PITTSBORO — The first day of classes for most schools in Chatham County is Aug. 29, a day that will mark a second full year of in-person instruction following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The after-effects of COVID-19 have been felt through learning loss, teacher vacancies, mental health issues and more. On the eve of another school year, the News + Record spoke with Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson about his priorities for Chatham’s public schools.
“I’m really excited for this school year as always,” Jackson said. “It’s an opportunity to start again. In the school business, we get the gift every single year of starting over and beginning fresh.”
Jackson said a vital challenge for the upcoming school year will be ensuring a consistent routine inside the building — something made difficult last school year in the first full year back in person since the pandemic began.
The One Chatham Strategic Plan
Jackson said his priorities include rebounding from COVID-19 and implementing the five key criteria from the One Chatham Strategic Plan: curriculum & innovation; student health & safety; faculty & staff; facilities & infrastructure; and communication & information sharing.
Developing the plan included his superintendent “listening tour” sessions; community, staff, and parent surveys; strategic plan focus groups by priority area; working groups for each priority area; and a One Chatham community engagement event.
A final draft of the One Chatham plan was approved by the CCS Board of Education on Monday. This strategy will guide the district from 2022 until 2027. Each priority area of the plan will have two to four goals and each goal will have a set of strategies that will assist in helping meet the overall goals.
A key piece of the plan is ensuring equitable opportunities across the district, regardless of geography. There are extreme socioeconomic divides between the eastern and western portions of the county, but Jackson wanted to ensure those divides don’t also exist in educational outcomes.
“As one community, we want to provide the best education for every child,” Jackson said. “One Chatham is a strategic overlay, it’s not everything we are going to do as a district over the next five years.”
Workforce challenges and vacancies
Another challenge for the upcoming school year — also not unique to CCS — is filling open faculty and staff positions. Jackson said the district has a number of vacancies in the central office as well as for teachers and support staff.
“We need to make sure we have enough, and the right adults to put in front of our children,” he said. “It’s going to continue to be a challenge for us.”
Jackson said the district currently has 59 teacher vacancies, according to the most recent CCS data. The number may sound high, but it’s down from the peak when the district had nearly 200 teacher openings. [See related story, this edition.]
The district also has about 50 support staff vacancies including instructional assistants, counselors, etc. The district does not have data on janitorial or bus driver vacancies because it contracts those services through third-party private entities.
“Our plan to fill the gap is the 4Rs,” Jackson said. The 4Rs are recruitment, retention, recognition and reward. The program includes bonuses of $3,750 for retaining employment and referral bonuses of $300 for employees who recruit new people to join the district.
It also includes recruitment signing bonuses for permanent employees. This provides a $3,500 signing bonus for licensed staff and a $1,500 signing bonus for classified staff. As of August 15, there are 29 new employees providing names of referrals. A total of $50,000 was allotted to schools to reward employees for the 2021-2022 school year.
“We have a pretty intentional plan around workforce,” Jackson said. “But I will also say this about workforce: I’m starting my 34th year as an educator, there has not been one year that I’ve started and had everybody I need or everything has been perfect.”
He said 4Rs approach has been successful because it is sustainable over time by valuing both long-term and new employees. It has also led to leaders in comparable districts using the CCS recruitment strategy as a model to fill workforce gaps.
The superintendent said CCS’s workforce issue is heightened this year because of fallout from COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean it’s a new challenge. He said the district has always had to be intentional about workforce.
Addressing learning loss and ‘leaps’
One of the other repercussions in the wake of COVID-19 has been learning loss. According to the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, students missed the equivalent of seven to 10 weeks of math learning during the 2020-2021 school year. Making up that gap hasn’t been easy.
CCS has tried to solve this issue by allocating portions of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding toward the problem. Jackson said looking at the districtwide data on learning loss, CCS has also learned ways it could improve its education as a result of online learning.
“We have also been examining learning leaps,” Jackson said. “Not all kids lost as a result of the pandemic.”
He cited increased enrollment and improvement of the CCS Virtual Academy — a permanent online option for students — as a way the district has expanded in the wake of the pandemic. Jackson said too often the learning outcomes from the pandemic are characterized as losses, but he believes that isn’t accurate.
“We have had really intensive summer programming and we’ve put in place strong restorative practices for those students who are having social and emotional challenges,” Jackson said.
One of the other hidden benefits in education to come out of the pandemic is the common usage of electronic devices. Jackson said the widespread nature of personal computers for every student has allowed the district to cater to individual needs. He said not every student’s experience of the pandemic has been the same.
“It’s about every stakeholder getting the support they need at the point of their needs,” he said. “Overall, we want to ensure everyone has the resources they need during this time.”
Jackson acknowledged that providing those needs for parents, teachers, students and staff is a privilege that may be temporary because the ESSER funding expires at the end of 2024.
Equity and diversity
Last school year, Chatham County Schools made headlines when a group of students at J.S. Waters School in Goldston held a mock slave auction. The incident drew an outcry from the community and calls for anti-racism and diversity training in schools.
Jackson said the incident couldn’t be ignored and caused a needed reckoning in the district about how to respond to racism.
“We made it very clear that we were going to address this matter head-on and I believe we have,” he said.
Following the incident, the district implemented trainings and roundtable discussions. Jackson said those trainings did prove to reduce harassment and bullying complaints by the end of last school year. This summer, CCS also held other trainings for administrators about how to handle incidents of racism, homophobia and xenophobia.
The CCS Board of Education also approved a new code of conduct, now called the code of civility, for the new school year. The code now includes specific language around racism and racist incidents.
“We need to teach students how to support and value one another,” Jackson said. “It shouldn’t be under the threat of punishment, but rather the enticement of building a better community.”
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_rappaport.