Name as it appears on the ballot: Emily S. Chávez

Age: 41

Party affiliation: Unaffiliated

Campaign website: https://www.chavez4dps.com/ 

Occupation & employer: Project Director for DREAM, a UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education program created in partnership with DPS to recruit and retain teachers of color and those from underrepresented backgrounds for DPS.

Years lived in the area: 18 years

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?

I am running because I believe in young people, and I believe in creating vibrant educational spaces in which they can learn, grow, and thrive. With over 15 years of experience in the field, I bring a unique and diverse background to this role. I taught high school for six years, including four years at Hillside High School. As an educator I learned about and navigated many systemic social, political, and economic issues that affected my students. I realized that as much as I encouraged my students to strive for college, most of my undocumented students would not be able to attend due to legal and financial barriers. I observed the insidious enforcement of heteronormative identities, relationships, and practices found in many aspects of school life. I noted the real and haunting threat of the justice system in the lives of students of color, particularly Black boys. As a teacher, I sought to support my students, making space for them to fully pursue their academic curiosities and goals while being their authentic selves.

I am now ready to take on the role of school board member, utilizing what I have learned as a teacher, professional development facilitator, education administrator, and organizational change agent. I am a bridge-builder who consistently keeps in mind the experiences, needs, and voices of people, especially those most systematically marginalized, while strategically and collaboratively moving in the direction of our mission and shared vision. I am an advocate for racial equity, LGBTQ+ student support, and improving teacher working conditions and wellness. I intend to build strong relationships within the board and with DPS leadership. I want to ensure that we are working strategically in all areas to meet the objectives of our strategic plan and to produce the best outcomes for our students.

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?

We have many excellent teachers and administrators, several of whom I have been privileged to work with. While at Hillside, I experienced a strong sense of community with my colleagues, and I have witnessed this sense of collectivity at other schools as well, through school visits as well as anecdotally.

We also have a strong Superintendent who is engaged in connecting with multiple stakeholders in Durham and is focused on getting results. Having an effective leader for our district is key, and the board did a thorough and effective job in the hiring of our current Superintendent.

We have a solid strategic plan now guiding our work that was developed through a thoughtful process that involved many Durham community members, including DPS teachers and administrators, parents, organizers, members of the business community, and policymakers.

DPS is also doing a good job at showcasing and highlighting the accomplishments of both students and staff in our district. Our public transparency has increased significantly over the last several years.

One major area of concern in DPS right now is teacher retention. This is not an issue unique to Durham, especially right now, two years into the COVID pandemic. However, high teacher turnover was also an issue prior to the pandemic and retention of highly qualified staff is one major area of the DPS strategic plan. Furthermore, the strategic plan speaks to the need for a significant increase in Latinx staff; specifically the goal is for 10% of our educators to be Latinx by 2023. As I currently serve as the Project Director of DREAM, whose purpose is to support this goal by recruiting and retaining teachers from underrepresented backgrounds, I am well acquainted with many of the barriers that exist to reaching this goal. That said, it is an area in which we must continue to strategize. One third of our students are Latinx, yet under 5% of their teachers share that identity.

Additionally, DPS should continue to find ways to engage with all stakeholders, as the system remains hard to navigate for many with less access to technology, parents and caretakers who work non-traditional hours, families who don’t speak English, and others. These problems are not specific only to DPS; however, DPS has the opportunity to be the model in creating solutions to these access barriers.

3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?

Racial equity: This includes addressing the disparate academic outcomes for students of color; hiring of teachers of color, particularly Latinx teachers and Black male teachers; ensuring avenues of communication for parents of color, particularly low-income and working class parents; monitoring and increasing BIPOC students’ opportunities for academic and other forms of enrichment.

LGBTQ+ student support: Given the current attacks on LGBTQ+ students and families in other states, it is critical that our district implement policy that protects them. This includes developing policy that sets a standard for our responsibility to gender nonconforming students, LGBTQ+ students, and LGBTQ+ families.

Improving teacher working conditions and wellness: We must build upon and develop plans to ensure adequate staffing, sufficient planning time, additional financial compensation where appropriate and possible, and opportunities for support, mentoring, and professional development.

These three issues are both timely and foundational to the success of our district in meeting its mission to embrace, educate, and empower every student to innovate, serve, and lead. We must address disparities that negatively affect Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ students, groups which are overlapping and not mutually exclusive, and to support the teachers who are on the frontlines of educating, supporting, and mentoring our students.

4. Describe something you think the school board should have prioritized differently in the current budget. Do you think the budget supports students from lower income families as well as from wealthy families? Does the budget meet the district’s infrastructure needs?

Overall, I think the most recent proposed budget is strong, and I particularly support the proposed increase to teacher supplements that would allow us to be the leading district in the state in terms of teacher pay. In general, I believe we should continue to put more funds toward interpreters and bilingual professional staff. Roughly one-third of our students are Latinx, and for many of these students and their families Spanish is the primary language spoken at home. We need to continue to provide ample resources for communication and support with and for Spanish-speaking students and caretakers.

I think that the budget in many ways provides support for lower income families, including pre-K services at the Whitted School and supplementary academic programming. However, poverty manifests in various ways. When we talk about socioeconomic disparities, we must be aware that these disparities are congruent with race. In Durham, 28.94% of the Hispanic population and 19.22% of the Black population live in poverty, as compared to 7.7% of the white population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). Thus, part of creating a budget that addresses the needs of students from low SES families is also addressing racial disparities in their many forms.

The current budget adequately meets the district’s infrastructure needs at this time with key investments being the creation of the new Lyons Farm Elementary School and the development of the new Northern High School building. In the near future, we should consider additional building improvements that need to be made as our current buildings continue to age and as we look toward more green and sustainable infrastructure that we can put into place.

5) What is your understanding of what Critical Race Theory is? Is CRT currently taught in K-12 public schools? What are your thoughts on House Bill 324, the bill Gov. Cooper vetoed because he said it “pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education?” Would you support such a bill?

Critical Race Theory is a framework that acknowledges that the construct of race and the presence of racial oppression are fundamental to our society. CRT recognizes white supremacy and the many ways in which it has historically shaped and continues to shape our society, socially, politically, and economically. CRT is to varying degrees taught within schools; however, it is certainly not a foundational part of each DPS student’s educational experience at this point in time.

I think that HB 324 was an attempt to maintain and promote Eurocentric curricula that does not allow students and teachers to honestly address racism. I would not support a bill like HB 324. I believe that confronting racism is important for schools to do in practice as well as through curriculum.

6) Does the General Assembly have a constitutional obligation to comply with the state Supreme Court order in the Leandro case to fully fund public schools and give every child in North Carolina a sound basic education?

Yes, the General Assembly has a constitutional obligation to comply with the state Supreme Court order in the Leandro case to fully fund public schools and give every child in the state a sound basic education. I support the recommendations presented in The WestEd Leandro Report and would lift up in particular the recommendation that “The Court should appoint a panel of education experts to help the Court monitor the state’s plans, initiatives, and progress in meeting the Leandro requirements.”

7) Orange County’s Board of Education has passed some of the most progressive policies in the state around strengthening racial equity and providing a safe, inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students to learn. Should Durham follow Orange’s lead and implement Gender Support guidelines that create a protocol for students who are transitioning or want to?

As mentioned earlier, one of my priorities is to strengthen LGBTQ+ student support within the district. I would support the creation of guidelines that establish a protocol for supporting gender expansive and transitioning students. We should do this in ways that are culturally thoughtful and mindful of our particular context and communities in Durham. Furthermore, we should understand that part of racial equity is creating safety for gender expansive and trans youth, many of whom are students of color and also experience the effects of racism.

8) How do you think the current school board handled the COVID-19 pandemic? Please explain your answer.

Overall, DPS has handled the response to COVID well, presenting a lot of caution, forethought, and research-based protective measures with regard to dealing with COVID over the last two years. DPS pivoted quickly to online instruction in March 2020. Teachers worked very hard to execute digital learning, often revamping their entire curricula for a virtual space. During the 2020-2021 school year DPS established Wellness Wednesdays to attend to the social and emotional needs of students, and I know that many teachers and school staff worked hard to reach out to students whose attendance was poor or nonexistent during virtual learning.

The district sought input from teachers and parents, collecting input through a variety of mediums, including social media. DPS also required masking beyond state and local mandates and changed the grading scale for final exam testing in 2021 in response to the academic challenges that the pandemic created. Furthermore, DPS partnered with MAKO medical to make COVID testing accessible to students and families.

I do believe the initial decision to keep schools virtual through the end of the 2020-2021 academic year was made preemptively, and when the board elected to pivot to in-person instruction in the spring, following the accessibility of vaccinations, this broke some trust among staff. The decision to return to some amount of in-person instruction for the remainder of the year was a positive one, particularly for younger students who are in the beginning stages of their social development and typically have less social access than older students. I think, however, there could have been more anticipation of and preparation for this decision earlier in the academic year.

9) Recently the DPS board voted to change how it assigns students based on community infrastructure in an attempt to address disparities and increase equity. Do you support the new Growing Together assignment model? Please explain your answer.

I do support the Growing Together assignment model. The intention behind the initiative is to create a more equitable school system that will increase access to pre-K, Exceptional Children, and magnet and choice programs, and I think this is a positive move for Durham. It addresses issues that have been long standing in DPS, including disparate access to specialized programs and efficient transportation. I also believe that holding community engagement meetings as part of the process to design Growing Together was important as a way of working in partnership with the larger community we serve.

10) Do police officers (School Resource Officers) have a role in schools? Do you agree with the way the current board is trying to address the role of SROs in Durham County Schools?

At this current moment, I would reform SRO’s in schools but not remove them. SRO’s have considerable support among DPS staff and parents, which the board has acknowledged, and I would want to ensure that various stakeholders are moving in concert toward a new model of protection for students in Durham, if that is what, as a community, we desire. At present, reforms that could be taken include increased racial and implicit bias training; more specialized education on child and adolescent development; an MOU between the police department and the school system that gives more structure to the responsibilities and limitations of the SRO role; and implementation of a system for gathering regular and consistent feedback from students, parents, and teachers regarding SRO performance. Beyond this, I am in favor of investigating possibilities for new systems of protection of students and staff that are not rooted in policing. There is a relationship between the presence of SRO’s in schools and students being referred to law enforcement, particularly Black students (Terrell and Smith, 2021), and this warrants us closely considering what methods of protection would be most effective for all students.

11) Research has shown an achievement gap for Durham County Schools students based on race and socioeconomic status. What specific policies would you support or what actions would you take to help close the gap so that race and socioeconomic status don’t persist as predictive factors?

First, I would support the implementation of the Racial and Educational Equity Policy released in 2021. As a board we should monitor progress on the Equity Policy and support our district’s leadership in implementing this Policy throughout our district and each of our schools. I would particularly support professional development in which educators have an opportunity to assess and confront implicit biases.

I would also support policy or a set of practices that ensure that all staff hired, including at the Central Office level, have knowledge and skills in how to apply an equity lens in decision-making. I would support policy that increases family and community engagement, a major area of our strategic plan. We should understand that being responsive to students, parents, and staff is an equity issue, as those individuals with the most resources and privilege are often listened to with more urgency than those who are either less resourced or hold less social privilege due to race, SES, or other factors. Another major area to address in addressing racial and economic disparities is increasing culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy. This was a major part of my work as the Outreach Program Coordinator for the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UNC and Duke, where I co-founded and from 2014-2018 co-directed the African Diaspora Studies Program (ADFP), a professional development program for teachers, with Dr. Kia Caldwell. Dr. Caldwell and I also co-edited a book called Engaging the African Diaspora in K-12 Education, which offers scholarly articles and topical curriculum guides that educators can use to increase teaching of Black histories and the African diaspora. Increasing access to resources and opportunities like these can enhance what educators are able to teach and the validation, sense of belonging, and connection to learning that students experience in the classroom.

I would also support policies and/or practices that aid our district in increasing educators of color, particularly Latinx teachers and Black male teachers. My current area of work is in this realm as the Project Director for DREAM, a UNC-DPS collaboration created to recruit and retain teachers of color and those from underrepresented backgrounds for DPS. I would support partnerships and strategies that increase our ability to attract and support teachers who share identities and backgrounds with our students of color and low SES students.

12) How can the school board better assist students who lack broadband access and access to laptops?

The issue of internet access has particularly been salient since the start of the pandemic when classes, class materials, and assignments were moved online, and it is important to acknowledge that though we are back to having in-person school, the need for digital access and fluency among our students has fundamentally changed.

First and foremost, any decisions we make about broadband and technology access should be made with our most vulnerable students in mind. DPS has done a good job of practicing our value of equity in making technology accessible to all students during the pandemic by, for example, providing laptops to all students and hotspots to those students who did not have internet. We should continue along this path by filling in the gaps for students who need internet and laptop access. We can also regularly assess students’ access to internet and computers, understanding that this is something that can change over time. Where possible we can partner with businesses or community organizations who can support digital access for our students.

13) Is the district currently doing enough to assist disabled students? What more could it do?

DPS has some exceptional EC educators, some of whom I’ve been privileged to work alongside, yet we can continue to find more and better ways to support disabled students. It is critical that the school board provide avenues for listening to neurodivergent students, students with disabilities, those designated exceptional children, and those who work within the EC departments. Students with learning disabilities have been disportionately underserved as a result of virtual learning, despite the best efforts of educators. I believe it’s critically important to keep the needs of these students front and center in decision-making and as we consider, for instance, summer academic and enrichment programming that may be offered to support students’ knowledge base and holistic wellness. EC teachers are at the frontlines of supporting EC students and their families, and thus, we must also continue to develop ways to support our EC staff more rigorously. 14) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.