By Charlotte Rene Woods | Government & Climate Reporter
James Bryant shares his fellow incumbent candidates’ goals to continue the work they have started. The retired educator and counselor has continued to serve youth through his appointment to the Charlottesville School Board on April 11 last year — his birthday — to fill out Adam Hasting’s unfinished term.
Along with various stints in Madison County and Richmond, Bryant has spent much of his career in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area. Among his former students is Denise Johnson, who is currently the supervisor of equity and inclusion for Charlottesville City Schools.
“I felt the School Board was a good fit for me because it gives me an opportunity to still have that extension and have an impact in the community,” Bryant said.
Having originally studied music with goals to be an opera singer, Bryant became encouraged to become a teacher — something he used to play-pretend with his siblings when they were children.
He still sings and is active in his church.
Bryant supports middle school reconfiguration, social-emotional learning, efforts to restructure the Quest gifted program and include more diverse perspectives in history courses, among other things.
It’s addressing equity, however, that is a top priority for him and the board.
In October 2018, a New York Times article indicated equity issues and achievement gaps that featured two students from Charlottesville High School’s Black Student Union. The efforts of the board since still reverberate in the election, as Bryant and colleagues aim to continue their progress and fresh candidates step in to lend their assistance as well.
Bryant said the New York Times article “opened the door to address a lot of issues surrounding equity.”
Bryant said that the board has been getting feedback from students and parents in various communities as it has worked towards shaping more equitable policies and making moves like hiring more teachers, adjusting the testing grade for Quest and making a push for hiring and retaining more minority teachers.
Bryant said it has been especially important to listen to “the communities where we don’t always hear their voices and to have a balanced conversation.”
Of the three student representative positions who attend School Board meetings, Bryant said he was “happy to have those voices and insights on the board.”
Bryant recalled when schools were segregated and noted that despite progress since them, Charlottesville City Schools still have a way to go.
“Going into this election, I could have said no or ‘Do I want another couple years?’” Bryant said. “But I’m committed to see the job done. We have a lot of work to do with equity and when I think back to my early years in school, segregated schools, as we transition from segregated schools to integrated schools, that issue never went away.”
Bryant 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?
To represent the students, parents, teachers, support staff, and other stake holders. To work in collaboration with the current school board to continue to make Charlottesville City Schools exceptional for all students, and to continue the equity initiative which was begun during my current term.
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 gap?
The question we face is “Having seen your data, what are you doing to move forward? After a year of community listening, and over the summer we formulated four focus areas this year, ranging from:
- Staff to instruction to school culture to foundational principles.
- In our last school board meeting, we heard updates in each of these areas, and it was truly heartening to see and hear all that’s underway, from the diverse hiring of teachers and administrators we had this summer.
- Extensive professional learning around areas such as implicit bias, local history, restorative justice.
- redesign of the gifted program
- expansion of honors-options and unleveled classes at CHS, Buford, and Walker
- broadening our history curriculum to include diverse perspectives
- expanding our commitment to positive student supports, intentional community, and social-emotional learning.
- to learn more about these and other equity updates, please visit Charlottesville schools.org/equity
- As expected, the data for the last year continue to show a mixed picture. On one hand, we have SOL data that continues to show racial disparities. At the same time, other measures show a more positive light such as:
- high graduation rate
- Improved SAT scores
- Earned credits in areas in areas such as world languages and engineering
- Our teachers and administrators are digging deep into our data good and bad to learn and adjust so that we can serve all our students better
The current school seems ready to restructure the middle schools in town. Where do you stand on this?
I am in favor of sending the fifth graders back to the elementary schools. In doing so, Charlottesville Schools will be able to expand on an already excellent early childhood initiative which will ensure every child have the prerequisite requirements to be successful in the Charlottesville City Schools. The creation of more space for the 3 and 4-year-old program will be an asset that will increase standardized test scores and have all students on a level playing field. It will also cut down on transition, and redesigning Buford will inspire our middle school students for 21st century learning.
What do you see as current strengths and weaknesses of our school system here, and what would you change or not change about the way the school districts influence the school structures?
- Top 3% Ranking among US School Division (Niche 2020)
- # 8 Placing Overall Among Virginia School Divisions (Niche 2020)
- #11 Blue Ribbon Awards to Excellence in Music Education
- #2 of 132 Most Diverse School Divisions (Niche 2020)
- #9 of 132 Districts with Best Teachers in Virginia (Niche 2020)
- #4 of 132 Best Places to Teach in Virginia (Niche 2020)
- On Time Graduation Rate 95.9% 2019 Black Students
- Drop-Out Rate 1.02% 2019 Black Students
- As I said earlier the data for the last year continue to show a mixed picture, and we have SOL data that continues to show racial disparities. At the same time other measures show a more positive picture as I stated above. All our students are making positive gains especially our black and brown students and we are moving in the right direction. Simply stating “the work continues.”
Last fall, a New York Times article shed light on some equity issues within city schools and featured two members of Charlottesville School’s Black Student Union. As a member of the School Board, would you propose to change school zone boundaries and tracking programs like Quest.
In order to change school zone boundaries, it would require the entire school board having input and many community discussions. When and if that time comes, I will then put forth my proposal to the board. As far as Quest is concerned, the school board has already voted on the new push in model, which is part of the equity initiative we have implemented this year.
In closing, I would like to end on this note. Virginia’s Secretary of Education Qarni visited Charlottesville High School [recently] to talk about school culture and mental wellness. He was blown away by the students he met and the programs in place at the school and in our division. Everybody at the school and on the School Board agrees that we need to do better. But it is encouraging to have the state’s Secretary of Education visit and say, “You are a model for Virginia”.