The following is part of my monthly column, One Day and One Goal: Expanding opportunity in NC. I invite you to follow along as I share stories from classrooms and explore critical issues facing education in our state. Go here for past columns.
Our state has a deep history of working to ensure that students have access to a sound basic education. And, we know that effort is a collaboration between many different stakeholders — students, parents, legislators, and educators — grounded in a multitude of experiences.
In light of this, I was curious to hear their different perspectives and wanted to ask a set of similar questions to help uncover commonalities in experiences. I spoke with three Guilford County residents, including:
- Amaya Clark is a 17-year-old dual enrollment high school senior attending Early College Academy at Dudley High School and Guilford Technical Community College. She is still deciding on what four-year university she’ll attend this fall.
- Whitney Killian is an alumna of Teach For America and an assistant principal in Greensboro, North Carolina. Killian grew up in Michigan but taught for several years in Greensboro before obtaining her masters in school administration from UNC-Greensboro.
- Ashton Wheeler Clemmons is a member of the North Carolina General Assembly, representing the state’s 57th House district in northcentral Guilford County. She describes herself as an educator, a wife, a mom of three elementary-aged kids as well as two crazy dogs, and a state representative from Greensboro, North Carolina.
The following are their words: what excites and challenges them on this road to educational equity for all of North Carolina’s students.
What does a quality education mean to you and those closest to you?
Killian: A quality education is about opening doors, especially in the eyes of the student. It is important to me that students see the growth that they are capable of and know that they have control over their futures. I want students to see all that they are capable of. It is about caring for more than just the academic needs of students; a quality education means that students also feel safe and cared for; they must feel connected to other students and school staff.
Clark: A quality education in my opinion is education and knowledge that I carry with me throughout my life that I can use on a day-to-day basis to help me better myself and be equipped to continue to learn new things as I move along in life. Quality education is an education that I will remember significantly in five years because I have been working on and growing the same skills, adding deeper understanding. So that in five years I can say I’ve gotten smarter. Instead of just being able to say that I’ve moved up a grade. I learned many years ago that good grades do not equate to quality education.
When you look at your professional community’s accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
Clemmons: I am very proud of the work we completed in 2020 as a co-chair of the House COVID Education Working Group. Along with Representatives Horn and Fraley, we worked tirelessly to hear from educators across our state on the immediate needs to respond to COVID. We collaborated and compromised, and I am proud of the initial COVID funding and education policies we passed in 2020 as a result.
Killian: I am proud of the creative solutions our district developed during the last two years to help accelerate learning for our students. Our leaders were not afraid to think outside the box. We have utilized high school students to tutor younger students, opened learning hubs, utilized our school sites as COVID-19 testing sites for the community, and partnered with the Greensboro Transit Authority to help get our students to school safely. Our leaders have remained focused on protecting our most marginalized students. We are all aware of the challenges our students and staff have faced over the last 2 years but I am proud that our district has worked creatively to solve these problems.
What empowers students to make a difference in their community? What advice would you have for students who want to do so?
Clemmons: Every time I talk to a group of students I ask them what they picture when they think of leadership. Many answer famous people from history, statues they may have seen, folks they see on the news. I tell them – and I believe – that leadership is anytime someone sees a problem – in their home, school, or community – and instead of saying, “Oh, that’s too bad,” they say, “I am going to try to help.” Most importantly, our world needs each of them looking for problems and trying to help.
Clark: Students are empowered to make a difference by their environment and how they are treated. Students who often want to make a difference are students who have been treated both poorly and well. Knowing how it feels to have been treated both ways helps students see suffering and know ways to help and make a difference; whether it’s inside the school building, in the community, or just with their peers, students who have empowering ideas about how to make a difference often need validation and ways to execute — and that’s where being able to have comfortable communication with adults comes in. If a student is in an environment with people he or she is not comfortable around they will not feel comfortable speaking up and making steps towards positive change within the community because they will see themselves as a terribly small piece in a big system when really, they are a huge determining piece and can make significant change when they realize it.
What is an important lesson you learned about yourself and/or the world when you were in school?
Killian: I learned that there is so much more to the world than what was right outside my door or within the small town I grew up in. I learned the importance of stepping outside my comfort zone and challenging myself; of looking at every experience as a learning opportunity.
Clark: An important lesson I’ve learned about myself and the world in school was that the school system that I have been a part of is not tailored to give me the best opportunities to succeed. They normally give the tools that are needed for the masses to succeed or look successful. So, finding out what path I wanted to be on was extremely important so that I could search for opportunities that would benefit me and my personal growth in the long run, whether it be in classes that I am in at school or career goals and aspirations that I have.
What do you think people who don’t work in schools need to know?
Clark: I think people who do not work in schools need to talk to children more and listen with a nonjudgmental ear. I think a lot of students would be relieved by knowledge and resources that other adults or just people in general must give. But students are afraid to talk about how they feel or reach out to people when things are bothering them or when they need help. So, it is important to know that when talking to children so that you do not further damage a student’s comfortability and sociability with adults.
Killian: Our teachers are superheroes and our students are more resilient than we may give them credit for! Please look for ways to support your local schools. A kind word to your child’s teacher or other impactful staff member goes a long way!
Together, a bright future lies ahead
In order to co-create a future that will best serve our students and their future, North Carolina needs a growing group of exceptional, diverse, and courageous leaders who are working and innovating in the systems that govern education. At Teach For America, we are fortunate to have a broad coalition of champions for students – from the schoolhouse to the General Assembly. And, we’re grateful to be a nonpartisan nonprofit with bipartisan policymakers among those champions.
It’s not every day that a student, an assistant principal, and a state representative can speak to the same issues in the same space, though we hope to see — and be a part of — more and more of those spaces being created.