Dr. Nyah Hamlett’s tween is rubbing off on her.

It’s January 15, and she’s on a conference call with a few reporters. The corners of her mouth lift into a grin as she explains her first order of business as Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ new superintendent: “LOL.”

“I literally laugh when I say it, because I have a tween at my house, so everything is an emoji or an acronym,” Hamlett says.

To Hamlett, who is just a few weeks into her new role, the expression doesn’t solely mean “laugh out loud”—although that’s still part of the plan. To her, “LOL” stands for “listen, observe, learn.” She sees these three verbs as steps toward long-term goals: racial equity, school-based mental health programs, and creating deeper engagement with families.

“I want to know what we are doing well, what our opportunities for growth are, and how we can be of support,” she wrote in her first superintendent update.

In practice, it means lots of meetings: 28 her first week, then two more that weekend, followed by appointments with elected officials, community leaders, and other stakeholders. She’s held four meet-and-greet sessions with parents, staff, and students, has one more planned, and is considering more still.

Hamlett arrived at a complicated time: She was sworn in on January 4, in the middle of a school year and a global pandemic. On top of that, she was faced with navigating a complicated relationship between the school administration and the community, one that was exacerbated by her predecessor.

It’s also her first time serving as a superintendent: The Maryland native started her career as a special education teacher in Virginia Beach, and has spent the past 16 years in different roles in various Virginia school systems. Her last job was as the chief of staff at Loudoun County Public Schools, a district just outside of Washington, D.C. that serves more than 81,000 students. (By comparison, there are only about 12,000 students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district.)

The CHCCS Board of Education unanimously selected Hamlett out of 36 applicants. Board member Mary Ann Wolf attributes this to Hamlett’s long-term goals, which mirror issues that have come up in the district.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools is often considered the best school district in North Carolina. Data analysis website Niche reports that it’s within the 97th percentile of school districts in the nation. Despite this, a 2018 Stanford University study found that the district has the second-largest equity gap in the nation between Black and white students, and the fifth-largest gap between Hispanic and white students.

Riza Jenkins, the president of the school system’s PTA council, hopes Hamlett will work to close these gaps.

“There’s so much work, and I’m not going to discredit any of the work that has been happening,” Jenkins says. “Just making sure we keep that front and center—that we want to see intentional focus on closing that achievement and opportunity gap.”

Hamlett intends to do just that. She says the school system is currently looking to hire someone to lead the school’s equity work across the district.

“It’s really about modeling equity in the work that we do, and having it embedded in everything that we do,” Hamlett says. “Equity is something that has to support, and be the foundation of, our work. My grandmother used to say, ‘Don’t talk about it; be about it.’ So I hope to model for people that equity is more than just naming inequity, or changing words and symbols.”

She describes her approach to that work as being anti-racist and culturally responsive, and that’s something she has experience with. In 2017, while working as an assistant superintendent for Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, Hamlett worked with local police to address the number of disciplinary actions and in-school arrests in the system. The school system rewrote the code of conduct, among other changes, and in-school arrests in the system plummeted from 300 to fewer than 10, according to Richmond Magazine.

Hamlett’s former school system also implemented a pilot program involving social emotional support teams, a full-time social worker, and a full-time psychologist, which reportedly led to a 58 percent decrease in out-of-school suspension rates within the seven schools that implemented the program, which Hamlett oversaw.

Despite these achievements, a recent Facebook comment on a Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools post expressed concern over Hamlett’s work in Henrico County. In 2019, the family of a 16-year-old with autism got into a legal dispute with Henrico County Schools when the family moved the student to a private, specialized institution with little notice, according to the district. The school spent more than $212,000 to dispute their decision, whereas it would have cost $138,000 to send the student to the private school until he turned 22. Hamlett, who oversaw the special education program for the system at the time, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that she worried that private institutions were “more restrictive” than public schools.

Concern may also be rooted in a broader distrust of the CHCCS, fueled by a hectic 2020—in April, former superintendent Pam Baldwin announced her resignation in the aftermath of a controversy in which the school board was made aware of a now-canceled contract with Education Elements, a consulting group that was hired to close the racial equity gap within the school system. The nearly $770,000 contract was severed into 10 separate invoices, likely to circumvent the need for school board approval, which is required for any contract worth more than $90,000.

The controversy created a rift in the administration’s relationship with parents and teachers. Jenkins says she feels the relationship wasn’t totally lost, but has been strained.

“We just need to re-clarify and restore the perceived relationship that the school district should have with the community,” Jenkins says. “And let’s be clear: Their relationship with the [district] hasn’t always been the same for everyone. So with this concept of rebuilding, we’ve got to remember that not everyone has had a great relationship with the school district.”

Yet many seem enthused about Hamlett’s arrival—including Hamlett herself.

“I’m just excited,” Hamlett says. “That’s all I can say. If I had to wrap it up in one word, I’m excited for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Follow Digital Content Manager Sara Pequeño on Twitter or send an email to spequeno@indyweek.com

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