For newly elected Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education member Ashton Powell, students come first.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro saw three people — Powell, Deon Temne and Jillian La Serna — elected to serve their first terms on the school board, according to unofficial returns.
Powell is a biology teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. He earned his Ph.D. in neurobiology from UNC. Powell said he is excited to join the board alongside the two other newcomers and Rani Dasi, a returning member.
“No matter who won, we would have had a very good board," Powell said. "But I’m ecstatic about who I’m gonna be working with. We all had good relationships with each other. I think we all learned a lot from each other during the process.”
Powell said he wants to bring several areas and issues to the board's attention. One of his first goals, he said, is to increase shared governance in the district and help students and faculty have a louder voice. He said he thinks there needs to be a place in the decision-making process for the opinions of students and teachers.
Students can speak at board meetings, but Powell said students have not been inclined to attend recently, as a result of going so long without having their voices heard.
“The actual student leadership is not being heard," Powell said. “I’m definitely not blaming the students by any means … We need to create the structures that are actually gonna functionally allow for those various groups to be heard.”
Powell said the mental health of students, both in K-12 and universities, is the issue he is focused on the most as he joins the board.
“I’m really trying to put a focus on the mental health of students into what we’re doing here,” Powell said. “I think a lot of that is gonna come in negotiating and working with the UNC System, and trying to help them identify what actually are the factors that they want for admission.”
He said this will lead to an “overly aggressive competitive atmosphere" that may impact the mental health of the youth.
“Aligning the goals of the System better with one of the best university systems is going to be something that we should absolutely do,” Powell said. “I know the university system also is feeling the crunch of mental health. It’s something we can work together with.”
Powell said the community needs to take suicidal thoughts and depression in the university system seriously.
“Everyone knows the issue that we’re dealing with, especially the students and parents. Universities are reporting that 40 percent of the students are reporting clinical anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation,” Powell said. “While they are reporting it at the university level, that is happening at K-12 at ever-increasing rates … We are finding measures of success based on tests and other things, we’re not really doing it in a way that’s good for the students.”
By improving the integration of the public schools and university system, Powell said he thinks the achievement gap can begin to be improved as well.
“It is really gonna help the students that are being affected most by the achievement gap — identifying success in ways that are healthy for everyone and not just allowing kids to be stomped down by students that have the money and opportunity to allow for all these external measures of success that really are not contributing to a student’s ability to be a happy, healthy purpose,” Powell said.
This story is the first of a series featuring the newly elected members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.
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