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If they can see it, they can achieve it: Grounding schools in high expectations, equity, and opportunity

I cannot picture myself doing anything else, anywhere else. That was not always the case.

I grew up in Denton, Texas. As an undergrad at Texas A&M University I studied finance and accounting, mostly envisioning a future working in investment or consulting. I came to Eastern North Carolina as a 2015 Teach For America corps member — I didn’t quite know what “eastern” North Carolina meant or all the local counties it covered — but I was eager to start teaching at James Kenan High School in Duplin County.

As a math teacher, it became painfully obvious that math was a subject many of my students used to deem their worthiness. The curriculum is difficult and the gaps many of my students came with made my class seem all the more impossible to them. Too many of my students were convinced they could not achieve at high-levels. For years our education system has reinforced this belief in communities across our state and beyond: the bar for students growing up in lower-income, predominantly communities of color and/or rural communities, is set frighteningly low.

Students recognize this reality too. My role as a teacher was to set high expectations for my students, design relevant academic lessons to help my students realize their true potential, and help them reimagine what was possible in my classroom and beyond. I believe it was our classroom culture that fueled growth in my students, followed by excellent content teaching, that empowered a group of students that arrived 15 percent proficient in math to leave my classroom 67 percent proficient at year’s end.

It was my job as their teacher to remind students that they have the potential and the unique gifts to do the difficult inside the classroom and elsewhere. Over time, I would see students recognize how much I believed in them and maybe they too should believe in themselves. The ongoing work of shifting mentalities and building a culture rooted in excellence and equity quickly became my passion in the classroom. I was able to build deep relationships with about 60-70 kids as a teacher, but I knew all kids deserve whole buildings of teachers and adults that believe in them. I wanted to help transform entire schools and communities, encourage and empower students and adults alike, and hold all of us (including myself) to high standards along the way.

Today, as a Principal Resident at Warsaw Elementary School, I’m using what I learned in the classroom and applying it to shifting mindsets and expectations for lower-income students on a larger scale. Every day I get to learn from veteran school leaders and play a role in helping students reach their incredible potential while partnering with teachers, administrators, and parents to shape a school culture that inspires and empowers this generation and the next.

Our students, like all students, are smart, full of curiosity and big dreams. They consistently know more than people give them credit for and this includes knowing they attend a low performing school. Changing this reality is critical if we are to put every student on a strong educational path that enables our kids to fully participate in and shape our future communities. These efforts start with changing mentalities and culture.

As a school leader, I aim to be a partner who continually listens to a diverse group of stakeholders, grounds decisions in equity, and acts with empathy and courage to drive progress. At Warsaw, we strive to empower students to think drastically different about what their lives can be and what their futures will be. We strive to make our physical building a place parents want to visit and love to engage with others. When a current teacher is posed with the question, “would I want to take my class?” we want them to say, “yes” every time. These elements are foundational to school turnaround efforts and it’s how I believe we start to reimagine a school we are all proud of for years to come.

This work is hard but I believe we are on the right track. Time and time again, when I pop into a classroom at Warsaw, I see students learning and loving to learn. When I have the opportunities to observe teachers and students, I am continually reminded great things are happening in our community, progress is possible in our schools, and — if we stay at it — all our kids will enjoy an excellent education that opens doors of opportunity throughout their lives.

Hunter Dansby

Hunter Dansby is a 2015 alumnus of Teach For America-Eastern North Carolina. He taught high school math at James Kenan High School prior to becoming a Principal Resident within the Duplin County School District.