James Barrett | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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James Barrett 

Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board

Name as it appears on the ballot: James Barrett

Full legal name, if different: James Carlie Barrett, Jr.

Date of birth: 03/13/1970

Home address: 100 Morgan Bluff Lane, Chapel Hill, NC 27517

Campaign website: http://barrettforschools.com

Occupation & employer: Manager, IBM

E-mail: jcb@barrettforschools.com

If elected, what are your top priorities for the school board and how will you achieve them?

1) Achievement gaps: For far too long, we have said this is a priority without actually making changes that could close our gaps. There is no single effort that will magically close them, but one thing we can and should do is have a full-time "gap czar" in the administration who would push for the changes needed to make substantial progress and be held accountable if we don't. If this truly is our priority, we need accountability and clear resources applied in Lincoln Center.

2) Budget: We have significant resources, but it is not clear that we spend our money in the most effective ways. I will work for greater transparency in our budget process, and require proof from the administration that we are spending appropriately to meet our goals. (More on this below.)

3) Success of every child: The district must focus on giving every child a great education, making sure that all students work to the very top of their potential. I will work for ensuring excellent instruction in every classroom, having the entire district be responsive and accountable to parents, and using technology creatively and wisely to meet each child's needs.

What is there in your record as a public official or other experience—e.g., career, community service—that demonstrates your ability to be effective as a board member? If you are an incumbent, what are your most notable achievements and how will you build on them? If you aren't, what do you bring to the board that it now lacks? Please be as specific as possible about the relevance of your accomplishments to your goals for the board.

I've spent the past five years as a leader in Orange County Justice United, both at the overall strategy level (equivalent to a board of directors) and on the education action team. Justice United is a multiracial, multi-faith group of institutions in southern Orange County devoted to promoting social justice in our community. This community organizing group is truly grassroots—all our work comes from listening sessions held across the area. Some of the changes we have made happen include: a living-wage policy for Chapel Hill town employees; helping to prevent a waste transfer station in the historic Rogers Road neighborhood; and getting sewer rates frozen in the Habitat for Humanity community in Efland. I have learned a lot about what is necessary for the process of bringing change to all of our local governments as I have personally advocated for Justice United concerns with town and county officials, and I've spent many hours listening to the concerns of a wide swath of this community. I will continue to push for the same priorities we had in Justice United on the school board, and the experience of advocating for effective change will help me bring change that matters to our Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools. The relationships I have built with all sorts of people in our community will continue to be relevant, as school board members need to know how their policies are working in the classroom and affecting the lives of students and how to work with officials in town and county government.

I have also served as an officer on the congregational council at my church, Holy Trinity Lutheran, at a time of a pastoral leadership change following the departure of a longtime leader—similar to the change facing the school board now. And my management experience at IBM has provided me with training in understanding how to motivate employees, manage a budget, and make data-based decisions. My other volunteer activities, which I have done for many years, are all centered around youth—coaching baseball and basketball in rec leagues, being a weekly math volunteer in elementary schools, and chaperoning youth group activities.

The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to the board help further that goal?

I have proved in my Justice United work that I am dedicated to spending the time needed to build a just community—for those of lower income, for the middle class, for immigrants, for all races/ethnicities. Those values that I've developed in my 34 years of living in Chapel Hill are the same ones I will have on the board. However, I also bring an outsider's perspective to the schools' administration and will push for the changes needed to actually achieve our goals. Our new superintendent seems focused in the right direction so far; I hope to be able to help him continue in the direction we expect, and help him bring change where needed to accomplish our goals. We know change is coming; my background as a child of these schools (I attended Seawell, Phillips, and Chapel Hill High) and a leader in Justice United allows me to make sure the change aligns with our values.

For the first time in two decades, CHCCS has a new superintendent in Thomas Forcella. What do you hope he achieves in his first year in charge and what will you do to support his efforts?

Great leaders often spend more time when they join a new environment learning than in making immediate changes, so the first year may not be the right yardstick. He does seem focused on the right things—excellent instruction for every child, creating the right culture with teachers, having the expectation that every child can learn, great leadership by principals, and engagement of the community. I can support all that though my focus on helping the district (from the board through to teachers and staff) use the right data to more frequently measure progress on our goals, and help Dr. Forcella get up to speed through my understanding, based on a long history with the district and my many conversations with the community, about the issues confronting the district.

How can the district close the achievement gap? What strides have been made in the past four years, what worked, what didn't, and what should be done now?

As noted above, no single effort will magically close the gap. Economically disadvantaged children who start kindergarten already behind their peers academically need much focus from excellent teachers simply to keep from falling further behind—much less to catch up. But, while it's obviously true that schools can't be held responsible for all the issues outside school that affect a child's learning, we must live up to our words about making this a priority. We have positions in the administration accountable for, for example, special-needs children, foreign language instruction, and the transition to common core standards. We must have someone similarly accountable for our efforts in closing the gap.

That someone—our gap czar—can start by looking at what we're already doing well. I heard a story recently about a fourth-grade teacher who made it her mission last year to eliminate the gap in her class. She worked 80 hours a week, visiting parents at their homes late in the evening, tutoring, and doing whatever it took to make that happen, and she was successful. Clearly, this is not a sustainable nor extendable model. But things we as a district can and should do are 1) highlight the success stories we do have—we should praise all teachers who meet our goals, and figure out how to encourage them within the budget challenges we have; and 2) learn from successful teachers what the critical items are that have worked here in CHCCS to meet our goals. Too often I've heard that teachers who share positive, creative ideas are shunned by peers and administrators. We should seek out, document, and proliferate great ideas that can be used by many teachers for all of our students. One possible way to do that: Today, principals meet a couple of times a year to discuss what they are doing in their schools to improve. Instead, using a wiki, teachers could be encouraged to directly share ideas within (and once the common core standards are in place, outside) the district with one another. We could then recognize or reward those who share the best ideas to encourage participation. Coordinating all of this should be one part of the job of the "gap czar" I have proposed.

I also believe we need to change the culture of our district and community to have the right expectations about how every child can grow. The district is working toward this by focusing every school on growth metrics; this needs to be extended to the teacher level to show them where improvements must be made, along with clear, continual communication to parents about where their students stand instead of surprises at the end of the year. In order to close the gaps over time, we should help our lower-achieving students make more than a year's worth of learning progress every year. But our culture does not expect as much from our lower-performing groups today. These expectations, and the lack of respect that goes along with them, must change in our schools if we are ever to close the gaps.

How do you make sure that despite budget difficulty, the district will push past the status quo and achieve more? What more needs to be done to help support teachers?

One thing we must do is make our budget process more transparent. Our process today assumes that we need everything we had last year and therefore focuses all discussion on "what to cut." This creates a very negative environment in which "special-interest" groups (note—I do not think "special-interest" is an appropriate title for any parent or child) are pitted against one another to preserve what they have for their students. If we instead built our budget each year based on what we can prove is needed to effectively meet our goals, we'd fund the most effective things first and see what falls "below the line" that we could all agree is nice, but not the best way to spend our limited money. This requires more transparency because, to date, the administration has not provided clear answers to board questions about program effectiveness, and not done a good job of communicating to the community how money is actually spent to meet our goals, thus there is great distrust in the community about alignment to our priorities.

To support teachers: As a state, we have reached the extreme end of being able to hold down education costs through a lack of raises. Living costs, especially in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, continue to go up, and teachers have waited too many years for raises. I know we don't expect extra funds in the coming years, but without some raises, we will lose more in great teachers than we gain in keeping all our positions. Dr. Forcella has talked somewhat about extending the reach of great teachers to more students through technology, and this is an area we should continue to explore, keeping a close eye on what we can prove works. The board and our community must consider carefully how we can creatively deliver great instruction to all children on a limited budget, finding ways to reward teachers who contribute the most to meeting our goals. Spending smarter sounds like a trite phrase, but it is the key to making the best of a budget crisis by using it to bring the changes needed to actually improve the education of our students.

How will the policies you push, if elected, help develop students for the new economy? What kind of nontraditional education is now needed and how would you help provide it?

CHCCS has traditionally done very well in some areas of "nontraditional education" because creative thinking has been valued in our schools and community, and our students are able to apply that to "new economy" jobs. I don't think we've done as good a job at developing skills around working cooperatively, which are needed in the new economy as well. One reason for this is the highly competitive nature of transcripts today—why would I work to help your project or even study together for a test if I might push your class rank higher than mine? Because of this, and the pressure that it adds to our students, I would like to see us explore options such as eliminating class rank from transcripts. If students are encouraged to make sure they're all learning together, they will develop work habits and skills needed to succeed in the new economy.

I would also like to see us change how we use technology. Adaptive learning-type tests and project work via more computers available in class is a much better use of technology than arcade-style "educational" games. Using technology as a tool to accomplish our learning objectives in a new way will help students understand how it can be used to accomplish new and different things in the world as well. My background in technology and using it for concrete business benefit will be helpful to the board as we know we must continue to move forward here.

How should student discipline be handled? What are your views on the district's current policies for long-term suspension? Do you think they are fairly applied? How would you ensure those children who are long-term suspended are given an opportunity to be educated?

As evidenced in part by the small changes needed to react to the N.C. legislative changes this year, I don't think we have a huge policy issue with discipline in CHCCS. We do need to make sure that great leadership in the schools is ensuring consistent and thorough follow-through of those policies. Dr. Forcella has talked about the importance of this, and I'm confident that he is focused in the right direction. From my Justice United work, I've heard stories about inconsistencies in how discipline is approached, and as a board member, I will have little tolerance for schools that are not living up to the values we have in Chapel Hill/Carrboro for respect of all students, especially regardless of race/ethnicity, and ensuring the safety of every student.

What would you do to increase parental involvement in the schools? What should be the nature of that involvement? Where should the line be drawn?

We have an interesting dichotomy in Chapel Hill between parents who are over-involved (just the other day, I heard a teacher say "the hardest part in many other districts is dealing with students; in CHCCS it is dealing with parents") and those who are not involved at all. While we want to encourage the latter, we need to properly channel the former to put their energies to the most effective use. I believe we have the right infrastructure—a very good volunteer office in Lincoln Center—but we need to change that process around so that it is more welcoming to parents, and encourages teachers to use parents in creative ways to meet our goals. I know many parents of gifted children, for example, who would be very happy to volunteer in tutoring all students (not just gifted), but are never asked. Moving more of the volunteer office process online, for example, would open it up more—it can be intimidating to have to go into Lincoln Center, and who wants to look through books of printed-out opportunities that might be out of date?

For parents who are not involved, in many cases this is due to the serious trust issues and ongoing instances of disrespect we have in our district, especially among African-American families who have been through our schools for generations. We won't solve these issues overnight. But if the district acknowledges where it is falling short of our values and takes serious steps to change how we approach education for every child, it will show we are serious about delivering a great education and thus encourage parents to get involved. I also see the coming Elementary #11 as an opportunity to connect that school with the Northside neighborhood in ways that we have not done in the past. We should encourage creative ideas to open that building up to be a part of the community and show how we can truly work with the neighborhood to meet the needs of the students there.

As Chapel Hill's population continues to grow, what should guide future school planning? Can the district afford and obtain the land necessary to build these schools? How should the district manage its growth? How does redistricting fit in?

Because the available options for land to site a new school within the district are limited, we must first work closely with town officials as Chapel Hill develops its 2020 comprehensive plan, making sure that we identify space for schools now. From my Justice United work and other involvement in the town over the years, I have the relationships with those officials to be an effective advocate for the schools in that conversation. Some of these locations may not be the ideal spots we'd plan for new schools if we had a clean slate (for example, the Carolina North campus where we've been promised a site is very close to five other schools). This will present challenges and opportunities in redistricting for these schools, as students in some high-growth areas may not be close to the new schools. The board must be sensitive to the needs of families to limit redistricting while maintaining our firm commitment to diversity in our schools. Our growth is not so substantial that we cannot meet both objectives.

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