Challengers seeking a spot on the Charlottesville School Board want to see more questioning at meetings and a focus on student outcomes.
“So, yes, you need to have those awkward conversations,” said Chris Meyer, a parent and director of the Local Energy Alliance Program.
Meyer is among five candidates seeking one of four open seats on the city School Board in the Nov. 5 election. All of the seats on the board are at-large and are for four-year terms. All school board elections in Virginia are non-partisan.
A recent forum offered the candidates, three of whom are incumbents, a chance to lay out their vision and highlighted different perspectives among the field.
The city School Board has focused on equity and achievement gaps in the year since The New York Times and ProPublica published a critical article about disparities in the division.
The incumbents — Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever, James Bryant and Sherry Kraft — discussed their tenure on the board during the hour-long forum and pointed to bigger changes such as restructuring the middle schools, adding an early childhood center and overhauling gifted education as investments that will address achievement gaps among student groups.
This school year is the first of a new model for gifted education in Charlottesville. Gifted-resource teachers are pushing into elementary school classrooms and working with all children, rather than pulling out select students.
McKeever, Bryant and Kraft said the new model will take time; however, they said they should check in regularly.
“I think when you are changing a program such as Quest that’s been the same model for 45 years, it’s going to take some time to gauge as to how well the program’s working,” Bryant said.
Lashundra Bryson Morsberger, a parent who works in human resources, said the School Board should hear updates about the changes at every meeting.
Meyer criticized the timing of the implementation of the changes, which were unveiled in June. He said the board should have set metrics for implementation at the beginning.
“[The] rolling out of this was not OK, and we should assess that roll out, too, and it hasn’t been good so far,” he said.
Meyer finished his response with 10 seconds remaining in his allotted time, which McKeever asked if she could use. McKeever's request drew a laugh from the crowd before Meyer added to his response.
McKeever said, in response to a question about disparities between black and white student groups, that comparing the achievement of those groups is problematic.
“Our students are successful, achieving, growing and learning every day in our division,” she said. “The numbers do not reflect the real engaging learning that the children are doing in our schools. ... We also are doing a lot of awkward conversations, I assure you.”
Kraft and Bryant also stressed that students shouldn’t be judged by one test.
“Teachers are working hard, administrators are working hard, each and every day, meeting the needs of those students that come to us with lots of issues and trauma in the homes, and they’re meeting them where they are and trying to do the best they can,” said Bryant, adding that if his success was based on a test, he wouldn’t be on the board.
Bryant, who was appointed as an interim member in 2018, is seeking election to his first full term.
Kraft, elected in 2015, said she supports the Black Student Union at Charlottesville High School, and said the division is working on how it teaches African American history.
“I think they were asking a bigger question, and that is how do we deal with the way that the system is set up, which results in these lower scores for African American students,” she said.
Meyer and Morsberger said they want to focus on data.
“There are several ways to approach [the gap], but we just have to be open and honest about it, and we have to keep going back to that number, that 52% of African American students aren’t proficient in reading,” said Morsberger, referencing test scores from the 2018-19 school year.
Meyer pointed to how black students and other groups are performing compared with state metrics. In reading, just 48% of local black students passed the exam, compared with 65% of black students across Virginia.
“We’re falling behind the state level, so let’s keep things at the forefront of the conversations and keep asking those questions every month,” he said.
During the forum, Mosberger was asked about her requests at previous School Board meetings for more school resource officers.
Morsberger said she was responding at the time to mass shootings and threats against local schools. She said she doesn’t support adding more officers now.
Morsberger said she wanted to have a broader conversation about school safety but didn’t get a response from the community or board. That changed after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, she said.
“I just feel like it’s really important to emphasize that our schools are safe places, and that the investments that we have made over the past five years or more have made our schools safer, period,” McKeever said.
Meyer said parents are concerned about active shooter drills in elementary schools.
McKeever interjected: “We do not have active shooter drills. Period. We have lockdown drills. They are very different.”
Meyer continued that parents were uncomfortable with the anxiety the drills caused children.
“I think we need to take a look at that and question whether that is actually helpful or not,” he said.
Bryant said the lockdown drills prepare children.
“You know, unfortunately, some of them may become traumatized in doing those exercises, but the reality is extremely important because we never know when that day might come,” he said.