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Getting 'schooled' by Ericka Ellis-Stewart

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For 10 years, Ericka Ellis-Stewart considered a bid for a seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board. Discontent with the direction in which the school district was heading, she prayed to God for a sign. Within three days, former Superintendent Peter Gorman announced his resignation.

Ellis-Stewart felt the district was in need of strong leadership and the timing was right for her to toss her hat into the ring. She ran for an at-large seat and received the top number of votes in the November 2011 election. Last month, her peers on the school board unanimously selected her to serve as chair of the board.

In the following interview with Qcitymetro.com, she shares her thoughts on Gorman, ideas for closing the achievement gap and why she is so passionate about education.

Qcitymetro: Why are you so passionate about fighting for quality education for all children in the community?

Ericka Ellis-Stewart: I am passionate about education because it was something that was drilled into me as a child. My mother and grandfather very much lifted up the importance of education in our home. It was really the one that, no matter what, they cannot take your education away from you and the knowledge that you’ve gained. My grandfather had a fifth grade education. He always pushed me to go, obviously, beyond where he went and to always put learning first. Education really is the thing that creates a level playing field.

During the last academic school year (2010-11), you were very vocal about being in disagreement with the decision to close and merge several schools within the district. Moving forward, what lessons learned from that experience do you hope to see the district apply to making decisions in the future?

When there are issues related to funding and resources, we need to balance that against the cost at the community level to determine if the decision we are making is worth what it will cost the community — whether that’s credibility, trust or whether it’s the ability to bounce back from a decision … The other piece of it is to make sure that there is proper engagement all along the way. It’s a two-way thing. The community also has to become more involved in this engagement … And it can’t wait until a critical decision is being made; there should be an ongoing dialogue.

Overall, what are your thoughts on former Superintendent Peter Gorman?

Dr. Gorman came in and was given a task and a job to do. I think he did that in the way that he saw fit. I think he had his supporters, and he had his detractors. We as a board can take the things that benefited the district and continue those as we see fit. The things that maybe weren’t beneficial, we can figure out how to take a different course of action.

What qualities do you hope to find in the person selected to fill his shoes?

I’m looking for someone who is a strong communicator and will bring a level of complete honesty to the board. I’m looking for someone that will embrace all segments of the community and do that effectively and really put students first. Someone that will help us regain the trust and confidence of our teachers and someone who will also be committed to the district for hopefully an extended period of time.

What key areas of education do you plan to focus on in the next four years?

I want to focus on student achievement and making sure that we are providing a solid foundation in our elementary schools around math and literacy. If we can focus on building a solid foundation, we will see that we will have fewer students being held back. In the long run, that will help improve our graduation rate … We also need to figure out how we can bolster our foreign language program because it’s increasingly more important for our students to learn … more languages than English, especially if they are going to be competitive in the workplace … Parental involvement is also a high priority for us.

What are your plans for addressing the achievement gap?

It really is about starting at the beginning and making sure that kids are ready to enter school. I know there is a lot of controversy about whether or not CMS should be in the business of pre-kindergarten education. But the fact of the matter is that there are a number of children who go without a quality pre-K education experience and they will enter CMS as a kindergartener, not ready to work and will be already behind … We need to start at the beginning, and with that in mind, we need to identify the areas where our students begin to fall down — particularly in language and math skills. If you have a gap or a deficit, it can be extremely difficult to catch up. So, we have to be very intentional to make sure that students get those skills and foundation so that they can go into middle school successfully, and they can go into high school prepared to take higher-level math and sciences.

What needs to be done to address the issue?

I would say, working to meet students where they are. Our students don’t all learn the same, and we have to try to differentiate in a way that hits all learning styles —and at the same time doesn’t compromise the learning of those who are excelling, doesn’t leave behind those who are struggling and doesn’t ignore the kids who are in the middle … We also have to make sure that every classroom in this district is staffed with a quality, effective, certified teacher who is a subject-matter expert in their content area.

What else would you like the community to know?

I would also like to let folks know that I am an advocate at heart, and I am really focusing on the district as a whole and what we can do for all kids.

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September 4, 2015
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