoyed in the 1990s and 2000s, societal progress enabled by so many courageous civil rights leaders, has been chipped away by those with an ax to grind. It doesn’t have to be that way, and one of Hampton’s neighboring cities is home to a school which continues to prove it by implementing “equity through education.”
A proven model for uplifting those in greatest need by expecting excellence.
Achievable Dream Academy, based in Newport News, Virginia had already established a superb reputation for K-12 education in its region when I was growing up. Since then, it has expanded its operations to new campuses, while maintaining high academic rigor. Admission to the school is exclusively available, by invitation only, to economically disadvantaged students. Because of the demographic makeup of Newport News, the student body at the flagship school is made up mostly of black children. Somewhat unconventional aspects of Achievable Dream’s program which help to level the playing field for students include school uniforms, lessons in etiquette and decorum, daily school-wide morning assemblies, positive daily interactions with military members and law enforcement, and deep support from community partners such as universities and corporations. Achievable Dream programs hold students accountable and invite them to take personal responsibility for their own success. Through public and private partnership, these schools have truly made dreams come true.
I encourage you to watch a short video produced by the school about their programs.
Though implementing a duplicate of this school in Chatham County may not be possible right away, I encourage CCS to take inspiration from their 30 year record of success by providing spaces for students to prove to themselves that they can blossom and flourish as individuals. Students thrive when they are held to high standards and empowered by teachers and staff who are truly in their corner.
We all fall short.
I do not claim to have all of the answers, or even many of them, but I want our community to find peace when it comes to these issues. I believe that cannot be achieved without frank and healthy conversations with those with whom we may disagree. It does not seem that multiple solutions or paths forward for our school system are being considered methodically, thoughtfully, equally, and in good faith at this time. This is demonstrated by the apparent rush by CCS to formalize partnerships with community groups who unashamedly profess disdain for their neighbors who have less melanin in their skin. Regardless of painful historical facts, continuing to divide people based on skin color is not a way to move forward and educate young people to be capable of facing and tackling the problems of our future. We can’t deny or change the past, but neither do we have to perpetually live in it.