By Charlotte Rene Woods | Government & Climate Reporter
Incumbent Charlottesville School Board candidate Jennifer McKeever has been a part of Charlottesville’s board for eight years and is now seeking her third term. As a board member and current chair, she’s been involved in several measures the body has addressed and said she wants to see progress through.
“I think we have some significant momentum around equity and around reconfiguration, and being able to see that through is something that I really want to be able to do,” McKeever said. “Over the past eight years, it’s been a challenge to focus on equity in a very meaningful way and now I see the momentum, and I hope to continue to be able to be a voice around it for the next four years.”
While she notes ongoing work that needs to be done, McKeever said she is pleased with recent moves, like the creation of Denise Johnson’s supervisor of equity and inclusion position within Charlottesville city schools and proud of strides and she and other board members have made in addressing equity overall.
“There’s several things I’m proud of,” McKeever said of her first two terms on the board. “One of the things I’m proud of is the graduation rate at this point continuing to increase. I just think that represents a very significant focus of the School Board and the division, and you can see the results in our community.”
McKeever said she is proud of the board’s work to place instructional assistance back into second grade classrooms.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to just have another grownup in the classroom in second grade as the children are learning to read,” McKeever said. “So, I feel like having that extra adult in the classroom is vital.”
On the board’s establishment this year of a living wage salary, McKeever called it “tremendous.”
“I’m so grateful for the support of the taxpayers in Charlottesville and the commitment of the school division to getting wages that provide dignity to all of our employees,” McKeever said. “So many of our students don’t know the difference between who is the IA [Instructional Assistants] and who the teacher is, and while I know and recognize that teachers have the professional degrees and are certainly a leader in the classroom, providing that dignity to our IAs and our custodial staff and nutrition staff who look in the eyes of our students every day is something I am really proud of and grateful for.”
When McKeever was first elected to the School Board, a vote had just passed to reconfigure the city’s middle schools. McKeever cites the economic environment as part of why the process has not been underway, the way that it can be now.
“I think research bears out that the less transitions at the middle school age, the better it is for children,” McKeever said. “We’ve definitely seen in our test scores how dramatic the transitions can be and I would like to see us really focus on reconfiguration as a priority over the next term.”
Another priority the board has taken has been addressing equity in schools. While McKeever said conversations of that nature had been happening for some time, the Fall 2018 New York Times article helped spur the momentum.
“This roll out of the Quest changes is sort of to take advantage of the momentum around equity. We need to strike while the iron is hot. This is a huge issue where our children end up in our division,” McKeever said. “So, if we are doing it in the very early grades making these changes, it certainly will filter up as these children get older.”
McKeever said she supports the new changes to the Quest program with its push-in model that will be “scaffolded so that it is differentiated for children to be able to reach goals at their levels.”
While McKeever was first inspired to run for school board because of her children, it is all the children in Charlotteville city schools that keep her motivated to continue her work on the board.
McKeever 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?
Initially, I ran for school board because I had two children in the division and a baby who would go to CCS. I wanted to ensure that the opportunities they had to succeed were also given to all the students in our division. Having grown up in this area, I how want to make sure that all students have access to the same opportunities. Today, I have four kids, three in the division, one beginning next year. I continue to want the same opportunities for all students.
The Division has begun to focus on equity. The work is just beginning in many ways. As an advocate for equity the during my time on the Board, I want to ensure the hard questions are asked and momentum around equity continues. Further, I believe a competitive election allows the community to engage more around education issues and understand what the division and the Board have been doing.
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?
While there are many programs and policies the Board is working on to create a more equitable environment, I believe the following will specifically address the so called achievement/opportunity gap.
1. Honors only classes with no remediation classes. Remediation classes isolate students, I want students in classrooms that are diverse in every way as all our students have something meaningful to contribute. I trust our teachers to provide the differentiated instructions to build the skills that each student needs. Inclusive classrooms offer the rich, vibrant environment that will challenge all of our students.
2. Reconfiguration to include one middle school 6th, 7th, 8th grades and one preschool that includes community resources to support preschool families. Middle school is a unique time in a person’s life. Accessing a modern learning environment will demonstrate to families and students who attend the new school that we value their learning, achievements, and interests.
3. Graduation rate of 100%, We have seen great improvement as a result of the emphasis on graduation rate. High school graduates are more likely to be employed, earn more money, and even are more likely to vote than those who do not graduate. This number should remain a guidepost for our community, one we strive to improve every year.
The current School Board seems ready to restructure the middle schools in town. Where do you stand on this?
Reconfiguration is in the best interests of CCS students and our community. I can not emphasize how critical this investment is for education in our City. 1. 5th graders are more aligned developmentally with elementary school students. 2. Transitions profoundly impact 5th-8th graders as outlined in the annual measures of academic success. The impact of transitions for preschoolers are far less dramatic. 3. The learning environment affects achievement. The community has left Walker and Buford largely unchanged since the 1960s. The City has done a good job maintaining the buildings, but our students still consider the spaces are “less than” thus are inclined to feel “less than.” In a community with the resources that Charlottesville has, it is not acceptable to have any student feel “less than” in a city school. In contrast, the modernization efforts underway at the City’s elementary schools have created a resurgence of achievement, creating a serious academic environment that students are proud of and are allowed to flourish. I believe reconfiguration of the middle schools will increase student achievement.
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?
Stable leadership at the division and Board level. Dr. Atkins has provided steady leadership. This is not something to take for granted. As a Board member I have seen the ways divisions have floundered under constantly changing visions of new superintendents. Our division has been able to focus on key areas and shown dramatic results including incorporating STEM type learning opportunities from kindergarten through 12th grade. More importantly, the focus on graduating and the resulting increase in graduation rate is a direct result of steady, consistent focus on ensuring students can access the resources they need to graduate.
Resources- the City has routinely supported the divisions annual requests, and this has been helpful as the state support has diminished. The taxpayer support of the schools is a very significant strength. While the division was hard hit by state funding cuts during the recession several years ago, the City’s support helped to navigate the turbulent times and now many of the cuts that had to be taken during those years have been restored.
Committed and talented teachers and staff. Relationships are the cornerstone of this division. The teachers lead the way by connecting and supporting students. I am routinely in awe of their energy and commitment. We are fortunate to have very talented teachers.
Historic failure to promptly integrate schools. Flight of families from the City’s middle schools. Lack of modernization commitment over the last forty years. We have some structural weaknesses. I believe reconfiguration and continued investment in the schools will continue to help overcome those weakness
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?
I appreciated the NY Times article since we are now focusing so intently on equity. I think the new pathway around giftedness is bold, I hope to continue these innovative approaches that essentially detracks and gives all students access to engaging learning environments. I think its well past time to consider changes to the school boundaries. I think it’s a painful process, but one that must be done in concert w/ reconfiguration when 5th graders return to elementary school