Our View

The Day 'Charlottesville' Captured New Meaning
By ROSA S. ATKINS and PAMELA R. MORAN/School Administrator, November 2017

AS THE SUPERINTENDENTS for Charlottesville City Schools and the surrounding county of Albemarle, we are used to seeing “Charlottesville” in headlines. For as many years as we can recall, the city has been near the top of every publication and web survey of “the best small towns in America.”

It’s no wonder. We are home to exhilarating scenic views, a vibrant and passionate cultural arts heritage and, as home of an exceptional state university (declared 30 years ago a “public Ivy”), an active community that strongly supports public education.

On Aug. 12, those headlines changed rather dramatically as the nation riveted its attention on the terrible physical and emotional pain around the violence that invaded our hometown that day.

Unshaken Support
The intolerance and ugliness that took our city hostage took us as public school leaders off script. Our usual celebratory welcome-back message was instead a joint open letter that said in part, “As they should be, the values of our communities are found in our public schools. Our schools, after all, are the source of our greatest dreams and aspirations for our children. It is where we learn about the power of ideas, the importance of history, the strength of community and the right of every child to reach their highest potential.”

We opened our schools nine days later. Prepped for major challenges when our teachers, staff and students returned to school, we witnessed instead, a school community unshaken in its love and support for one another, its rejection of fear and its eagerness to embrace the joy of discovery.

What made the difference?

Schools are no strangers to public emergencies and serve as a vital community shelter in threatening times. We wrote this in our joint letter: “Our schools are where we make acquaintance with civic responsibility.” And that responsibility includes respect, tolerance, decency and collaboration in our relationships with one another — reinforced through such bedrock programs as Responsive Classroom. In difficult times, returning to core values always is safe harbor for schools and communities.

Our Discoveries
We drew a few conclusions from our experiences in managing the crisis of Aug. 12:

» The value of investments that keep students at the center of the learning process.
Our multiyear emphasis on culturally responsive teaching strategies and practices not only improved the everyday bond between teacher and student, it anchored trust and inclusiveness in our school communities.

» The importance of having the right structures in place.
Programs such as Responsive Classroom and Culturally Responsive Teaching are invaluable, but so are student services that promote personal growth. During the recession, many school divisions faced difficult decisions about how to fund arts programming, library hours and school counselors. Yet all of these programs were irreplaceable resources that built confidence and teamwork in our school communities, which served us well in a crisis.

» The need to give staff personal space.
This was a powerful source of trust when trust was at a premium. We were light on prescriptive behavior and strong on allowing educators to process their feelings. To help, we provided staff members (and parents) with an extensive list of well-vetted and respected resources on how to support students and colleagues in times of trauma.

In the Charlottesville City Schools, we adjusted our back-to-school meeting agenda, modifying our programming to help educators reflect on the events of Aug. 12. In Albemarle County, we delayed our back-to-school messaging. Instead we asked educators to think about how they could better apply their leadership skills in the classroom around the division’s values of young people, respect, community and excellence.

» The impact of collaborative communications among our school divisions.
We worked together on strategy, content and timing to ensure accurate, credible and responsive messaging. This especially was important given the pace and breadth with which information was being disseminated by the press, including the 24-7 access of our students to social media.

is superintendent of the Charlottesville City Schools in Charlottesville, Va. E-mail: AtkinsR1@charlottesvilleschools.org. Twitter: @RatkinsS. PAMELA MORAN is superintendent of the Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Va.