Chapel Hill: Opinion

Jeff Hall: Lessons from Athens’ Clarke County schools

I recently joined a group of community leaders on the Intercity Visit to Athens, Ga.

As president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Council, I was eager to discover what was happening in the Clarke County (Athens) School District, and what lessons we could learn that were relevant to CHCCS.

Clarke County schools are very different demographically from CHCCS. Clarke County is a majority minority school district and is plagued by high poverty. Over 80 percent of district students receive free and reduced lunch. While the community has always had a degree of poverty, the community was hit hard by a series of regional economic setbacks in the 1990s and 2000s. Many families that had the means left for better opportunities elsewhere. The combination of economic stagnation and parent flight left the schools floundering.

In 2009, Superintendent Philip Lanoue was brought in from Massachusetts to help turn the schools around. Clarke County has undergone a dramatic transformation under his leadership. It has been honored as the No. 1 large school district for closing the achievement gap. Their rates of Annual Yearly Progress, graduation, and Advanced Placement participation and performance have all seen dramatic increases.

While in Athens, I met with parents from the district and had a candid conversation about their experiences and the changes they had seen under Dr. Lanoue’s leadership. Based on those conversations, a visit to Chase Street Elementary in Athens, and a presentation and conversation with Dr. Lanoue, I noted three essential things that Dr. Lanoue did to help transform Athens schools.

1. Change the environment, change the culture.

One of the first things Dr. Lanoue did was oversee $400 million in physical improvements to Clarke County schools. Every school was refurbished and modernized. New instructional areas were created. Gardens were built and solar panels installed. “I knew that if we were going to change the way people thought,” Dr. Lanoue told me, “we would have to change the space where learning was taking place.”

2. Emphasize quality instruction.

One of Dr. Lanoue’s favorite phrases is “you’re not teaching if kids aren’t learning.” The district began a unique pilot program with the University of Georgia School of Education that puts tenured university professors in schools, mentoring, training and teaching teachers and students. This emphasis on instruction has transformed the way the district operates – putting the classroom first.

3. Expect the highest standards from all learners.

Clarke County parents said expectations for performance are high and non-negotiable. All students are expected to rise to the challenge. The key to closing the achievement gap, Dr. Lanoue said, is to acknowledge that all kids can achieve great outcomes.

Here in CHCCS, we have a high-achieving school district that looks different than what we saw in Georgia. But there are lessons to be gleaned from Athens.

The CHCCS long range plan has placed instructional excellence at the heart of what our district does. The entire district is oriented around the growth mindset – the belief that all kids can grow and improve. Our professional development model will be built around constant improvement and growth. Like Clarke County, CHCCS recognizes the crucial value of quality instruction.

This growth mindset reinforces high expectations for all students. Every student is expected to make one year of academic growth every year, regardless of where they start. If a kid comes into second grade reading at a third grade level, they should leave reading at a fourth grade level. High expectations for every student, just as Dr. Lanoue demanded for Clarke County. The high expectations for growth among all students represents one key tool for ending our district’s longstanding and wholly unacceptable racial achievement gap.

CHCCS, while not in the straits that Dr. Lanoue found Clarke County, is not without its challenges. The budget woes of the last few years have left our schools in need of serious capital investment and improvement. There will need to be continued sharing of information and transparency about the changes taking place in the way our schools do business. Parents and community stakeholders will need to remain involved and engaged in the issues. 

One of my biggest takeaways from Athens is that schools are inextricably tied to the community they are a part of. Instructional dynamism and strong leadership were part of the solution in Clarke County, but schools also improved as the community ramped up development and diversified its economy.

The success of CHCCS and Orange County Schools is tied to the continued growth and dynamism of Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. We must work together across the county to continue to grow and develop our community in a dynamic, yet responsible way. This in turn will help our schools chart a course to even greater outcomes for our kids.

It’s all connected.

Jeff Hall is the PTA Council president for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.