North Carolina has a new group of education leaders on the way. The Hunt Institute has announced this year’s cohort of the Hunt State Policy Fellows Program, an initiative to provide future education policymakers and elected officials the space to develop stances on education issues within the state.
“The Hunt State Policy Fellows program provides local policymakers and community leaders with an introduction to current policy challenges and opportunities across the education continuum,” Dr. Javaid Siddiqi, CEO and president of The Hunt Institute, said in a press release.
The cohort will meet for three sessions throughout the year to discuss early childhood, K-12, and higher education in North Carolina. The Hunt Institute picks fellows to form a bipartisan group of leaders that can collaboratively discuss issues and learn from one another. The goal is for members to make lasting connections with each other and experts throughout the state.
“We’re really intentional about building a cohort that is representative of North Carolina in as many ways as possible,” said Allison Goff Clark, the deputy director of North Carolina Programs at the Hunt Institute. “We want balanced representation from different regions of the state, certainly in race and ethnicity, and political affiliation as well. The final piece is the roles they represent – we try to have an equal number of city councilors, mayors, county commissioners, school board members, and broader community leaders who may not be currently elected.”
The program began three years ago as a state-level version of the Hunt Institute’s Hunt-Kean Leadership Fellows. The program seeks to recruit senior state officials throughout the country who may be governors, serving as a pipeline to an education-minded governorship. After hearing legislator’s concern for lack of a strong education pipeline in the General Assembly, the Hunt Institute adapted the program to the state level.
The benefits of the program have been vastly felt. Yolanda Adams is the family resource coordinator for Watauga County schools and was one of last year’s fellows.
“Before the program I didn’t feel comfortable with education policy – I just advocated,” Adams said. “Attending the meetings was amazing, and it showed me the advocacy component can’t exist without the policy element. I learned how to ask the proper questions to advocate at a higher level for the students and families in Watauga County.”
Adams said she values the connections she was able to make through the program.
“Every single person and every guest was so important to have at the table,” said Adams. “I’ve kept up with them and whenever I have questions about something I know someone else has advocated for, I can reach out to them for guidance. When someone else is doing great work in their community, you can learn from them instead of starting from scratch.”
For the new cohort, their journey is just beginning.
Fayetteville City Council member Mario Benavente is one of this year’s fellows.
“It’s been a lot of great information, and it’s great to be getting it from experts in these different fields,” Benavente said. “So far we’ve done early childhood education, and hearing it straight from the folks who have been doing it for decades provides really good perspective.”
Benavente is excited for the next sessions of the program and wants to bring it all back to Fayetteville with him.
“I want to understand what the leading research is saying — there’s a lot of myths and rumors about what’s trending in education,” said Benavente. “Being able to talk with folks that are the experts, and getting the insight that they’re sharing, arms me with the information to get out into my community and let folks know what I’ve learned.”
The 2023 cohort is:
· Nida Allam, county commissioner, Durham County
· Kevin Austin, Board of Commissioners chair, Yadkin County
· Mario Benavente, city council member, Fayetteville
· Chris Blue, interim town manager, Chapel Hill
· Tina M. Brown, mayor, Town of Robersonville
· Matt Calabria, Wake County commissioner, Fuquay-Varina
· Olivia Dawson, mayor, Town of Burgaw
· Jennifer De La Jara, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board member, Charlotte
· Sandy Ellington-Graves, Alamance-Burlington School Board chair, Graham
· Kimberly Hardy, second vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Linden
· Cyril Jefferson, city council member, High Point
· Adrienne Martinez, senior vice president, Bank of America, Charlotte
· Lisa Meier, CEO and managing partner, Symphonic Leadership Partners, LLC, Mooresville
· Jeffrey Odham, mayor, City of New Bern
· Jose Oliva, Guilford County Schools chief of staff, Greensboro
· April Parker, statewide executive director, North Carolina Federation of Young Republicans, Raleigh
· Susie Sewell, executive director, Camp Schreiber Foundation, Wilmington
· Lyndsey Simpson, mayor pro tempore, City of Hendersonville
· Jennifer M. Stepp, city council member, Gastonia
· Tyler Swanson, Wake County School Board member, Cary
· Jennifer Thompson, Cherokee Central Schools Board chair, Cherokee
· Luke Waddell, city council member, Wilmington