Commissioner Whitesides: Surprise Me - TribPapers

Commissioner Whitesides: Surprise Me

Superintendents Jackson (left) and Causby share a convivial moment while discussing interventions for COVID-era problems in the schools. Screenshot.

Asheville – After the Buncombe County Commissioners received an update on educational outcomes for local schools, the superintendents of both school districts were given time to do some explaining. The tone in the room this time was more somber than it had been under previous administrations, which accentuated the positive while the numbers told a different story.

Dr. Jim Causby, serving an extended term as interim superintendent for Asheville City Schools (ACS), said, “When you go into an interim superintendency, it’s usually because there’s some kind of issue.” He said his job was to “try to put things back on some kind of an even keel and get people liking each other again and talking to each other.” This is Causby’s sixth interim superintendency, and he has over 30 years’ experience serving in superintendent roles.

Causby said ACS is doing better than a lot of school systems in the state, but one major issue is the achievement gap, which is characteristic of all urban school districts. It is strongly correlated with poverty, but it can be changed with a lot of time and effort. Causby said elements, which are not a secret, are falling into place, and these include leadership that creates a culture that believes “all kids are capable of learning at high levels” and parental support. Causby was happy to report that, last year, ACS saw its highest growth ever in proficiency among Black students. Still, the schools are working to implement new curricula that he described as “good stuff” with an intensive learning curve.

Another serious problem is mental health. ACS has used Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to create a reset room in each school. When students “can’t stand where they are,” they go to the room, which is staffed and equipped with things like punching bags and bicycles, until they feel ready to return to the classroom. Each school also has an ESSER-funded mental therapy expert. Causby said those funds are drying up, and so ACS will likely be approaching the commissioners with a request for local continuity funding.

Buncombe County Schools (BCS) Superintendent Dr. Rob Jackson echoed his observations. He spoke about the blights COVID has wrought on the school system, not only in attendance, but in depriving students of progress they could have attained with face-to-face instruction.

BCS is developing a code of conduct to try to keep students in class. They’re trying to teach children that behaviors have consequences, but they don’t want disciplinary actions to hold or push children back. For example, the school system has had a lot of problems with K–12 students vaping, especially THC vaping. If those students are suspended for that behavior, they are then likely to “go home and vape some more.” BCS has implemented a lot of programs for behavioral health, with a focus on the concept that “behavior is communication.”

Jackson said BCS had underestimated the need for social and emotional support in the COVID era. COVID attacked all walks of life, triggering atypical behavior in students and their families. Jackson said parents frequently tell him they don’t know what to do with their child. Like ACS, BCS has relied heavily on ESSER funds to ramp up support, and county assistance will be requested as those funds are depleted.

BCS is also working to narrow the achievement gap. They invited the Hunt Institute to provide professional development and training to eradicate implicit and explicit bias. Unlike ACS, BCS has to spend a lot of money on programming for students who do not speak English. Jackson believes one of the best things the county could do to achieve equity in public instruction would be to continue working toward giving every four-year-old access to early childhood education.

Commissioner Al Whitesides remarked, “As a Black man, I’m appalled at what I see when I look at the numbers. I’ve been on the commission now for seven years, and every year the schools come before us, and every year we hear the same song. We spend over $100 million a year. Go and look at other counties in the state. They’d love to have the funds that we spend for students. So, it’s no question that Buncombe County is committing to our students…”

“I just don’t see the results. I just hope and pray. I’ve got … four years left, and then I’m off into the sunset; but I want you folks to do me a favor. Surprise me, and come forward with some numbers that will show that we are doing [something]. Sure, the numbers are up some, but when they’re as bad as they’ve been, you can only go up…”

“I remember a conversation I had with Dr. King eight months before he died. He was talking about the haves and the have-nots in this country. When I look at those figures in public schools, it’s not only the Black and Brown, but it’s also all the poor White kids that are suffering just like that.”

“I’m beginning to see, after seven years on the commission, why a lot of people in this country are down on public schools. Because they see the money, the billions we put in public schools, but we don’t get anything out of it. So, please, I just plead with you. Surprise me before I go off the commission, and show some good results, because, I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t think you can do it.”