By Charlotte Rene Woods | Government & Climate Reporter
When Charlottesville School Board candidate Lashundra Bryson Morsberger’s daughter started kindergarten in 2017, Bryson Morsberger decided to be more involved in local schools and began attending meetings. During that time, there was a school lockdown following a threat, and she said she felt there could have been better communication to parents. Additionally, there was the publication of a New York Times article that highlighted achievement gaps between groups of students.
“The more I would find out, I would get frustrated,” Bryson Morsberger said.
After Adam Hastings left the School Board, Bryson Morsberger applied for the interim position. She said not being selected then almost deterred her from running now, but that she still wants to be involved.
“I was tired of complaining and ready to be part of the conversation,” Bryson Morsberger said.
As a potential new board member, Bryson Morsberger said she supports redistricting school zones to be more racially and socioeconomically diverse, hiring more counselors in schools at every level, and redesigning the Quest gifted program.
While she supports the current changes with the push-in model for Quest, she feels children are still identified for the program too early.
“We’re making these changes, but those changes are to what end? Are we changing the ways we identify kids? Are we changing their trajectory? I just feel like there’s a lot going on with the Quest program in that the additional teachers aren’t necessarily the answer. What testing models are we using?” she said. “I’m always apprehensive of any program that segregates children. If you’re a kid who is past those grade levels, what opportunities do you have?”
While she is supportive of hiring additional teachers she “just wants them in a position to best help and support students.”
She said she also supports high school students knowing options beyond just attending college, to include vocational schools and the ability to acquire various internships. Bryson Morsberger supports all of the demands made by Charlottesville High School’s Black Student Union in March.
On what she can bring to the table as a candidate, Bryson Morsberger said she has “skin in the game” — a child in the school system who will be affected by changes or lack thereof.
“I think that’s an important perspective to bring,” she said. “The other perspective I bring is that I’ve lived through going through different types of public school systems”
Bryson Morsberger grew up in rural Arkansas, where schools received less funding than those in Virginia. In that school system, she was in a gifted program, but when her family moved to Richmond, she was funneled into a different cluster.
“I’m sensitive to the idea that kids are on a track. I don’t know how, if you’re kid right now and you know you want to do more, how do you even get off of that?”
As the current School Board aims to hire more minority teachers, Bryson Morsberger suggests a visiting teacher pilot program where teachers can have yearlong residencies.
“Right now, we don’t have a lot of success in hiring teachers the traditional way,” she said. “My background is in [human resources], and sometimes in HR, you recognize that ‘If I can’t have someone here permanently, maybe I figure out a way to have someone temporary or people to rotate through.’ You have to find a way to make things happen if a traditional approach isn’t working.”
Her pilot proposal follows the model of some teaching fellowships.
“You don’t have to move to Charlottesville forever, but commit to a year and we can set up some kind of housing somewhere like when you have visiting fellows or teachers in colleges,” she said.
She added that perhaps Charlottesville’s schools’ efforts to address equity and improve may be appealing to teachers from elsewhere who want to be part of a solution.
“I feel like Charlottesville — with the current climate and some of the things that have happened here — there are a lot of people who would be willing to come here to teach and be a part of making things better.”
It’s that sentiment that influences Bryson Morsberger in her efforts to join the School Board.
Bryson Morsberger 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?
I was inspired to run for the School Board first and foremost by my children. I started going to School Board meetings because of my safety concerns, after my daughter’s school was locked down in October of 2017. My involvement grew from there. I met with the superintendent and spoke at School Board meetings. I attended safety forums and equity forums, and I finally realized that, without a seat at the table, your voice goes into the abyss. Showing up to meetings gave me the space to voice my concerns, but to what end? Without a seat at the table, you’re powerless to make change. I don’t want to be powerless anymore. I don’t want the community to feel powerless anymore.
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 think we should redraw elementary school districts. In my district, the Venable district, the kids in Westhaven were purposefully cut out of the Venable district. Our current elementary school districts are a holdover from the last efforts of massive resistance in our city, and from Brown v. Board of Education, pupil placement laws and elementary school zoning.
Then, we need to look at individual reading interventions for students not reading at grade level, which includes the 52% of African American students who are not reading at grade level. Reading is the foundation for everything else. One idea, posed by [former Councilor and School Board member] Dede Smith, was individual reading interventions at the fourth-grade level as a starting place. Last year’s SOLs show that the biggest drop for African American students was between fourth and fifth grade, so we could also look to piloting interventions in fifth grade. Fifty-two percent of Black fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2017-18, but only 31% of Black fifth-graders were proficient in reading in 2018-19.
After that, I think we should look at how kids are “tracked.” Whether we’re calling it tracking or clustering, there is a system for how kids are placed our schools. A lot of times tracking, or clustering, is another way to segregate kids.
The current School Board seems ready to restructure the middle schools in town. Where do you stand on this?
We absolutely need to address capacity issues. However, the restructuring plan has changed significantly over the past few years, and I think we need to make sure we’ve got a comprehensive plan. During the proposal, I saw in early 2018, there were plans to build a new elementary school on top of the Venable district (at the current site of Walker). I thought this further segregated the elementary districts (by cutting off the affluent portion of the Venable district from the less affluent side). When I asked about it, I was told the new school would take students from all the districts. I asked for a mock-up of what that would look like and was told it was not possible. Now, the current plan brings fifth grade back to elementary, remodels Buford to accommodate sixth to eighth grade and creates a universal pre-K; and the new elementary school has disappeared. Will moving to a centralized preschool address the overcrowding concerns at the elementary school level?
Before I commit to any plan, I need all the information. I don’t like committing to partial plans because I need to see a comprehensive plan.
Also, we need to address how kids come together in our middle schools. There seems to be a lot of flight of families to private schools at the middle school level. We need to take a close look at how our middle schools are doing and how we can help.
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 that the biggest strength is our community. People in the community want to help and want to make things better. The community has shown up at forums on equity in large numbers. Our teachers, principals and school staff are amazing and committed to our students. So, our strength is our people. I think our biggest weakness is how we approach challenges. It’s more reactive than proactive. The New York Times article was news to a lot of people, but the current school leadership was aware of the statistics, yet it took the New York Times article, and public outrage, to make it a priority. As a school division, we have to be willing to be open and honest about our shortcomings, in the same way that we are open and honest about our successes.
Last fall, a New York Times article shed light on some equity issues within city schools and featured two members of Charlottesville High Schools 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 believe a first step is to look at the elementary school districts and redraw them to correct the segregation that was purposefully drawn into them. The NYT article discussed how hard it was for a few families, who lived near Venable, to get their kids reassigned to Venable in 2003. When you look at the elementary school zoning maps it’s easy to see the intent to segregate. The only way to fix it is to undo it. We should start with families and students who are along the current boundaries or cut out by the current boundaries.
As for the Quest program, at one of the equity forums, someone asked, “Can we repurpose something when it’s original purpose was to segregate children?” We’re making some changes, like moving toward a push-in model, but to what end? Will children still be segregated and tracked later down the road in middle school and high school? I also feel that what’s missing from this whole conversation about Quest is that all students should be served by our schools. 50% of African American students can’t read at grade level. If I’m a student who isn’t in the Quest program, my needs should still be met.