After white-supremacist rallies and violence rocked her community, Charlottesville City Schools superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins had just two days to shift the agenda as she prepared for a back-to-school meeting with her 800-strong staff. Below are excerpts from her phone interview with the Monitor Aug. 24, the day after students started school.
Tell me about how you decided to shift from a planned celebration to a more cathartic experience when you first gathered your staff – including giving them glow sticks and joining in the song, “Lean on Me.”
We realized we had to take time at the beginning of the school year in order to acknowledge first that our world had been shattered – and then have activities and a process by which we start down the pathway of rebuilding our world and rebuilding ourselves, to be strong enough to encounter our students when they came in.
We were unsure if it would work. We knew that what we were planning was heartfelt, and we needed to allow the emotions to come out and be revealed.
We know that songs oftentimes will take us to emotional places. We also decided that people need something to hold when they’re expressing those emotions. We thought, they use light – the white supremacists and neo-Nazis use light for hatred – we use light for love. So we decided to put the two together – singing and the light – to express our love, not only for one another, but love for our students and love for our community.
[Before school started] we had counselors on site for our teachers. We gave them time to talk about what had happened, the effect of the violence and the display of hatred on them, and then to start to envision how it might have affected our students.
What do students need to see from educational leaders at this moment, as role models in the civic space?
We need to be honest with our students. Sometimes we get caught up in new gadgets … exciting classes and … how students are college bound or career bound, and we’re having a good time preparing them for that. Perhaps we’ve not given enough attention to what made us a strong country and … one of the leaders in technology and innovation.
What were some of the real hard prices as a country that we paid in order to get to that place? Not just overall what did our country do, but what were the contributions of all of the peoples of our country – that includes people of all ethnic backgrounds, all religions, all races.
Some of our history is really ugly, but we have to tell it, and we have to tell our students and our children how we got beyond that, so that they can use that to move into the future.
There’s always been a tricky balance to strike between moral and political issues for educators, but is that even more difficult now?
In the classroom, our teachers will have different political views. So bringing out two political views in a balanced way can be tricky, and helping our students to understand that there are two perspectives usually with everything (except hatred – hatred and intolerance, there are not two views there).
We’re pretty fortunate in Charlottesville in that we do have teachers and staff members who truly do embrace all students. Are any of us perfect at doing that? No. But the compassion … tends to be at a very high level. They are quick to realize where they need to be compassionate with students, and where they need to foster and to emphasize that balance and make students feel welcome and a vital part of the learning environment.
Even after the most recent election, our teachers were quick to say we accept all of our students.
What do you anticipate will be some of the biggest challenges going forward?
The emotional reaction from our students is happening in stages as they engage in conversations in the classroom about the rallies. We realized that we need counselors to stay available over the next few weeks for our students, and our teachers are sensitive and looking for signs of anxiety and stress.
We will be very intentional to provide the support they will need at those different times [such as testing periods].
This is not an event, it’s a process. This will be a different school year for us, and we’re prepared to be there with our students and our teachers for the long haul.