The Clarke County School District’s next Board of Education will have its hands full finding a new superintendent and mitigating learning loss. District One representative Greg Davis is set to vacate his seat in December, and two candidates are running to take his place: James Alexander and Heidi Hensley.
In screening clients for training programs at Goodwill of North Georgia, Alexander noticed that individuals with regular education diplomas struggled to qualify for further education and lacked employable skills. He decided he would run for school board in response. His primary agenda is to prepare students for employment, not just through the Career Academy, but with a curriculum to educate them on what going to work every day truly entails. Supporting students with disabilities is a particular passion of Alexander’s. He wants to expand testing for disabilities and boost resources for students and their families.
“I want to make sure that our students can compete on a global level and have options to expand beyond Athens-Clarke County,” Alexander said. “We need to be making sure that we are doing the things necessary to ensure that our kids can compete with everybody around us.”
A resident of Athens for 13 years, Alexander will become a CCSD parent in the fall when his child transfers from the Athens Montessori School to a public elementary school. Though not currently a part of the system, Alexander said he runs a variety of programs and enrollments with high schools throughout North Georgia. Additionally, he has taught several job readiness courses to students both with and without disabilities and is well-versed in budgeting.
Opposing candidate Hensley recently decided to leave her position as art teacher at Hilsman Middle School after two years, but still wanted to serve CCSD. When news of a vacated seat reached her, she jumped at the opportunity to be an insider voice on the BOE.
“Teachers are exhausted. We need to stop hiring at the top levels and start putting more bodies into our schools now,” Hensley said. “I am going to be a big loud voice for the people that are on the ground every day. Let’s get more teachers, parapros and EIP teachers into our school to actually target groups that need help. If we do that, it’ll solve way more problems than just test scores—it’ll solve behavior problems; it’ll solve social and emotional problems.”
Hensley hopes to call attention to the unreaped potential of being a charter system. Developing a STEAM or Montessori school and creating jump classes for lagging students are just a few options she’d like to explore. The charter system could also allow Local School Governance Teams to hone in on the distinct needs of each school.
“Chase Street has a different need than Gaines School. Hilsman has a different need than Coile. LSGTs and the school board need to work in complete unison,” Hensley said. “The school board doesn’t need to make blanket decisions for the entire county. We need to start thinking about individual schools and what they need.”
In addition to teaching, Hensley is a local artist, business owner and parent of six CCSD students. She has never held public office before, but served on the LSGT of Whit Davis Elementary for two years.
Though Superintendent Xernona Thomas is retiring at the end of 2022, a permanent superintendent is not expected to be hired before new board members take office. Hensley desires someone knowledgeable about the culture and unique needs of CCSD. Experience reviving failing schools is a bonus, but most important to her is that the superintendent listens to and values the voices of individuals in schools every day.
“I want someone who’s willing to put humanity over data and policy,” Hensley said. “A lot of times these upper level sections don’t go into the schools. I want somebody who is willing to—even if they’re not from here—go into our school systems, meet with our teachers, meet with our students, sit in the classroom, understand what our community looks like and what the needs are.”
Alexander is seeking a superintendent interested in the needs of every student, including those with disabilities and other barriers, to set them up for bright futures. “I want to find a superintendent that has the vision of inclusivity for all the students that are served in Athens-Clarke County,” Alexander said. “They need to make sure that all students have access to not just the quality education, but an education that sets them apart from the surrounding counties so they can compete not just on a local level, but a national and international level as well.”
Learning loss and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to challenge CCSD. Alexander said the district became too reliant on digital learning during the pandemic. “We need to make sure that there are some outlets and some avenues for students to do some hands-on things and get with their peers so they can work on those social emotional skills,” Alexander said.
Hensley called for providing students opportunities to be creative. “We have to diversify and differentiate our education system,” she said. “If you give kids more opportunities to get in their niche, and what they’re good at, that’s going to get achievement up.”
Most important to Hensley is bringing in more staff to assist teachers. “Teachers don’t have time in the day to differentiate a lesson for 22 kids when you’ve got eight that need different things,” Hensley said. “I think we’ve failed in that we’re just pushing kids ahead when we don’t need to be. These kids are being lumped in with people who already know how to do algebra, but they didn’t get the basics. We’ve got to start on the ground level and get the basics.”
Placing trust in teachers is paramount, Alexander said. Without respect for the hard work and expertise of classroom teachers, CCSD won’t be an attractive workplace.
“If you’re not a teacher, you don’t understand some of those things that they’re dealing with on a regular basis,” Alexander said. “We need to always be an advocate for teachers, and also make sure that teachers understand that we want to hear what you have to say and what you think is going to work for improving classroom relations with students.”
As one herself, amplifying the voices of teachers is important to Hensley. “So many teachers are passionate about the kids in Clarke County and getting these kids up. It’s not who we’re hiring. It’s what we’re doing after we hire; it’s the support that we’re giving teachers after we hired them,” she said.
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