Nichelle Davis: Q & A with the unopposed candidate for Cobb School Board Post 6

Photo of Nichelle Davis smilingNichelle Davis (photo provided by candidate)

By Rebecca Gaunt

As the only candidate to qualify in the race for Cobb County Board of Education Post 6, Nichelle Davis is the presumptive winner who will replace Charisse Davis.

Davis is running as a Democrat for the recently redrawn district which previously included Walton and Wheeler High Schools. Those clusters have been moved to Post 5, which is represented by David Banks.

Charisse Davis did not seek reelection but wrote to the Courier, “It has been an honor to serve the students of Cobb County as a board member. It is time for someone else to take on this act of public service, and I am so happy that Ms.Nichelle Davis has stepped up to do so. As an educator and a mom of two CCSD students, my focus has always been the students that come to us from every part of this county, and I know that Nichelle will do the same.”

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Davis answered questions for the Courier via email.

What kind of background are you bringing to the board?

With a professional background rooted in education and community engagement, Nichelle Davis is an ardent advocate for improved outcomes for students and communities through increased educational opportunities, equitable access to resources, and the engagement of all stakeholders to advocate for services, policies, and legislation that uplifts marginalized students and communities.

As a graduate from the University of Florida with dual bachelor’s degrees in Sociology and Criminology, and minors in Women Studies, Educational Studies, and Leadership, Nichelle wholeheartedly believes that education is the means by which we control our destiny and transform communities. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, Nichelle established her professional career in education there and relocated to Cobb County, Georgia six years ago, where she continues to work towards bridging the gap of educational equity for our students and communities.

Fueled by this passion for educational equity, Nichelle has worked as a Middle School Math teacher for many years, including serving as a Teach for America Corp member, engaged in education policy and advocacy work as a former Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) Policy and Advocacy Fellow with the reputable Southern Educational Foundation, and worked with the Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP) for many years over the summer months as an Academic Programs Assistant and Coordinator.

In the community, Nichelle serves as a community organizer with the Atlanta Coalition for Educational Equity (ACEE) and is an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated® Rho Zeta Omega Chapter, which has served the Cobb County community since 1988. The local chapter awards annual scholarships to high school seniors throughout the county, amounting to $418,000 awarded to date.

Nichelle currently works as the Manager of Operations for Achieve Atlanta – an education nonprofit that focuses on helping Atlanta Public School students access, afford and earn postsecondary credentials.

How will your experiences as an educator in Cobb County Schools help to inform your decisions on the board? What have you learned from working with Achieve Atlanta?

As a former Cobb County Schools educator and having experience in other large diverse school systems, Nichelle has utilized her on-the-ground experience with a systems-level leadership approach to analyze and promote the things the district is doing well but also identify and advocate for areas needing improvement. As she values perspective, her experiences in and out of the district will allow her to make thoughtful decisions with our students, their families, teachers, and school leaders in mind. Her teaching experience has positioned her to have a greater understanding of what policy decisions look like in practice inside our schools and how policies not only impact school leadership but students and their outcomes. Additionally, as she now works in the education nonprofit space with Achieve Atlanta, she has an even greater appreciation for connecting our students with community stakeholders and resources. At the end of the day, Nichelle believes that each family genuinely wants what’s best for their student, but obstacles and distractions may get in the way and hinder progress, which is why she believes the district can improve in identifying and connecting our schools with additional resources as well as opportunities available to position our students for success.

What inspired you to create ImpactED Solutions?

In alignment with her zeal for education, Nichelle founded ImpactED Solutions, LLC, to provide exceptional learning experiences for K-12 students. The company tailors its tutoring services to meet each student’s needs and maximizes academic success. Through flexible scheduling of individualized tutoring sessions, students receive direct support from experienced certified teachers who are content experts to help students meet their academic goals and achieve their full potential. ImpactED Solutions aims to help address the academic achievement gap that currently exists, and has been exacerbated by the disruption caused by COVID-19, to increase students’ performance for improved academic outcomes and opportunities.

How can the district address learning loss from the pandemic?

The approach must be a data-driven holistic one. The federal investment through ARPA is unprecedented and offers many options and paths forward. Therefore, data must be used to inform the plan. Comprehensive, continuous, and coherent diagnostics can shine a light on areas that our students need remediation and targeted interventions to start to address foundational skills and information that was missed due to the pandemic. Once identified, then the district can better plan its course of action. The district will need to use a multi-faceted, yet individualized and student-based approach to address it, as there are a lot of different areas that will need to be addressed, such as the reading gap, math gap, and socio-emotional learning gap, including barriers to access that may impact some students and families throughout the district.

How should the district approach literacy education in light of the whole language vs phonics debate?

The district should approach literacy education along with all other decisions from the lens of being data and research-driven, while including teacher perspective. Growth and progress require appropriate change as needed, which is especially true when identifying ways to improve student outcomes. As the district makes curricular decisions, they need to adapt strategies and resources that are identified to improve the literacy education for our students.

Therefore, although there will be various thoughts on the matter of emphasizing whole language vs phonics in literacy education, a preponderance of evidence now points to better understanding how student outcomes can be improved through evidence-based teaching strategies for prevention of and intervention with reading difficulties. The research shows that intensive practice with phonemic awareness, phonic decoding, and repetition in reading controlled text is the best way to develop reading skills and proficiency. That is why Nichelle believes the district should move to ensure that all curriculum used is aligned with the Science of Reading, and provide the necessary professional development, training, and support to teachers to implement effective, evidence-based literary teaching methods that will help students succeed in reading.

Federal data shows that Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately referred for exclusionary discipline and to law enforcement in CCSD. How should the board and district address this?

The first step in addressing this problem is to first complete an analysis of the data to better understand the current landscape and identify specifically where improvements need to be made. Once this is done, then it may be revealed that inequitable discipline practices may only happen in certain areas or schools so there can be a targeted approach to addressing the issues. Additionally, the district should also address this across all schools by providing better support and training to school leaders and staff on ways to mitigate these damaging practices to our students during onboarding and professional development opportunities throughout the year. Discipline should be handled from a restorative approach in all schools, rather than using exclusionary discipline which causes further harm to these students. The disproportionate data points to the need for greater cultural awareness and sensitivity training for the entire teaching and school leadership staff to identify ways to better implement corrective actions and steps that can be utilized, rather than perpetuating the school to prison pipeline through exclusionary discipline practices.

Did the district handle the COVID-19 pandemic appropriately?

Given the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and its ongoing threat to our health and safety, every school district was tasked with making decisions that they thought were best at that time given the changing and unknown nature of what was being dealt with. However, Nichelle thinks the district should have engaged more experts and stakeholders in the planning process to make informed decisions that prioritized the safety of our students and staff. During the timeframe of navigating the return to schools, there should have been clearer communication to families of their options and how measures were being taken to mitigate risks to health and safety to all parties involved, including a more structured phased-in approach, mandating masks, social distancing, providing necessary resources for proper sanitation of schools, etc. until it was determined that it was safe enough to ease restrictions. There was a lot of confusion and questions being left unanswered as everyone was trying to figure out what was best for their students.

Additionally, when CARES Act funding was provided to the district, there should have been a greater priority placed on increasing accessibility to devices and internet connectivity rather than primarily pouring funding into the further development of the CTLS system. Though that is a great resource that has been able to help drive virtual teaching and learning, its impact is diminished if we have students who are unable to access it, further exacerbating the learning loss among our vulnerable student populations and communities.

What is your reaction to legislative bills here in Georgia related to the CRT debate and tackling “divisive concepts?” Are they needed?

Nichelle strongly opposes the legislative bills that have been brought forth in response to the CRT debate and tackling “divisive concepts”. She believes they are distracting the public from truly meeting the needs of students’ learning and preparing them for a diverse and ever-changing world. Students need to understand that diversity of thought and conversation are a part of life and will need to be had for growth and heightened awareness of self and the collective to be reached. By censoring teachers’ ability to discuss these so-called “divisive concepts” we are doing our students a great disservice, as we cannot discuss our history in a way that diminishes the experiences of some for the benefit of comfort to others who were not impacted in the same way. For years teachers have discussed these topics and supported the enlightenment, and knowledge of our students. Schools can be places of inclusive and diverse thought, while still maintaining respect. Our schools and communities are made up of different backgrounds and experiences. We should be able to bring our full authentic selves to any space that we occupy with the expectation to respect one another and embrace opportunities that may not be viewed as comfortable, but rather view them as opportunities to gain perspective and grow.

What changes need to take place to improve a board that has been fractured for some time?

One direct way to improve board relations is to bring back board member comments, as each member is duly elected to represent their constituents and should be able to voice the concerns of their communities openly. In the same spirit, there needs to be a return to when it only took three board members to add agenda items. By eliminating board member comments and changing the rule to add items to the agenda, the board essentially moved to silence facets of our Cobb community. This type of action is not acceptable regardless of party or ideology, because board members are elected to serve our county collectively and must work across lines of difference to do this effectively. These two changes will help to repair the fracture and help to shift the culture to be more inclusive of all board members while prompting open dialogue that is needed to help move our schools forward.

Board members are elected at the will of the community and will not always agree on everything, but they should be able to discuss differences of opinions in a respectful manner to reflect the beauty of the diversity of thought, experiences, and demographics that exists in our schools, communities, and county as they lead and govern the school district. If board members are not committed to exemplifying the ideals of inclusion, respect, and transparency then the community must hold them accountable at the ballot box.

Nichelle is hopeful that the board can return to a place where it can model for students across the district that they are able to work together across lines of difference and value all voices and perspectives throughout the district.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to discuss?

Nichelle can be reached at Nichelle@Nichelle4CobbSchools.com

Additionally, her website will be available soon at Nichelle4CobbSchools.com

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