In 2017 Dr. Avis Williams came to Selma City Schools as its new superintendent, taking over an urban district where almost all students are economically disadvantaged and struggle academically. Due to her successful strategies to raise student achievement and increase high school graduation rates — she led the district through a successful release from the State Department of Education intervention — in 2019 she was a finalist for Alabama State Superintendent of the Year and in 2020 was named Superintendent of the Year for the Alabama Alliance of Black School Educators. Even more impressively, she has led the district through a global pandemic in a city where the COVID-19 risk level is rated “very high” and the percentage of adults who are fully vaccinated is 32.2% (as of this writing).
How did this native of Salisbury, North Carolina who joined the army right out of high school end up as a nationally recognized school leader and a member of the Chiefs for Change Future Chiefs leadership development program? And how is she managing to keep schools open in this challenging time? Here is our (slightly edited) conversation.
Q & A
What were your first steps when the pandemic hit?
On March 13th of last year, the Governor declared Alabama’s first State of Emergency and we shifted immediately to what would turn out to be a full year of remote instruction. We call our school community “Team Selma” and we all partnered with community agencies to create “DOPE” — “Doing Our Part Everyday” — where we built protocols for mitigation strategies, hygiene, and vaccination clinics. I have a weekly podcast called “Talk Sup’t” where I speak with community members so everyone understands we’re all in this together. We also keep a COVID dashboard on the district website to be totally transparent about the transmission rate in our schools.
How did you manage what people call the “digital divide,” where students, especially those with few financial resources, don’t have access to broadband internet or a one-to-one device?
Our middle-schoolers already had devices in March 2020 but I’d say about half of our scholars didn’t. So in the beginning we ordered thousands of Chromebooks — it turned out that some of our high schoolers in dual-credit programs needed higher-level devices so we supplied those as needed — and ordered lots of hotspots for those without internet. Alabama has a Broadband Connectivity program, so it’s not so hard to get access. But we did repurpose some school buses as mobile hotspots in a few neighborhoods.
But you were already thinking ahead to how to return to in-person schooling, right?
That’s right. We created a “Return to Excellence” reopening plan, with input from stakeholders. After ensuring that our scholars had access to rigorous remote instruction, we set up safety rules in anticipation of return:
Three feet of social distancing
Air purifiers in every room
Robust cleaning protocols, and
An indoor masking requirement passed by the school board.
We encourage everyone eligible to get vaccinated and run our own vaccination clinics. We also recognize that sometimes an outbreak will require a return to remote instruction. For example, tomorrow our middle schoolers will be learning virtually for two days due to an outbreak.
What about parents who are reluctant to send their kids back to school?
We had already started the Saints Virtual Academy, a separate district school intended for students who want to work more independently. We sped up the timeline to get the Academy up and running. So this has been another resource for students and families.
Learning loss around the country has been severe, particularly for low-income students. What are you finding in Selma and how are you addressing it?
We have to meet the students where they are. But in order to know where they are, we need testing data. Last spring our scholars took the state standardized tests — accountability regulations were waived, but we still got the assessment data — plus we do our own internal diagnostic testing so we have that essential information. We’ve been able to use the federal stimulus funds to really address the needs of struggling learners. We already had reading coaches in the classrooms, but now we have math coaches too. We’re hiring a whole fleet of interventionists — sometimes retired teachers or those who want to work part-time — and pouring money into classrooms. This past summer we had 800 students in intensive programs. This fall we’ll have one-on-one tutoring and extended school days that will combine some social-emotional support but also the academics our scholars need right now.
Really, it’s going to take us years to understand the amount of loss incurred during the pandemic and academics is only a piece of it. Our students’ mental health is a huge priority for me, focusing on what we call the “whole child.” And we know we have to be strategic about this, especially when “safety” doesn’t just mean virus mitigation techniques, but emotional support. With that in mind, my administrators and I have revised our district Strategic Plan. Our pre-COVID one went through 2023 but needed to change. Our new Plan goes from 2021-2024 and includes far more whole child support. When we think about safety, that’s not just physical but emotional, and that includes teachers too. Pulling this all together — mentoring, family support, Parent University, a “Framework for Equity” — was an outcome of the pandemic.
How do you support your staff?
Before the pandemic, we had standard teacher lounges. Now we call them “self-care rooms.” Our teachers need to take care of themselves as well as their students and these are places where they can do that. A vendor donated massage chairs, we have lavender scents, music, and encourage “me time.” We also gave everyone duty-free lunches.
You’ve come a long way from Salisbury! What was your path to a nationally recognized district leader?
My passion has always been serving people. I grew up in poverty and I know education is a lifesaver for these babies — for children who look like me. I want them to have what I didn’t. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t even know the term “guidance counselor.” There was no one to tell me that college was an option, so in 1987, I followed my brother and sister into the army. I served for four years in Fort Jackson, Korea, and Huntsville, Alabama, and along the way took a few courses. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I went to college and got certified in physical education and English Language Arts.
Gradually, I worked my way up to a director of secondary curriculum and instruction for Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, and then assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Tuscaloosa City Schools. But leading Selma City schools was my dream. After thinking and praying about it, I applied in 2017 to be superintendent. This is what I do: I serve communities with great needs. Selma is my home.
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years ...