CN+R Q&A

Meet Dr. Anthony Jackson, CCS’s new superintendent

Posted 8/4/21

Dr. Anthony Jackson — named N.C.’s “Superintendent of the Year” in 2020 as head of the Vance County Schools — assumed his role as superintendent for Chatham County Schools on July 6, …

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CN+R Q&A

Meet Dr. Anthony Jackson, CCS’s new superintendent

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Posted

Dr. Anthony Jackson — named N.C.’s “Superintendent of the Year” in 2020 as head of the Vance County Schools — assumed his role as superintendent for Chatham County Schools on July 6, replacing former superintendent Dr. Derrick Jordan. The News + Record sat down with Dr. Jackson last Wednesday to discuss his first month on the job, his priorities as superintendent and COVID-19 recovery in schools.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Well, I guess to get started, I’d love to just hear a little bit about how you would describe yourself, both as an educator and a leader — in terms of what matters most to you in those areas.

JACKSON: I would say that they’re all really in how I see myself as a person. I hope that I am a thoughtful and reflective leader who makes good decisions to support the long-term needs of kids and communities. As a person, as a leader, as a superintendent, I’ve often been classified as a champion and a cheerleader — because I do believe that that’s my role, to champion the needs of kids and cheer on the adults who are making it happen for them. So I see myself as that person who really wants to see people succeed, and who’s willing to do whatever I can to remove the obstacles, pave the way, open the door, and push them, hold their hands, walk with them, run with them, whatever it takes — work hard to help them achieve whatever they determine as their outcome, or their final hopes and dreams.

What stood out to you about Chatham County Schools in making you want to apply for the superintendent position in the first place?

Well, Chatham is known across the state for innovative programming, and that’s been my slice of the pie for many, many years. So when I began to look at this opportunity, I was thrilled to see that one-to-one-technology initiative, I was thrilled to see things like the dual language programming, I was thrilled to see the focus on equity and opportunities for all kids. I was thrilled to see that, wow, there was a district that was very focused on meeting the immediate needs and it was also a district and community that truly had developed a structure to begin looking at the future and had set up processes to begin that journey.

So the innovation was very attractive, the location was very attractive to me, and just the diversity of the community. A lot of people see it as a challenge, but it’s a wonderful gift to be able to see all of those things that make our community unique. To see all of those things operating, operating in harmony, really was attractive to me as an opportunity to take those things that were important to me as a leader — innovation, outcomes and supporting and growing and taking risks academically for kids. To see the district that was already well on that road was really exciting to me.

How has this first almost month of the job been for you?

It’s been what I’ve expected, but it’s also been extremely gratifying. I’ve been welcomed with open arms. I believe that my first few months here will be about relationship building, and it’s been extremely positive. I’ve met people in the community — I’ve tried to visit places like thrift stores, I’ve met people in the grocery store, the gas station. It’s been fun to meet new people, and hear them talk about their hopes and dreams for our school system and our kids. And so that’s kept me busy. It’s been just a whirlwind, this meeting a lot of people. But I’m at my best when I’m engaging people and talking about things that are important to them, figuring out ways that we can find those intersections where I can support their hopes and dreams of a community. So it’s been fun

The good news is I’ve had transitions into districts before, so I have a very detailed process that I use that I’ll be announcing fairly shortly on my entry plan to the community in a very structured way. And I will be talking with the community and have meet and greet sessions with the community, just hearing from them.

What are some opportunities and also challenges that you see as being unique to Chatham County Schools?

I think, as with every community, you have opportunities and challenges, and a large opportunity for us is really finding a way to celebrate the uniqueness within this community, from — from Bennett, to North Chatham. And not not giving any extra value to any of them, but respect them for the true gifts that they are, and celebrate them for the unique things that they provide. Because people have been able to find their space in this community, because of that uniqueness, and I think we want to find ways to celebrate and honor that. And so you’ll find that one of the things that you’ll hear me talk about all the time, will be this notion of “One Chatham,” “one Chatham County Schools,” where every person can find their space.

And so that, to me, is a tremendous opportunity for our community, especially coming in. Because with outside eyes, I can see all these wonderful things and people inside, they may see it as well, this community over that community or this community has that and this community has this — well there’s something unique about your community, let’s celebrate that. I think one of the real challenges here is being able to tell the compelling story of this community. I think there are so many opportunities to tell the compelling stories of this community, and I think people will be really, really shocked at the richness. And so you want to try to preserve those things that make this place special. And I really believe that as a leader, and a leader for the entity that’s our (Chatham’s) largest employer, I want to help preserve that, because those are the things that will attract others here and see us as that value add to the community that they want, because it really ultimately adds to quality of life. I just see those things as real opportunities for us, as well as challenges if we don’t address them.

I know you mentioned an emphasis on relationship building, especially in these first few weeks and months. But what are some other priorities for you moving ahead?

Making sure that we have analyzed and looked at the data clearly — the academic data, the financial data, the community data, what are those data telling us, and it’s a great time because the district’s going to be building out a new strategic plan in the next year. So it’s important that we understand clearly where we are.

The second thing that we’re going to have to do is really make sure that we are at the table and fully participating in the discussions around growth. That’s a huge challenge in our community, we see that with the economic development happening around us, which means that that will ultimately impact schools. And so we have to make sure that we have an attractive option available to our parents, because parents have options now with their school choice. So we want to make sure Chatham County Schools are always at the front of that line and at the top of that list. And then clearly, as we grow, another challenge is going to be facilities and making sure we stay ahead of that curve, and that our school facilities are maximized in terms of capacity. And that’s boring stuff, but it’s important stuff, because it impacts quality of life and impacts community building, and it impacts on those things that would be attractors to those individuals who would want to come here. Those are three very big rocks, read internal data, to do what we need to do to make sure that our product is sound, managing the growth so that we recognize what’s ahead of us and then making sure that we have the assets available to serve once we’ve done all that.

How are you conceptualizing moving forward in the pandemic, and just thinking about things like “learning loss,” burnout and even just trying to unite school communities around issues that have been really controversial or dividing?

Well, COVID has been a challenge. No one questions that. I think we have a choice to make a pandemic, beyond the health issues, into a pandemic of our own behaviors and decision making. Or we can make it a “can-demic,” where we use the things that we’ve learned to actually improve systems, and to make sure that we’re taking care of our kids. We know first of all, we are going to have to have a more nimble academic delivery system — COVID taught us that we have to be able to turn on a dime. That’s something good that we have learned, we have been able to do it and our teachers have proven that we can do it.

The second thing we have to learn is that the social and emotional needs of kids, as well as adults, are going to be front and center as we return to, I don’t say normal, but to a routine. Because I don’t know if we go back to that normal — we get back to a routine, whatever that looks like. And then I think we’re gonna have to learn how to disagree gracefully. This pandemic has taught us that people have very different ideas about what schools can and should be. It’s important for us to hear one another, but ultimately recognize that it’s not a competition that somebody is going to win, that we really have to talk about what’s in the best interests of our children, make those decisions and move forward. So I’m hoping that we can find a way to have those conversations in a graceful and respectful way and make good decisions around that. So hopefully schools are going to be more routine than may have been, I’m always afraid to say normal.

And then you mentioned the term “learning loss,” and I pretty much reject that term. Our kids lost time with their teachers and they lost time in school. So any loss we have to work on recovering, we have to work on reconnecting and we have to work on giving kids the ability to to recover and build those relationships that would help them recapture what they lost in time, as well as our teachers. With our summer programming … our kids have been engaged all summer with just trying to recapture time. So hopefully, if we can be strategic about that, we can help them find a space where they can recover anything that they’ve lost.

What would you say to teachers in the school district that you maybe haven’t had the opportunity to meet one-on-one?

I’ve met a lot of them. I had a meeting yesterday with the Education Association leadership. One of the things that they need to know about me is that I’m pretty visible in the schools; I did not come into this work to be the superintendent, I was a teacher and the principal. So you’re gonna find me most of the time in the school building. And again, I told you, I’m a champion and a cheerleader. So I’m the biggest champion for teachers ever. I think what they do every day is magic. And so I want them to know that I’m a huge supporter of teachers. I still try to get in — I started as a music teacher so when I can get into a classroom, I love it. I respect their work. I want them to know that I know what’s hard and what’s challenging, but we need them to do that work if kids are going to be okay. So what you’ll find with me is that I will always come back and connect it to what’s right for kids.

I guess the same question, but for parents and also students.

I’m looking forward to working with parents. Again, I’ve met with several parents, I want there to be a relationship with parents that’s not rooted in just problem solving. I want there to be a relationship with parents that’s rooted in talking about the hopes and dreams that they have for their children. Because I think that’s where most parents come to the table with good hearts, they want what’s best for the children. Sometimes we can do it without question. Other times, we have to really work to get there. I want parents to know that they have an advocate and a colleague and a partner with me, not with the school system, but with me — I’m always going to try to do what’s right for the kids. Even when we disagree, I really want to be able to hear them and make sure I’m understanding them before I make any of those kinds of decisions.

I’m a dad, my kids who have benefited from good teachers and good schools. And so I know what that means. And so I want parents to be able to walk away from us saying, even if we didn’t agree, or even if you didn’t get everything you wanted, they tried and they did their very best for my child. And the good news is the parents that I’ve talked to all of them have been so very, very complimentary of the school system and their experiences here. And even when they’ve not had the absolute best experiences, they’ve been able to say what I just said, you know, I think the school system really tried to do A, B or C. That’s what I believe will be the ultimate compliment, when parents say that about the school system. So I’m looking forward to building those kinds of relationships. And it’s not the only time you interact with the superintendent is when there’s a problem — that gets old.

What are you kind of focusing on in this last little bit less than a month before school starts back up?

Preparation. And we have some decisions to make around, clearly, safety protocols and things like that, but I think people are going to have to get used to the fact that those things are going to be shifting regularly. And that’s what I meant in terms of being nimble; our post-COVID position will be totally different than pre-COVID, we could predict the opening of school (then), I can’t predict the opening of school now. People want answers fast — well, we could give you an answer, but it’s going to change again. So what we’re gonna really try to do is not contribute to the chaos, we’re going to try to contribute to giving parents clear information once we’ve had it. But I think we’re also going to have to ask people to extend some grace, to give us time to actually reflect on the information and make good decisions, as opposed to a fast and quick decision to calm you down. We need to make good decisions that make a difference, and will allow us to operate in a way that will give you some level of consistency. And like I said, getting us back to routine — not normal, some level of routine for our kids.

What have been some standout moments for you so far?

I think one one was really my first day, just driving up and sitting there being a big welcome sign. That said a lot about the community and about the work. And you know, it really cemented for me that I had made a good decision. So that was special. I think the other moment was being out in the community, and a parent walking up to me, and I had no idea she knew I was andshe just said, “Hey, welcome to the community, we’re so glad you’re here.” Well, that’s meaningful to me, and it really speaks to what I hold as a core value. And that’s building good relationships with people to know you, outside of this work, because this is what I do. So I want you to know who I am so that you will understand me as a person. That’s important to me — I want people to know me as a person.

Outside of education in your role as superintendent, what are some things that you are really passionate about, or just enjoy a lot?

You follow me on Twitter. I love to run, I’m a runner. I don’t know how I became a runner. That was not something that I enjoyed previously in life. And I’m a musician. So I love my music and travel. And most importantly, anytime I can just sit and watch water — I don’t have to get in but just sit and watch water. So yeah, those things are important for me.

I think a good note to end on, speaking of running: I’ve loved seeing your motivational morning and night running videos. What’s the story with those?

It’s my accountability to a group of superintendents. We all talk about self care, how COVID has been very difficult. It’s a group of us, we just kind of encourage each other but we’re all over the place. Picking up the phone is hard, so we said let’s just use Twitter. So this summer, I kind of challenged myself with doing “X” amount of miles in a month — that was my way of holding myself accountable. And people said, “I love them, man, keep em’ coming!” So I’ve had the memes and the jokes that I’ve got from my friends who have made their own personal videos of them like running in slow motion. It’s just fun... There’s nothing to it, but it’s just a lot of fun.

And then, I have this real strong belief that to do this work, you have to be healthy and whole — you really do. You can’t be at risk physically and try to do this work, because the community expects you to be on. When they see you at night, they expect you to be on. I have to take care of myself first, and if I can’t take care of myself, I know I can’t take care of teachers and kids. And that goes back to that comment I made about the social and emotional needs of families and students — I have to take care of my own first before I take care of others. So that’s the story — it’s just fun.

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

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