Jackson Olsen is the founding principal of Henderson Collegiate High School, a former teacher with Teach for America and a doctoral student at the UNC School of Education. He recently wrote a book, “Teaching for America: Life in the Struggle for ‘One Day,’” about his experience with the education system in North Carolina. Olsen spoke with staff writer Johanna Cano.
The Daily Tar Heel: Could you talk about the Henderson Collegiate High School and how you became the founding principal?
Jackson Olsen: I saw that as a really great opportunity to be able to build something from the ground up that matched my vision for what a college preparatory school should look like in a low-income community, where most students are going to be first-generation college students and most students come from low-income households.
DTH: What inspired you to write your book?
JO: I had a hard time conveying to my family and friends back home the challenges that I was facing as a public school teacher, and I think most public school teachers feel that way. You are in a really difficult position to be a teacher, to be a mentor, to be a counselor, to be a social worker in some cases ... Throughout that entire teaching experience, I kept a pretty detailed journal about some of my experiences, and I decided I could make these journal entries into a compilation of stories that I would then share with my parents and my siblings and my close friends.
DTH: What are some of the challenges educators face in North Carolina?
JO: I think teachers are expected to do a lot, and in a lot of cases they are expected to (do) a lot with very little. ... To be a teacher in this state and in this country, and to do it in the most challenging communities, inner cities or rural, low-income communities, it takes a very special kind of person to say, “Yes, I want to do that and I want to do it long term.”
DTH: In your book, you say the opportunity gap is a “ubiquitous predator.” Could you talk about the opportunity gap and how it affects students?
JO: A student born into the right zip code is presented with so many more opportunities to succeed compared to students born in the zip code where I live and work, in Vance County ... A lot of schools in low-income neighborhoods, in the low-income communities, are just grossly underperforming, and so students from those schools are not getting a fair shot.
DTH: Are there any solutions?
JO: One of the many solutions that we need to seriously look at in our state of North Carolina is teacher compensation, the way we pay teachers and the way we promote teaching as a viable long-term career path.
DTH: What do you hope will be the biggest takeaway for readers of your book?
JO: I lived most of my life in ignorance of the challenges that teachers faced. Part of why I wrote this book is to raise awareness of the challenges teachers are facing and expose what is happening in our public schools, so that people can rally behind some changes or get fired up about influencing policies that are hurting public schools right now. If I could expose some of the injustices that are happening and just get people to be more aware of what is happening, I think that would be a big success.