A Talk with the New Superintendent

SCHOOLS

By Landon Bost

The four priorities for new Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Dr. Nyah Hamlett are: racial equity, school-based mental health and wellness, deeper learning and family engagement.

Hamlett began her tenure as the CCCS superintendent Jan. 4. after serving as chief of staff for Loudoun County (VA) Public Schools. “This is my first superintendency and, honestly, I hope that it’s my last,” Hamlett said.

Below are responses from an email interview with Hamlett and The Local Reporter and a recent media availability with local reporters. The conversation has lightly been edited for length and clarity.

TLR: Could you go on more about the four priorities you mentioned earlier?

My grandmother used to say, “Don’t talk about it, be about it.” So, I hope to model for others that equity is more than just naming inequities or changing words and symbols and that it is really about engaging in that real and raw equity work to include antiracist and culturally responsive equity work and curriculum work and just culturally relevant pedagogy for our teachers. So, what I hope to accomplish with the equity work is really closing our opportunity and achievement gap sooner than later. And there’s a lot that goes into that, but I’ll just say that’s the number-one priority: closing those gaps as soon as possible. 

As it relates to school-based mental health and wellness, with the pandemic and the residual impact of the pandemic, I’ve read an article that said the impact of the pandemic will actually last longer than the pandemic itself. And as someone who has been a proponent of school-based mental health for quite some time, one of my goals is to make sure that we are equipped as a school district to serve our students and families with a comprehensive school-based mental health and wellness program.

High-quality deeper learning, that’s really just emphasizing culturally responsive project-based or problem-based teaching and learning.

TLR: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools recently put a pause on athletics. And I was wondering if that’s something that’s come across your mind with the rising (COVID-19) cases?

We do have a team that is just [about] to talk about this very thing, the numbers that are increasing significantly, the number of student-athletes that we currently have participating and what our next steps might be. No decision has been made yet, but our highest priority is to make sure that our students and staff are safe so more to come on what that decision may be, but I’ll also say that our school board is having a discussion on Jan. 21 about the rising numbers, kind of our considerations and things that we need to be looking for and thinking through as we determine whether or not students remain in school as it relates to athletics and other activities and whether or not it’s time to return students to in-person learning. And if it’s not now, when?

TLR: How do you balance safely transitioning students back to in-person instruction while maintaining the safety of faculty and staff?

The staff has done an impressive job laying out the logistics for a safe reopening of schools for in-person instruction to occur. There are a number of resources from the Centers for Disease Control, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Orange County Health Department. It is important that our organization, including all 2,100 employees, follows the 3 Ws (wear a mask, wait six feet apart and wash hands). We also appreciate our relationship with our friends at the ABC Science Collaborative who provide us with science/research-based guidance that will help us keep our students and staff safe and healthy.

TLR: Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country, so could you elaborate on any plans specifically to address the gap that are in the works right now?

I want to start with making sure that we have the leadership in place that can help to really emphasize equity and the importance of closing those gaps across departments. There’s some work that needs to be done there.

We also have partnered with various organizations that have really been key in helping us to guide our equity work and our discussion. For example, there are specific questions that we want to ask ourselves, as we’re making decisions in the schools and at the district level, and those questions really help us to dive deeper into what the racial equity impacts are what are root causes of the inequities that we see and how do we change structures, not just throw money at things or, you know, not even necessarily hire more people. But how do we change our structure in our system that kind of perpetuates inequities in those gaps? So I think that.

Another thing we have to do is be willing to question programs and curriculum that are popular or curriculum programs that are currently required. There are somethings that will be tough decisions that we’re going to have to make that might feel a little unusual or against the grain because it’s, you know, might be different than what we’ve always done. But I think our equity lens really just has to be widened and closing those gaps can’t be done by the school district alone. We also need to work with the county and both of the towns to remove barriers that are created in the community in order to build trust with our marginalized groups and communities.

TLR: What are some examples of past practices you’ve implemented that you may implement in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools?

I have implemented practices in school districts that I’ve worked in before where we emphasize student voice and emphasize principal voice — amplify the voices of students and principals. For example, just a learner-centered approach to that deeper learning that I was speaking of earlier. That’s something that continually amplifies student voices. Making sure that our students and our principals are part of the decision making. That doesn’t mean that absolves me of the responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the school district. But I think it’s really important that I engage students and I engage principals and of course, parents and teachers are part of that already. But [you must] engage them in the decision-making processes, and with student voice in particular.

TLR: A final comment? 

For me in particular, a goal is that I laugh out loud or LOL. And I literally laugh when I say it, because I have a tween in my house so everything is an emoji or an acronym. But LOL for me here in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School stands for listen, observe and learn. And I literally plan to laugh out loud with those that I connect with and establish lasting relationships with for the district. We are really committed to establishing a cultural norm of collaboration and trust and transparency and coherence in our communication and in our practices.

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