ASHEVILLE – The Citizen Times spoke with Rob Jackson, Buncombe County School’s newest superintendent. Jackson started on Nov. 1 of last year.
Jackson had been superintendent of Carteret County Public Schools and took the place of Superintendent Tony Baldwin, who had served BCS since 2009 — leaving the district in 2022.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, data from the 2021-22 school year shows the Carteret system had 18 schools and 7,843 students.
NCES data shows Buncombe had 45 schools and 22,298 students in that academic year.
More:Buncombe County Schools elects new superintendent one month before Baldwin’s exit
Asheville Citizen Times: How has the transition been after Superintendent Tony Baldwin, who served in the position since 2009?
Robert Jackson: I started officially on Nov. 1 and arrived in the school system extremely excited to be back home because I grew up in Buncombe County. I arrived with really big expectations about how wonderful it would be to serve again in Buncombe County Schools because I previously served here as a custodian, school secretary, teacher and an administrator. I can say that almost a year later, that every single expectation has not only been met but far exceeded. I’ve spent a lot of time in all 45 of our schools. At least a full school day in every school and multiple visits to all of our schools.
ACT: How long were you a custodian?
RJ: I served at Bell Elementary School for three years and I was in multiple positions. I was a school secretary and a summer custodian. So that was the early ’90s, late ’80s at Bell Elementary School. I also taught at Glen Arden Elementary School. I taught fourth grade there and then I was in the Principal Fellows Program, which is a state program, and I was an administrative intern and then became the interim assistant principal at Sand Hill Venable Elementary School.
ACT: Why did you go into public education?
RJ: I grew up in Swannanoa and I attended Swannanoa School. At that time, it was a first- through eighth-grade school. As I arrived at Swannanoa School each day I was greeted by our principal, Mr. Williams, and had these incredible teachers who didn’t care where I lived or the circumstances I came from. I served in the Navy right out of high school like my dad and my granddad had. As I was spending time late at night on a helicopter carrier, I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I kept coming back to these teachers and my principal Mr. Williams, who had done so much for me and had such positive influences. I was determined to do for others what they had for me and so I decided to be a teacher and later an administrator because of the impact that teachers and administrators had on my life.
ACT: What are some of the challenges that you face being an administrator or stepping into this new superintendent role?
RJ: I’m starting my 10th year as a superintendent, and we’ve certainly seen the work change drastically, particularly in light of all that everyone went through during the pandemic. The pandemic didn’t cause all the issues and the challenges we currently have, but they certainly exasperated many of them. We’re seeing a lot of challenges around the need for social and emotional support of our students and our staff members and ensuring that we’re prioritizing mental health and well-being and that we are supporting families and ensuring that they have access to resources. Having gone through the pandemic, we recognize that for that two-year period, our students didn’t have the structure and support through school that they typically would have had, and that caused what we’ve seen the last year or so.
ACT: You said this is your 10th year as a superintendent, but where were you before?
RJ: I started in 2014 and for six years I was the superintendent in Edenton Chowan Schools, which is in Northeastern North Carolina, and then I served in Carteret County Public Schools which is the Southern Outer Banks. I was there for about two and a half years, and quite frankly thought that I would retire from Carteret County, until my good friend and hero Dr. Baldwin decided he was going to retire, and he actually gave me a call and said “Rob, you should consider applying to come back home.” Then my mom reached out to me and said in a text message, “son, it’s time to come home.”
ACT: How long do you think you’ll be in Buncombe County Schools?
RJ: I will be here until I retire and the way I feel now that will be many years from now so maybe the answer is as long as the Board of Education will have me.
ACT: What are some great things that you’re seeing in the schools?
RJ: The absolute quality of our faculty and staff. I mentioned that I spent a full day in all 45 of our schools. Though each of those days looked very different as I tried to immerse myself in the schools. So many of those days I found myself literally sitting at the feet of our teachers as I sat on the carpet with some of our youngest learners. The teachers were teaching us phonics and helping us to break down words and understand syllables and I was doing that right along with our learners, blown away by the quality of the relationships our teachers have established with our students and of the content that they’re helping our students master.
ACT: What are some issues that you’re seeing that you want to address?
RJ: One of the challenges that we do face is financials. It’s ensuring that as we get through this next year, the 2023-24 school year is the last year of ESSER funding which was federal funding that was sent to school systems and many entities to help mitigate the effects and the impact of the pandemic. With that funding, the school system was able to bring in personnel to support students in schools and that funding goes away at the end of this next school year. We have to be able to sustain those programs that we started with that funding and the positions that we brought in with that funding.
More:Warrant: Attempted sex assault in locker room; BCSO seeks evidence of similar incidents
ACT: How are you and the adults at the schools ensuring child safety? I know at the beginning of June there was a teacher that pled guilty to child sexual abuse. There were also some issues happening in the North Buncombe High School locker room.
RJ: Both of those instances that you referenced happened a school year ago, and so from the time that that happened, the school system dove deeply into understanding what had happened, and where any missteps were taken in terms of ensuring that we’re following our processes and procedures, and then took steps to make sure that nothing like that would happen again. In terms of the physical safety of our buildings, our school system is really considered a leader in the state. This summer we’re redoing the entrance at Reynolds High School and the entrance at his Pisgah Elementary School. Eventually we will have every front entrance redone in all 45 of our schools. They will have what’s called a double vestibule, so you walk in and it’s almost like you’re in a glass room. You’ll get that buzz down through a video call system and you’re able to interact with the staff. Then if there’s some need to actually come into the building, you have to be buzzed in again.
In terms of ensuring that our adults are doing a great job we’ve really doubled down on training faculty and staff, and reviewing of policies and procedures, so that we can, you know, legitimately look at parents in the eyes and say, we’re going to do everything we can to keep your children safe.
ACT: What are some ways and ideas that you and staff are looking to close the achievement gap?
RJ: One of the things the pandemic did was exasperated discrepancies that are already there and achievement gaps that are already there. As you can imagine, students who had more resources at home or who had parents who were able to be right there with them as they were having to learn online because that was the only choice at the time did better than students who may not have had those same resources or may not have had a caring adult next to them as they were engaging in their online learning. So, as we returned to school, we certainly saw those gaps that had been exasperated by the pandemic and they existed before the pandemic. The answer to closing the achievement gap is ensuring that we are doing everything we can to meet every single individual student where they are and that involves conversations with the student, the parents, certainly but also pre assessments to understand where any sorts of gaps of foundational knowledge are that the child may have, and then using what we refer to as high dosage tutoring, or remediation with the student. We are working individually with each child.
ACT: With teacher pay being so low (an average of $46,295 annually for teachers and staff), how do you encourage people to come and work for Buncombe County Schools?
RJ: Regardless of what the state does, and we do believe that the state is going to include a raise for our teachers and staff in the budget when it passes and we hope that they pass it sooner rather than later but regardless of what happens at the state level, the commissioners have funded us so we’re going to be able to increase our local supplement by 2%. Thankfully, our local supplement is one of the highest in Western North Carolina. We have a teacher from every one of our 45 schools, who will meet regularly with me to help make important decisions and important recommendations to our Board of Education. Our teachers are the most important factor to student’s success. There’s no question, research bears that out. A big part of our recruitment of Buncombe County Schools is how much we value our teachers, and we show that through involving them in the decision-making process.
More:Buncombe County adopts $610M budget, raises property taxes for salaries, schools
More:New Asheville City Schools superintendent talks achievement gap, putting students first
McKenna Leavens is the education reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @LeavensMcKennna. Please support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.