By Charlotte Rene Woods | Government & Climate Reporter
Chris Meyer is leaping towards more public service in his run for Charlottesville’s School Board.
Meyer also is executive director of Local Energy Alliance Program — a nonprofit organization that works to enhance energy efficiency in homes — as well as a member of the Housing Advisory Committee. Like fellow School Board candidates with children in the school system, his children also play a role in his inspiration to serve on the board.
“I have a young child who is in the school system and another one who is going to be soon,” Meyer said. “I want them to have the best school system possible for them, their friends and the children of Charlottesville.”
He aims to apply his background in policy work to working constructively as a potential member of the School Board. Originally from Washington state, Meyer spent the past decade in the other Washington while working for the Environmental Defense Fund. His family relocated from the District to Charlottesville two years ago, and he joined LEAP in March of this year.
As for Meyer’s goals, should he be elected to the School Board, supporting the reconfiguration of middle schools and improving equity to students are his top priorities. Presently, fifth- and sixth-grade students are housed in Walker Upper Elementary School while seventh- and eighth-grade students are housed in Buford Middle School. With the reconfiguration plans, Walker is slated to become a preschool center.
Knowing that the reconfiguration had been considered, but not implemented, for many years and his desire for his own children to go through the entirety of Charlottesville City Schools helped solidify his desire to run.
“Hearing from other parents in the system about how kids leave and then, when they come back, you have this high school system that’s two-tiered and wanting my children to go through the whole system and not leave is really when I said, ‘OK, I have a set of skills that would help to ensure us to get this funded and do it in the right way that would actually strategically position the schools for growth and providing opportunities for all children.’”
“Day One for me is looking at the consolidation of Walker Upper and Buford Middle School,” Meyer said. “I think that is an underlying challenge that needs to be addressed. There’s too many transitions.”
Meyer said he aims to ensure collaboration between city staff and school staff so that the reconfiguration plan can “address not only the equity issues that we see but also prepare us for growth in the system in the near future that we expect to see.”
He feels his relationships with various candidates and current government officials will be helpful. While the School Board sets its own budget, it’s the City Council that approves the numbers. Through his work on the Housing Advisory Committee and on policies with LEAP, Meyer has experience working with the council.
“This is going to have to be done hand in hand with City Council,” Meyer said. “We already have some of the highest spending rates in the state per pupil. There’s also going to need to be some prioritization through quantitative data analytics at which programs are working and which ones aren’t — and allocating scarce resources to those, freeing up more budget to pay for the facility improvements that we need — in addition to going to City Council and working with them.”
As the current board looks to hire more teachers of color, Meyer said that good salaries are an important factor for attracting and retaining teachers.
Last fall, Meyer attended a consultation after a New York Times article that highlighted equity issues in Charlottesville schools and said he encountered a former teacher who explained why he left the profession.
“In the small group I participated in, there was one African American gentleman who used to be a teacher,” Meyer said. “His observation was that — and it wasn’t a specific policy that drove him out of the profession — it was that he didn’t get paid enough.”
Other ways Meyer supports attracting Black teachers is through recruiting from historically Black colleges and ensuring that mentors are available for all new teachers.
Meyer is supportive of recent proposed changes to the Quest gifted program involving a push-in model as opposed to a pull-out model, along with changing the universal testing from first to third grade. The new push in model allows all students to receive instruction at the same time, as gifted specialists collaborate with classroom teachers.
“Evaluating a kid in first grade is not the way to do it,” he said. “All students should be challenged. They’re not necessarily gifted in everything, but by pushing in the teachers, you’re able to challenge all students and provide them the same opportunity of being challenged and having a higher level and trying to raise everybody up. That’s the way we should be doing it.”
While he is complimentary of some actions taken by the current board and superintendent, he said he will keep a critical and constructive eye open, as he has done in his other experiences in public service.
“What I bring to the table is a history of sitting on boards in different programs, a lot of that advocating for marginalized groups and ensuring that administrations and staff are implementing programs appropriately and resources are being deployed equitably to everybody,” he said. “That experience has been one where I’ve had to the hard questions, the uncomfortable questions. I’ve done that at the international level, and I’ve done that at the micro level on nonprofit boards.”
Meyer is running for one of 4 seats up for election on school board among the 5 candidates. Election Day is Nov. 5.
What inspired you to run for the school board?
My kids. My son is a 1st grader at Jackson Via and my daughter will join the system in 2021. I attended a K-12 public school system and saw the power of the opportunities it gave every student regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. I want to make sure all kids in Cville – including my own – have the same educational opportunities.
Given the ongoing conversations around equity in Charlottesville schools, what are some of the most significant strides that you think could be taken to address opportunity and achievement gaps?
I believe real classroom integration is essential in tackling the achievement gap. I understand real integration (both classroom and school) to be the best thing to do in order to improve academic outcomes. And more importantly, this integration needs to happen from kindergarten all the way through to 12th grade. I found a podcast from This American Life on NPR to be very powerful in helping me better understand the integration challenge. For example, programmatically we will have to keep an eye on the Quest replacement program to ensure all of the elementary schools’ students are receiving challenging content.
This point on real integration is a hard one to tackle and involves the whole City. Integration goes against many parents’ instincts, who of course focus on their child(ren)’s unique experience and might consider a classroom a zero-sum environment – either my child is getting teacher attention and being challenged or they’re not and thus, losing out. I would like to see the Administration discuss with parents their concerns in a constructive manner and request feedback. Ask them what they want their child to not only achieve academically, but also social and emotional learning aspects. At least one previous response from the administration to the parent concern around the new Quest program was to question their validity. That is not the way to handle the issue and would change if I was on the Board.
Finally, I want the Board to consider opportunity gaps between public and private schools from an infrastructure and programming. I think we’re doing pretty good on programming, but infrastructure definitely needs to be addressed. Updating our actual school buildings through the reconfiguration process I think would help significantly to level the infrastructure opportunity gap.
The current school board seems ready to restructure the middle schools in town. Where do you stand on this?
My. Number. One. Priority.
My goal is to have it open by the end of my term (end of 2023), which is according to the current timeline, if no major hiccups occur. Close collaboration with the City Council will be required to get the funding approved. I have the relationships with existing City Council and Council candidates to ensure a constructive collaboration, in order to secure the funding necessary and timely implementation by City staff.
What do you see as current strengths and weaknesses of our school systems here, and what would you change or not change about the way the school districts influence the school structures?
I think the system’s racial and socio-economic diversity is its biggest asset. Our children need to have the emotional intelligence and understanding of how to work with people from different backgrounds and experiences. Those aspects are essential to success in today’s and the future’s workforce (and life in general). I would argue it would be more difficult to find this exposure at the private schools. I appreciate the diversity my child experiences everyday at Jackson Via elementary school one of the most diverse in the City.
Another strength is the amount of learning opportunities the schools can offer for all students – both traditional and those with special needs. Private schools in the area do not compare in the breadth of content and award winning STEM program that the Cville middle and high schools have.
At the same time, there are weaknesses and unfortunately, I think there has been hesitancy to address those because of being scared about what the public might think. Every system and organization has weaknesses. Burying our heads in the sand and glossing over them is not the way to solve them. Rather, we need to discuss them in a constructive manner, identify actions, experiment, review the results, and discard those programs and actions that aren’t working. Some programs probably need to be shuttered and news ones tried. Making decisions on research driven results/data and not qualitative feel good stories needs to be the norm and presently, it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Last fall, a New York Times article shed light on some equity issues within city schools and featured two members of Charlottesville High School’s Black Student Union. As a member of the school board, what would you propose to change school zone boundaries and tracking programs like Quest?
The new enrichment program that is replacing Quest needs to be implemented and reviewed, so let’s give it time to see how it works. The design of pushing in and reaching all students delivers more opportunity and challenge to all students in theory.
With a reconfiguration of the middle schools and pushing back 5th grade to the elementary school, a rezoning will most likely need to happen. Rezoning should be done through establishing the criteria we want to use and then putting it into the agnostic model. Politics can happen around the criteria, but once the criteria get put into the model, then we all need to live with the results.
More importantly, integration in the classroom and within the school needs to be a focus. Unleveling of classes and changing the Quest program are ways to do that. I’d push the administration to find more.