Is the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district a great district?

Do we have a great public school district? Real estate agents will certainly tell you yes. Our overall achievement test scores might say we’re best in North Carolina. But what does it truly mean to be a great public school district?

My children – a just-graduated son and a daughter in high school – have a combined 21 years of experience in the district (plus the 36 combined years of my siblings and me here, and 24 years my mother taught).

Were they well served? Probably – they had a mix of learning experiences, including some that were truly great. But my kids, like most in our district, have all the advantages of the world – both parents are college grads, we’re white, and they have never known hunger or any fear because of poverty. They had great preschools and were exposed to learning opportunities galore. So, kindergarten readiness? Check.

But how do others experience our district? How about the dad who, in a parent-teacher conference, gets asked about drug use in the home – apparently based on nothing more than because dad is African-American and was wearing warm-ups coming from a workout? Or the student who feared entering school because the armed police officer greeting him at the door looks like the ones on the news for the wrong reasons? Or the kids who don’t get identified for gifted services because while the required form is translated into their parent’s language, the whole concept of forms is foreign? What about the girls who feel small and not smart, because the boys get all the teacher’s attention? Does this feel like a great district to them?

Our achievement test results track very closely with socioeconomics and race or ethnicity. While we know that nothing matters more than the quality of a teacher to student success, high-quality teachers can only go so far in fighting society’s ills. But there’s so much we all can do with the time we have with students every day. We want our schools to find creative (even fun!) ways to reach all students, knowing that not everything we try will succeed.

Given all that, how do we measure whether what we’re doing is “great”?

My favorite way to measure “great” is growth – does a student who started fourth grade at a second-grade reading level get to fourth-grade level by the end of the year? That’s two times the expected growth for that student. Likewise, a student who starts seventh grade at the level of someone who’s been in ninth grade for a half-year, but then grows to the tenth-grade level, is still ahead of standard achievement measures – but that student grew only a half-year’s worth in the full year she was in our schools. Is that a success or failure?

I’ve pushed our district administrators to provide clear growth measures for years. I believe we are close. One reason I want to continue to serve on your school board is to get to the point where we can say (as our long-range plan Goal 2 does) that all students are making at least a full year’s worth of learning growth every year, and those students who are behind are growing at least one and a half years per year.

One key to making this happen is leadership. Our superintendent, Pam Baldwin, has brought a new energy to our equity work and leadership development across our district. Research tells us that the biggest impact we can have toward high-quality teachers is strong principals. Developing the great principals we have now, hiring principals who believe in our community’s values and are strong leaders, and developing the “pipeline” of our next great leaders are all things that the superintendent is responsible for and I believe is handling well in the short time she’s been here. I will continue to push this for the success of all of our students.

We expect to be a great district. And in many regards, we are; in other regards, we look like we have the data to claim greatness, but it’s based on flawed measurements. I want us to always strive to be great, never settling for where we are, because we should always continue to have higher expectations for ourselves and our students. But with everything happening right now, I think we have a powerful opportunity to serve all students better than we have in the past, and I appreciate your vote to allow me to continue to push for greatness for CHCCS.

James Barrett is in his sixth year on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education and is finishing up his second year-long term as board chair.