Name as it appears on the ballot: Ashton Powell
Party affiliation: None (so I can vote against Trump twice if need be)
Campaign website: AshtonPowellforBOE.com
Occupation & employer: High School Biology Teacher, North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics
Years lived in the area: 17
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the school board do differently or better over the course of your term?
My name is Ashton Powell and I am running for the CHCCS Board of Education. I am running to strengthen shared governance in our district, bring attention to the significant and diverse mental health challenges of our community, and use these advances to bring equity to stake holders we continually fail to serve.
I am a father of two children at Carrboro Elementary, one in the Spanish Dual Language program and the other in the traditional program.
I am a public school teacher at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics (NCSSM) in Durham, where, for the past 10 years, I have taught biology to talented 11th and 12th grade students from across the state. I hold a PhD in Neurobiology from UNC-CH and am a National Board-Certified Teacher in Science/Adolescent & Young Adulthood. In addition to teaching, I served as the Faculty Senate President at NCSSM for 4 years. I was appointed be the first faculty member to sit on the Board of Trustees of NCSSM, making me one of the only faculty members to ever sit on a UNC System Board of Trustees. This has helped me understand the challenges facing my school from a different perspective as well as how to successfully advocate for faculty, staff, and students.
I have been fortunate to serve on the UNC Faculty Assembly, a body which provides the faculty voice and opinion to the leadership of the UNC System. Having served on the Executive Committee for the Assembly, I have successfully pushed the culture of the Assembly from responsive antagonism to forming functional relationships with the leadership of the UNC System, from the President, to the Board of Governors. This enables us to constructively participate on policy before it reaches a vote at the Board.
2) Given the direction of the school district, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
I think the district is clearly capable of providing an excellent education to a large proportion of students. But there are cohorts of students who we consistently let down. Our outcomes for Black, Hispanic, and twice exceptional students are continually below those in other districts who do not share our perceived financial benefits and stated belief in the power of education to bring equity. This deficit in outcomes is always an issue during election season, can this year be different?
One major change must come from how the board engages with the community. The role of the board in ensuring a wider array of constituents have agency in the decision-making processes must improve. Far too often, the opinions of our community are heard in 3-minute speeches addressing an issue that the board is about to vote upon. This is not the time to begin engagement, as it is far too late in the process. The board must provide leadership throughout the district to ensure that communities made functionally voiceless by our current meeting patterns and organizational structures are respected.
I propose that we adopt the following set of best practices of shared governance:
We must hear from students, teachers, and staff in a functional way without fear of retaliation. I would support having representatives from each group having a larger and more consistent role in board meetings. This would also require facilitating and supporting communication within these groups.
We need to show proper respect to our Spanish, Mandarin, and Karen speaking communities at every level of the district by ensuring we communicate to them in ways that brings their voices forward, not effectively silencing them by moving forward as they await translations (if translators are even present). We should also attempt to communicate to families in their preferred language as often as possible. Can we crowdsource the translation of documents through student clubs at our high schools?
We need show more respect to families who are not able to engage in important community meetings because the opportunity costs do not work for them.
If a given community finds that their views are well represented in groups other than their local PTA or SIT, we must ensure that we actively engage them in a timely manner.
These changes won’t magically fix everything overnight, but they will give voice to the community in new ways. Our current system of governance has made it clear that the input of White English speakers is not sufficient for meeting the needs of a diverse community.
3) What are the three main issues that you believe the Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?
The pillars of my candidacy are:
I am a big proponent of a shared governance model in education. In this model, various stakeholders (faculty, staff, and students/parents) play important roles in determining the academic program of the institution through delegated authority from administrators. While we already have aspects of this here, we should look to build more avenues for these stakeholders to communicate effectively and in a timely manner. This has proven to improve many aspects of employment at NCSSM in relation to equity as well as in the UNC System. This would serve CHCCS well.
The mental health of our children needs to be addressed with the same urgency in which we are addressing equity. The pressures of being a kid are tough enough under most circumstances, but today’s world is even more challenging. Far too many of our kids, pushed by parents, are essentially building resumes from kindergarten so that they can compete for positions in selective programs and eventually college. Meanwhile, students who are not on this competitive path are stigmatized with failure or actual lost opportunity. The impact of such “competition” not only drives our curriculum, it also contributes to significant mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Our approach to our curriculum is not allowing our kids to be children. This competition is not enabling our students to take courses based upon interest and passion, as quality points and GPA are the real outcome measure. This also creates a lack of respect for the humanities, fine arts, music, and physical education in the curriculum, which is tragic. Add in other stressors of inequity, systemic racism, climate change, school shootings, etc… we need to do a better job of ensuring we are fostering the entirety of our children’s minds.
Equity, while third on my list, should be the ultimate goal of the board. However, we have proven that we are not capable of solving this issue because current power structures in our district do not allow for diverse communities to contribute to proposed solutions. Shared governance is a path towards equity when done well. Importantly, discussions of equity cannot be limited to race as inequity impacts all aspects of our community.
4) Describe something you think the school board should have prioritized differently in the current budget.
There is a lack of funds addressing the mental health of students and employees in our district. We all can see the impact of stress on the quality of life of our students and loved ones. There are numerous causes for this stress, and many are external to the school system. However, I feel we are obligated to acknowledge and address the mental health of our community. We should attempt to lead the state in addressing mental heath by putting forth budgets that will pay for enough professional services to meet our needs. We must shame other elected officials who are ignoring the need for such budget items as this is not something we can afford on our own.
5) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of the Board of Education and as an advocate for the issues that you believe are important?
I have been a leader at NCSSM as Faculty Senate President and within the UNC System as a member of the UNC Faculty Assembly, where I have helped strengthen processes of shared governance. In 2014 I was elected Faculty Senate President of NCSSM. One of my first priorities was to build support to convince the NC General Assembly to pass legislation that would enable our Board of Trustees to select community members to sit on the board as non-voting members. After the Republican-led legislature unanimously passed the bill and Governor McCrory signed it into law, I was appointed to our board. For two years was able to play a significant and positive role in the governance of our school. This model of shared governance has been invaluable for the growth of NCSSM in identifying inequities amongst students as well as addressing significant issues between faculty, staff, and administrators.
In the UNC Faculty Assembly, I represented NCSSM amongst delegates from all 17 campuses in the UNC system with the charge of advising the President of the UNC System and the Board of Governors (BOG) on issues related to the faculty. Since 2014, I have played a significant role in changing the culture of the Faculty Assembly from ineffective antagonism towards UNC system leadership and the BOG, to forming functional relationships in order to ensure that the voices of faculty are taken into account. Despite being a high school teacher, I was elected by members of the Assembly to be on the Executive Committee and have helped push forward an agenda of relationship building with people who often hold different beliefs than my own. Through positive and responsible engagement, we now have strong faculty input on issues well before they are voted upon by the BOG. There are now several other campuses that have followed my lead and now have faculty represented at BOT meetings. This doesn’t mean we always get what we want, but we are able to impact system governance.
I enjoy building bridges between communities and have been effective in doing so. Sometimes this means bringing together faculty and administration on a campus such as NCSSM, where we share significant priorities and goals. Other times, I’ve helped bring together communities that are far apart politically, where previous leadership saw little benefit in communication. The CHCCS Board must reach out to communities inside the district but must not forget to reach out to groups outside our community who impact our schools.
6) There’s been some controversy pertaining to the district’s magnet and dual-language programs. How can CHCCS work toward making magnet schools more inclusive? Are dual-language/magnet programs an effective tool to combat inequities, or do they further them?
Our dual-language programs are examples of what top school districts strive to create. While quite different from each other, our Spanish and Chinese dual language programs offer students a style of learning that can be absolute springboards for success. I think these programs build bridges between communities and across cultures. I do not believe that all programs should be used as tools to combat inequity. However, all programs should be managed equitably.
Contributions to inequity by these programs often occur through issues of which populations apply to participate. Currently in the Chinese program, the Black and Hispanic communities are virtually absent, but that has as much to do with the demographic segregation of the district. We should absolutely create diversity of the student body for this program as it changes to a lottery system. Underrepresentation of several student populations must be addressed, which needs to start with increasing the diversity of applications across our district.
One strong benefit these programs provide is that they help form strong educational communities with shared purpose, often breaking down cultural and racial barriers found in the community at large. This increases a sense of inclusion for students, which can also increase the belief that they truly belong. While I don’t personally think that closing the achievement gap is the purpose of dual-language programs per se, I do believe that these programs will help towards that end.
I think these are programs that help define our district as elite as these opportunities are not limited to elite students. Our goal should be to diminish the achievement and opportunity gaps so that all of our programs, from LEAP, gifted, and honors classes to the dual-language programs, are utilized equitably. I do not want for these programs to be compromised or lost before underrepresented communities benefit from them too.
7) In what ways can CHCCS can work to erase racial inequities in the education system? How can the Racial Equity Impact Assessment tool be better used to guide CHCCS in setting policies?
The achievement gap is not just a representation of how a school system treats minority children, it shows us the systemic racism and bigotry present across most every aspect of American society. Blame for the gap should not be placed on our schools alone, as many additional factors and systems contribute to this measure of inequity. But I believe schools have an obligation to address these issues as we are one the few institutions able to incorporate advances in our social moral consciousness with expedience. Unfortunately, a perfect school district and curriculum will not be able to directly impact the many systems of inequity and racism our students face every day.
We need to start by strengthening shared governance to better include the voices of faculty, staff, students, and parents in the decision-making processes will help us better understand and address the inequities our students face. During most every school board meeting this year and last, it was noted that the student body representative had not spoken before the board during their brief allotment. That is not an example of good governance, either in representation or expectation. We need to make clear that the student voice is necessary for us to properly serve the district. The voices of teachers, staff, and parents must also be heard more than during a public comment session at a meeting. This must also happen at a school level. We need a more formalized structure of governance that ensures all stakeholders can be deliberative BEFORE items have reached the level of the board. Proper shared governance will not solve all problems, but it can lead to identification of issues and empathy between groups.
Culturally relevant classes, assignments, and pedagogy are essential for bringing children into the fold of a school. Acknowledging the differences between our communities and celebrating them through our delivery and communication of lessons is essential. If a student cannot see themselves in the topic at hand, it is significantly more difficult for them to engage and succeed. Student see themselves in a topic not just by the pedagogy, but also by the challenge itself. Some students need more difficult work while others need more help. Tuning the work to best fit each student should be a goal for us to achieve, although remaining aware of bias will be essential. An additional necessity is that we must have more diversity in our teachers throughout the district. Seeing someone who looks like you leading a class is empowering, inspiring, and welcoming. Being taught by someone who looks different from you is also important to form understanding between groups, but this should not be the only experience for a large proportion of our students.
The REIA appears to provide a strong framework for developing systems of equity in our district. It can’t be seen as a solution as much as a step in the right direction, though. Giving lip service to the concepts of the REIA could actually increase inequity, while rigidity around any assessment could create unintended consequences. I think that the first 2 steps in the REIA, identifying and engaging stakeholders, are the most vital for any progress in this area. Any changes we make must come from respectful engagement from community members affected. Without that as a starting point, any well-intentioned plan is destined to fail. I also feel the concept of the REIA should also be applied to areas of mental health and 2e students as well.
I am fortunate to have attended multiple training sessions over the past couple of years. I have to give credit to the tireless work of our Student Life department at NCSSM who have organized multiple training sessions for our faculty and staff. In particular, I’ve received Groundwater Training from the REI as well as a session by We Are on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. The most important lessons, aside from simply accepting the reality of the world around me, was the value of making every student feel like their school is meant for them. If a child doesn’t believe that, for whatever reason, it increases the challenge dramatically for them to succeed. Every student must see their place in a classroom and themselves in the curriculum. I know what it feels like to belong in school. Without that feeling, that inclusion, a child has to be much more impressive than I’ve ever been to do well academically.
8) Last year, black CHCCS students were almost 14 times more likely than white students to receive short-term suspensions. Why do you believe that is, and in what ways can the district address this racial gap?
The short answer is that Black and Hispanic students are both policed and disciplined to a higher standard than their fellow students. There are many reasons for this, most of which involve the biases against Black persons that exist across American society. The shorter answer is systemic racism. For exceptional students, there are different but equally unacceptable reasons for why suspensions are given.
The first step is to acknowledge that this issue stems from a long history of unequal treatment. We need to make sure that concepts of justice and equal protection are a part of any discipline proceeding, from reporting of an infraction to how a case is adjudicated. Most importantly, it is essential to revisit our Code of Conduct to make sure punishments fit the behavior we are trying to change and whether the punishments are effective. Misbehavior can’t be treated with the same force as a crime, especially considering the impact this can have on a student’s future.
Suspensions for anything but the most egregious acts should not be given as they impact students so severely. This is not only exceptionally harmful for the student, it also can affect the teachers who now have a student behind on their work.
Even if we end ISS and OSS in this manner, we still must keep an eye on unequal enforcement of the Code of Conduct in regard to Black, Hispanic, and exceptional student populations.
9) Research has shown that increasing teacher and staff diversity can improve education outcomes. What do you think of the faculty/staff diversity in CHCCS? If you believe increasing faculty diversity should be a priority, how do you believe the district should go about it?
An important factor in helping a student feel like their school is made for them is to see adults who look like them in positions of leadership and mentorship. This especially holds true for teachers as their impact on students is unique and personal. As a teacher, many of my efforts go towards convincing students that I am there for them and am an adult they can trust. This doesn’t just happen, and every factor helps. For some students, having shared experiences in equity (or inequity) is essential for building this trust. Based upon the Racial Equity Report Card, CHCCS is doing well in some aspects of diversity, but poorly on others. Our proportion of Black faculty is strong in some schools, while our Hispanic and Asian communities are not well represented. Much of this is due to our changing demographics over the past 2 decades, but we still need to aspire to bringing in teachers and administrators that better match our students.
The first step in having a diverse workforce is to ensure that our community shows respect to all employees regardless of position or background. Recent focus groups at CHCCS have shown that there are significant strains between employee groups regarding these topics. Building communication and strong models of shared governance between our employees helps build a respectful and empathetic working environment that will enable us to recruit and retain employees more effectively.
A diverse faculty requires diverse applicants. We must do a better job stimulating applications from licensure programs around North Carolina, specifically targeting HBCUs. We should look to form relationships and apprenticeships between these programs and our schools, enabling potential teachers to know our communities will be recruiting them once they finish their degree. Additionally, we could put resources towards scholarships for students at the schools of education to stimulate these students becoming our future teachers.
While this will take much longer, it should not be forgotten that the best teachers can often come from our own students. We should not overlook the potential of our students to be future employees. I believe that as we address inequities in our district, more students representing our diversity will return to join our schools as faculty, staff, and administrators. We must grow our next generation of employees from within.
10) Do you believe the district is sufficiently transparent with the community? If not, in what ways can the Board of Education increase transparency?
If you like to go to multi-hour meetings late at night or stream them from home in your free time, then we are pretty transparent in CHCCS. I don’t think that is working for most of us.
As I have discussed throughout, shared governance is essential for proper inclusion of diverse community members. We must be deliberate in how we bring community voices that are not being heard into our system of governance by respecting the diversity of each other’s lives. Appreciating the need for this input means decreasing the opportunity cost of attending meetings. We must show respect and appreciation for languages other than English. We must value the input of faculty, staff, and students enough to give them a seat at the table.
11) Are you satisfied with the district’s school safety plan? What are its strengths, and what are some ways that you would like to see it change?
Overall I am satisfied with our district’s safety plan, although there are some literal structural changes at entry points that could be improved. However, we need to make sure we aren’t doing harm in how we communicate our plan to students.
As a teacher who has been through numerous lockdown drills and several actual lockdowns where armed persons were near my campus, I have to say that I am sad that this generation of kids will equate school with a risk of massacre. The likelihood of a shooting is minute, but that chance is still terrifying as Carrboro Elementary parents know well. This will prove to be exceptionally harmful to the psyche of our children, even though preparation for the unthinkable is the responsible thing to do. We need to establish safety plans that are not constantly reminding students of their mortality. Our top priority for safety must be to support the mental health of students throughout their time in our school.
12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
Teachers running for public office in NC: While it isn’t the primary reason I am running, I am hoping that my candidacy will help other teachers around the state consider running as well. The perspectives of teachers are not well represented across NC due to the nature of their employment, how local principals may react to differing opinions (that is not a commentary on our district), and the politics surrounding public education. The voices and experiences of teachers are invaluable components of any successful school district. I hope other teachers across the state who teach outside of the district they live in will consider running in the future. I’m spending well under the $1000 threshold for reporting on this campaign, working after hours and taking leave for all campaign activity because I am a State employee, and not using state resources. It is a challenge, but one that is rewarding and achievable. Cross-pollinating our experiences among various school districts would be a wonderful way to strengthen public education across NC. This is the only office that we can hold without giving up our job, so go for it!
Climate change: This is a pressing issue for many of us, yet many of the solutions we discuss locally will not have a great impact outside our community. Being good stewards of our local environment is something we should do, but it won’t be the change we need globally. The biggest impact Chapel Hill and Carrboro can have on addressing climate change is with our ideas. Our greatest export will be our well-educated children. We must ensure that graduates of the CHCCS district are scientifically literate so that they can be a part of addressing the climate crisis around the state, country, and world. Not every graduate can or should be a scientist, but they should all be prepared to engage this topic irrespective of their career path.