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May 20, 2021 School Board Meeting Remarks by Dr. Brian V. Hightower

Last Updated: 5/21/2021 10:07 PM

For more than 30 years, I’ve been blessed to work for our great school district, which I believe to be one of the best in our country.  I started my career as a social studies teacher, and, for the last five years, I’ve been honored to serve as your Superintendent. So as to shine a light on our school district’s noteworthy achievements and successes while setting a standard for moving forward, one of my first acts as Superintendent was to initiate a branding campaign which, ultimately, drew upon the blue ribbon of excellence as its focal point. I also set out to address what I saw as a two-pronged charge from our school board—advance the bar on excellence and achievement as an educational institution and, with approximately 4,800 employees, also to be known as the best employer around…..essentially run a great school system while simultaneously running a great business.

Today, this continues to be the emphasis of our school board, which consists of seven very dedicated School Board Members, whom our community has re-elected again and again because of their commitment to this end.  When I think of the opportunities created by the fact that every sitting School Board Member has been elected to multiple terms, it speaks to consistency, continuity and confidence.  The long-term strategic planning by our board emphasizing areas such as solid fiscal oversight and conservative budgeting, exemplary building campaigns, standards-based curricula and state of the art technologies, enhanced safety and security measures, accessible platforms for communication and digital learning, and critically-needed student support services….their leadership has been instrumental to our success.

Now, together, we’ve collectively guided our school district through our most challenging year, as we led the nation in returning to in-person learning during a global pandemic.  Every time the State eased its restrictions for schools, we adopted those changes to get every possible student enrolled back into our face-to-face environments.  Most recently, we have been a part of a collective voice asking the State to end mandated precautionary quarantines for close contact, and I hope the Governor will end them, as he also wants what’s best for our children.

This year has not been easy for anyone … but together we formulated a reopening plan that was right for our community and did what was best for our children, as we always have.  We weren’t swayed by political pressure or media rhetoric that attempted to take us away from our plan.  We simply won’t trade our principles for enticements like federal funding or special interest grants.  

Despite our continued commitment to local governance and showing we’ll do what’s best for our children, we continue to battle misinformation.  This is a problem now being faced across our Nation from some whose intent is to divide communities by planting seeds of discord and distrust.  I sent a message out to all parents earlier this month in response (and which is available for viewing on our website), but, to that point, I again emphasize that neither I nor your School Board have any plans to implement Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project. We have no plans to implement any of their concepts or race-based teaching under that name or any other name.  We’re not playing semantics.  We’re being truthful.

While I had initially entertained and publicly spoken to the development of a stand-alone Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) Plan, I recognize that our intentions have become widely misunderstood within the community and have created division.  To that end, I have concluded there will not be a separate DEI plan.  Staff and I do commit, however, to continue the great work being accomplished through our Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative, which we began two years ago as rates of depression, self-harm and suicide rose in alarming rates across the nation…. and was evidenced in Cherokee amongst our students.  

So…..what does SEL mean to us?  It means ensuring all children, no matter their differences, feel welcomed and valued and that their emotional and mental health needs are recognized and met.  It has nothing to do with race-based teaching.

SEL captures the concept of diversity.  What does diversity mean to us?  It means recognizing that there is diversity of many different kinds in our schools, and that this diversity should not be a barrier for any child to receive the best education possible and to feel welcomed and valued.  Cherokee has become a more diverse community since I began my career, with racial diversity serving as only one descriptor.  For context as it pertains to our students, our enrollment now includes students from every state in our country – and from 108 other countries – and we now have more than 40 different languages represented and spoken.

SEL also captures the concept of inclusion. What does inclusion mean to us?  It means recognizing that all students, no matter their differences, need to be included in their school community to achieve educational success and feel welcomed and valued.  We will continue to support inclusion through efforts such as offering Friends Clubs for Special Education and regular education students and expanding recruitment efforts to further reflect our student diversity in our staff.

SEL also captures the concept of equity. What does equity mean to us?  It means recognizing that all students are equal and deserve equal access and opportunities for educational success and to feel welcome and valued.  We must recognize that some of our 43,000 students face barriers when we look at accessing learning opportunities.  It does not mean all students are expected to achieve equal outcomes.

The focus of most of our work in this regard has been in areas most of us tonight would predict:

  • We have long battled the barrier of poverty.  We only have to think back to the community’s outpouring of resources when the Governor closed school last Spring, as we were all concerned that many of our students would go without meals.  We committed, as a school district and community to see that our students were provided for, and a state-recognized spring and summer meal program emerged from those efforts. While Cherokee is considered one of the wealthier counties in the State, people are often shocked to learn that over 25% of our student population lives below the poverty level. 
  • We’ve also long battled the barrier of learning disabilities and physical limitations, with almost 15% of our students receiving support services or accommodations to aid in their learning.
  • We’ve also had similar battles in serving students needing English language acquisition and who, through coordinated services and modifications, receive additional assistance to flatten their curve.
  • And, I also think of how we’ve battled other trends, such as ensuring more female students can access STEM courses and pathways, which we now see occurring in unprecedented numbers. 

There are simply so many examples of how, as a school district and community, we’ve gone the extra mile to minimize or eliminate barriers for our students through access and opportunity—all of which has received widespread support and applause...not just from our local community, but by state and national professional organizations and accreditation agencies.  

While the use of the term “equity” has recently come under much debate and scrutiny across the nation, our commitment remains, under whatever terminology we might use in the future, to maintain high standards for our students while continuing to seek out additional resources so that any unequal needs receive additional assistance. Again, relative to CRT concerns, hear me clearly in that we will not seek or receive federal monies to implement CRT by that name or any other name.

Specific to the Board’s consideration tonight of a resolution banning CRT and the 1619 Project…..within our social studies and history courses, our students will continue to learn about all that makes our nation the greatest in the world, from the Declaration of Independence to the U.S. Constitution, and from the sacrifices that led to our country’s freedoms to the continued sacrifices that preserve those freedoms.  

Our students will not be taught that they are to blame for terrible times in our history…or that they are oppressors because of the color of their skin….or that they are racist because of the color of their skin….or that they have to give up their rights in order to provide opportunities to others.  Our children will not be taught that their differences define them.  

I believe that we have more commonalities than differences.  I believe in treating others the way I want to be treated.  However, I also believe it is misguided to say there is no racism in our community – from racial harassment complaints made by our students to life stories shared with me by our staff and our parents.  We must together stand against racism.

Our State Superintendent of Schools Richard Woods has issued his own statement against CRT.  He said that we must stand together against CRT and against polarizing practices that only seek to divide us.  I stand with him and with our School Board as they consider this resolution tonight, and I hope you stand with us.  
We are stronger together and we are better together.