Name as it appears on the ballot: Allison Willis
Party affiliation: Democratic
Campaign website: www.allisonwillisholley.com
Occupation & employer: Education consultant & leadership coach
Years lived in the area: 3 ½ (March 2020)
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?
Building excellent schools that serve all kids is my life’s work. Schools and educators can and do change lives, and the work of teaching is both art and science. As a former teacher, principal, and deputy superintendent in New York City with 20 years of experience, I deeply understand this work, the complexities of the challenges before us, and the importance of the people who show up in our schools to serve our kids every day. All four of my children are CHCCS students, and my husband is an elementary and EC certified teacher in our district. I am deeply committed to supporting the good work already taking place in CHCCS and helping our schools continue to improve. My priorities are centered on retaining and recruiting excellent teachers, cementing a long-term facilities plan, encouraging innovative practices, and continuing to drive stronger academic growth among all student groups. My push for the school board would be more direct communication that updates the community around the progress we are making across our priorities and improving implementation guidance of current policies.
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?
The work of school and system improvement is a long-game strategy paired with daily, monthly, and annual small actions that chip away at the challenges we face. I think our district did commendable work during the pandemic and is now facing the same challenges that many schools districts across the country face. Focusing on student and staff mental health and increasing school support on the ground was spot on. Engaging an outside consultant to fully evaluate the current state of our facilities was much needed to help create a final plan for both maintenance and re-builds in future. Conducting a curricular audit to understand what the floor for rigor currently is as it relates to both acceleration and remediation was necessary work that will push our academics forward. The school district seems to be taking the right steps to address the challenges we know exist here, which is comforting as a fellow educator who has engaged in very similar work in NYC. I have questions about other areas of our work – our EC instructional model, evaluation of current student programs, our approach toward accelerating students’ below grade level, teacher and TA retention data, and our grading policies in grades 5-12.
3) What are the three main issues that you believe the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?
Given the state-wide politics and the growing culture-wars that continue to impact our schools, ensuring our schools and district are places where teachers want to teach and administrators want to lead, where all staff can thrive over the long-term, is of utmost importance. Compensation is an essential part of that strategy, in addition to benefits, wellness supports, professional development opportunities (both internal and external of our district), school culture, and more. Schools don’t run without teachers, and teachers want to work for great principals. A second issue is providing consistency to the current strategies at work within the Strategic Plan that address the opportunity gaps among student groups. Having engaged in many of these issues as an operator in NYC, I believe I would be able to jump into the work and continue to push support and accountability at the district level while also offering an outside perspective about what has been effective from my own experience. Finally, given the age of many of our school buildings, finalizing a multi-year facilities plan that allows our physical buildings to keep up with the times is much needed work that we need to commit to as a community.
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 affluent families? Does the budget meet the district’s infrastructure and staffing needs?
If the budget aims to support lower income student as well as affluent students, the results don’t bare that out yet. While we know the long-term facility costs far outweigh what is available within our budget and the need for teacher recruitment and retention continues to far outpace the national average, I am equally intersted in implementation and on-going support for the initiatives and programs we have in place to support low-income students. While I am interested in drilling down into specific line items within Instructional Programs to see how we are investing our money, I know we also need to evaluate budget’s priorities based on student results annually.
5) 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? What other policies should lawmakers enact at the state level to strengthen public education?
Yes, I believe that the General Assembly has a constitutional obligation to comply and ensure that all children in the state have access to a sound, basic education. The NC Supreme Court decision affirms this obligation as well. We are now close to 30 years overdue in following through on that directive. In addition to appropriately increasing per pupil funding in this state, the State Assembly would do well to dramatically increase both entry-level teacher pay and consider how our salary scale encourages long-term retention and rewards longevity and on-going education. The recent removal of state health care benefits in retirement for public school teachers who joined after 2021 was another state-level decision that flies in the face of long-term retention of our teaching staff, in addition to the elimination of the NC Teaching Fellows program. In short, there is A LOT that our state level lawmakers could and should be doing to make North Carolina a coveted place to teach young people.
6) Despite boasting a 94.8 percent graduation rate last academic year, and ranking in the top four percent of all public school districts in the nation, an achievement/opportunity gap still exists between white students and students of color. What specific policies should CHCCS pursue to close this gap?
Graduation rates are largely correlated to family wealth and parental educational attainment. Given the wealth of Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees, we should expect CHCCS to have an extremely high graduation rate. Many students in CHCCS have additional access to enrichment and tutoring, literacy-rich home environments, opportunities for exposure and travel and they begin school far ahead in language and vocabulary. Being committed to equity means that we should expect our school system to prioritize instruction and policy to close the wide opportunity gap for students for whom this is not their experience. Kaya Henderson, the former Washington, DC Chancellor of Schools, centered this understanding in her strategic plan in DC and increased the amount of enrichment, student opportunities, field trips, and more to mirror the experiences of wealthy children in this country for all students. As I consider the opportunity gap in CHCCS, I’m curious about the status of the following strategies/systems that are proven to support students facing an opportunity gap: universal pre-K, teacher pipelines that support increasing the racial diversity of the teaching force, racial integration in schools/classrooms, ensuring access to rigorous curriculum for all, systems that support additional tutoring and mentoring, data systems that require disaggregation by student population for consistent monitoring, additional instructional time, inclusive EC models with additional in-class teacher support to meet the needs of all learners, culturally relevant curriculum, summer programming for both academic remediation and enrichment exposure, increased family engagement and support, etc. In addition to graduation rates, I am equally interested in college readiness, which is a review of academic data that lets us know how effectively we have educated our students so they are able to make real choices about their future after graduating.
7) Despite working for CHCCS, many teachers and staff can’t afford to live in Chapel Hill or Carrboro. What role should the school district have in ensuring that affordable housing is available for its workforce?
Living and working in the same community allows educators to build relationships with both students and their families that transcend the classroom and school. CHCCS land is limited and dependent on student enrollment and program need. If there were an opportunity to free up land to create affordable housing for educators and it didn’t place the district in a challenging position in terms of serving students effectively, I would wholeheartedly support it. With the amount of building happening in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, it is unclear to me how that will impact our student enrollment over the long haul. I do think there is potentially opportuity to be strategic in cross pollinating our facilities planning with teacher housing planning.
8) Recently, groups of parents with students in North Carolina public schools have mounted efforts to ban certain books from school classrooms and libraries. How should school boards handle these efforts?
Parents are our students’ first teachers, and it’s crucial to have them as long-term partners over the K-12 journey in our district. I want all of our families to feel welcomed, heard, and like there is space for them to fully partner and support their child’s academic journey. That being said, I am not a supporter of banning books. I believe books are supposed to serve as “windows and mirrors” for our children – an opportunity for them to see their own stories and histories reflected back and an opportunities to look into the cultures, stories, and experiences of those who don’t share their background. I think school boards ultimately have a responsibility to listen to all stakeholders in our community and make recommendations based on the vision of the district. I believe we should trust our educators and school librarians to fill their libraries with developmentally-appropriate books that achieve this vision and that promote a sense of inclusion, curiosity, and openness about the people who inhabit our world.
9) Do police officers (School Resource Officers) have a role in schools? Please explain your answer.
I believe they do, and like all roles in schools, it’s important that their role is clearly definied and supports the vision of the district and culture of the school community. As a middle school principal in New York City, I had collaborative and supportive relationships with our School Resource Officers and local Youth Officers who served our district, all of whom were immensely helpful partners in supporting a safe and secure school environment that prioritized student learning and student safety. Their role was most impactful when their specific knowledge could be leveraged in teaching students about the impact of their choices and also supporting the school community at large. The more engrained they are in all aspects of the school community, allowing SROs to build relationships with many students, the more impactful these roles can be in supporting positive school culture.
10) CHCCS was able to hire drivers for all bus routes this academic year, but, as with other school districts in the state, it has had a hard time filling transportation vacancies in the past. What steps should the district take to ensure that there are enough bus drivers for all routes in order to get students to school on time going forward?
To the extent that we are able to raise bus driver compensation, we should. Considering how longevity and multi-year commitment factors into our work is also something to review as we think about retention over time. Finally, bus drivers are important members of our school community and help our kids get safely to and from school. Ensuring they feel like the integral members of the community that they are is also really important to ensuring they stay with us.
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