The year 2020 has been tumultuous, to say the least. “Adaptation,” is the word that comes directly to mind when forced to think of the last couple of months. Whether discussing being confined to one’s home for extended periods of time, the uncertainty of employment, or an abrupt change in scholastic format. Recently, Substantial had the privilege of conversing with someone who has been forced to embrace adaptation concerning our local school system: Wake County School Board member and public servant, Keith Sutton. Sutton is an entrepreneur, family man, community servant and member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He is the owner of a consulting firm, FocusED, which is geared toward assisting nonprofits, education agencies, and organizations in leadership, equity, organizational management, and change management. Sutton also leads the Triangle Urban League, whose mission is “To enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity and power, and civil rights.” Sutton discussed a myriad of topics: from Covid-19’s impact on Wake County education, implementation of technology, and how to shrink the achievement gap. He lends a light and unique perspective to the topics that often go unmentioned otherwise.
WHO IS KEITH SUTTON?
SUTTON – You know, I’m a down east North Carolina born and bred guy, been in North Carolina for all of my life. I currently serve on the Wake County School Board as indicated chair of that board, which is the largest school system in North Carolina. Been in the school board here for the last 10 years. As you may know, I just had a bid to become the State Superintendent, but I fell a bit short on that. So I guess you can say I’m a politician, I’m a dad, with two beautiful girls that are 22 and 17 years old. I’m a father, community servant, public servant, you know, Omega man, of course, and so very big on service, giving back to the community, helping others, and other than that, I’m just a regular guy.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT FocusED LLC, AND THE INSPIRATION BEHIND STARTING THIS FIRM.
SUTTON – FocusED is a consulting firm that I started a couple of years ago. I guess a combination of things, entrepreneurship bugs me a little bit, I want to kind of venture out into my own thing. I want to take a lot of the knowledge and expertise that I have accumulated over the years; particularly as a school board member around education policy, but also the work that I’ve done over the last couple of years professionally, from working in grassroots communities and creating such a large contact and network of benefits, particularly in the education sector – the work that I’ve done around program management, strategic planning, organizational management, and that sort of thing.
So, this is an opportunity to kind of blend those skills and talents that I have and try to put them into an enterprise setting if you will, and create an opportunity not just for myself, but for my family, as well as communities around the state and the country. So FocusED is about helping nonprofits, education agencies, and organizations, think strategically about where they’re headed and what they’re doing, particularly around issues of equity.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO SERVE YOUR COMMUNITY IN A POLITICAL CAPACITY?
SUTTON – I think we’ve got to give a lot of credit to Omega (Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc), but I think I had it in my heart wanting to serve even before becoming an Omega man. Fraternities and Sororities are built on this notion of service, but for those that are fortunate and blessed, there’s a lot that is required of us to reach back and help others. And I touched on much of the information, expertise, and knowledge I have over these 20 some odd years of work and service that I’ve done from working with the NAACP, leading and starting the Urban League here, and 10 years on the school board. I can go on and on in terms of some of the experiences.
So, I think the desire is to sort of put all of that together. And I think probably the biggest piece is this notion of leadership and understanding that God has put something in me and I’ve been working and developing and honing those skills and talents that he has blessed me with, and I need to put those into use to help others.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT YOU BELIEVE COVID-19 HAS HAD AND WILL CONTINUE TO HAVE ON OUR COMMUNITY AND STATE?
SUTTON – The biggest impact I think now and going forward in terms of Covid-19 is that it has exposed and brought our awareness of so many of the inequities, the haves and have nots in our communities that it’s Stark, and it is significant. I think much of it was at the forefront of our minds as we talk about equity in our schools and education community. We talk about equity as it relates to minority business development and supporting minority businesses. We hear about the health disparities and disproportionality there and so, what COVID has done is sort of put a spotlight on many of these things that we knew existed already.
HOW HARD HAS THIS CRISIS IMPACTED OUR SCHOOL/ EDUCATION SYSTEM? AND CAN YOU SPEAK TO THE IMPACT IT WILL PLAY ON CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP?
SUTTON – Education, especially as we know it, was halted for a couple of weeks. Even here in Wake County -the largest district in the state, 16th largest in the country – we were scrambling to try to figure out how to get up an online learning platform for students so that the teaching and learning continued from where we were. We found gaps in terms of access to technology, even students having devices in the homes, and if they had a device, no access to the internet.
Now that we’ve made some pretty significant strides in just a couple of weeks around getting access to technology, there is a big challenge now around getting students to be engaged in the work. Having parents that are there that are making them get online and stay focused on the lessons and the challenge there of parents trying to do their work from a remote standpoint and ensure that kids are engaged in remote learning. So, this notion of homeschooling and that sort of thing, it’s been big. It’s been a challenge, and that’s what the impact has been where we look to go forward. It’s going to be significant there as well because it’s going to change significantly how we deliver teaching and learning and even operate our schools, especially with social distancing and that sort of thing being a thing of the future. Now we’ve got to look at that as we look at how we reopen and reimagine what schools and education look like going forward.
WHERE DO YOU BELIEVE THERE ARE OTHER GAPS, AND WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR US TO ADDRESS THEM?
SUTTON – I don’t know that we’re all ever learning at an equal pace. When you think about it each student, even us as adults has different learning styles. Some of us are audio learners, some are more visual learners. So, we all have an individual learning style, and how we receive, and process information is different. What I do like about virtual learning is that teachers can customize learning to each student and individual needs. I do think that as a strategy that’s how we will eventually be able to close the achievement gap as opposed to just teaching to a whole classroom and expecting everyone to just pick up and get it.
When we look at closing gaps, for example, and thinking about COVID students that have been out of school for about five to six months, we look at summer learning loss. When kids are doing the three months summer break, the typical national school calendar is out for 3 months and students slip up and come back and we’ve got to spend about the first month just reviewing and catching up. That’s going to be difficult for some of our students. From a policy standpoint, I was hopeful that we would see some opportunity to allow students to come back to school a little bit earlier. August 17 is now the date, and that’s a week earlier than when we would normally start. But I would love to see where there are some options to start even earlier.
There are resources to provide summer school. This will be a different sort of summer school and not summer school as we normally know in terms of remediation, but one that is more focused on enrichment and helping kids get connected and build relationships with teachers. One idea I heard about is where students come back and meet with the teachers from their previous grade when we stopped school in March, and for a month or so establish that connection before going on to the next grade, and then meeting the new teacher and getting into a new grade since those relationships were just kind of halted back around March 13. Those are some of the ideas, and some of the positive things that we could address. I’m thankful for the work that the Governor and General Assembly did, to quickly put together a relief package that included millions of dollars in funding to help with technology and “Charlie Mission”. I think there are some areas that we could have gone a little bit further in terms of providing some calendar flexibility, and focus in particular on those schools and those communities that have the chronically low performing issues and see how we could provide more support specifically to those areas. That would have been something that I would have loved to have seen.
WE KEEP HEARING FOLKS TALK ABOUT (POST) COVID, WHAT DOES POST-COVID LOOK LIKE IN YOUR MIND? HONESTLY, IS THERE A (POST) COVID OR IS IT LIFE WITH COVID MOVING FORWARD? HOW DO WE EDUCATE DIFFERENTLY MOVING FORWARD?
SUTTON – Well now we’re going to see a big push to try to do more virtually and online. We’re not like colleges and universities where they’ve got an online platform built. Colleges and universities brag now about the number of students they have online in their distance program. That’s not the same for us in K-12.
Obviously, some changes need to be made. But how we balance that will be key. And then there are things like extracurricular activities, arts, and sports. You can’t do online learning from labs and dissecting frogs, or going out and throwing a football or dribbling a basketball, painting, playing an instrument, those sort of things. We will see perhaps a stronger and more improved education system when we come back, but it will, I think, definitely impact a lot for us. We’re going to be moving to a one to one district, meaning that every student will have access to a device. We were primarily one to one in the classroom, so when a student went to school they had access to a device. We were not at the point where we were allowing students to take devices home, and every student was one to one in that regard. Now that we’ve done that every student will have a device and that will help move us further down the road.
I think we’ll see the state looking more to become a virtual district. Right now, Florida is one of the few states that was the first state in the country to become a virtual district, but every school system was a one to one district and they had a virtual plan. So when COVID happened in Florida, within a week, they had fully transferred to a virtual school system. It took us about three weeks or four weeks to get there. Versus some of the larger districts like Miami and Broward County, Florida. They were there in about a week. We spent two weeks deploying devices and Wi-Fi hotspots to students and families whereas they already had them there. They were already two or three weeks ahead of where we were, in terms of not being able to deliver online instruction and learning. So I think you’ll see the state in some way begin to move towards being a virtual district so that when we have inclement weather and snow days, or another COVID-19 pandemic, or something similar, we could pretty quickly move to virtual online learning.
WHAT’S THE MESSAGE TO OUR MINORITY COMMUNITY RIGHT NOW?
SUTTON – I think it’s to stay strong. Keep the faith. We as African Americans have always been by and large a praying people and a praying community. Keep doing that. Perseverance I think is key, as you well know. Because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a long road. It’s going to be a marathon and not a sprint. I think relying on each other, checking on each other, making sure that our family, our relatives, folks, and friends are staying safe and healthy. Just taking this thing seriously. This thing is significant and it’s big. We’re all beginning to see it because we all know family and friends who first were impacted economically, lost jobs or furloughed and that sort of thing. We know someone who’s contracted COVID and some that have lost their lives. So we certainly have to take it seriously. But I think just keeping our head up and focused that we’ll get through it. We definitely will get through it. With a little prayer, with a little faith, hanging in, and some perseverance.
“What I do like about virtual learning is that teachers can customize learning to each student and individual needs.”