First Person

Charlottesville Schools Superintendent: 'We Will Need to Lean on One Another'

Rosa Atkins, the superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, left, hugs a teacher at a districtwide assembly on August 14.
Rosa Atkins, the superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, left, hugs a teacher at a districtwide assembly on August 14.
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Eleven days. That’s the length of time between the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville on August 12 and the start of classes in Charlottesville City Schools on August 23. And just two days after the tumultuous weekend, our teachers returned to work. The city was still reeling with grief. As the superintendent looking at a district in distress, I wondered: How could we possibly help our teachers process these events, so that they in turn could help our students?

All summer, we’d been planning a celebration to roll out themes from our new strategic plan during a districtwide "welcome back" convocation for educators and staff. But when our leadership team met with principals on the Monday morning following the violent weekend, it was clear that our mood did not match the celebration we’d planned. Instead, we needed to take time to acknowledge the trauma that we and our students had experienced. In addition to grieving, could we possibly hope for a little healing and inspiration to guide us into the new year?

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"How can we acknowledge when something terrible has happened and teach children that powerful emotions are absolutely normal and acceptable—while not placing a burden upon them that they are not ready to bear?"

Read more from Charlottesville-area school board candidate Mary McIntyre on how parents, teachers, and district leaders should address the underlying issues of last week's tragedy.

In that spirit, we revisited every element of the program. My original speech went in the trash can. Gone were the balloons and colorful yard signs.

Instead, I started by naming the hate that had visited our city. In a school community as diverse as ours, those words and acts of racist terror were especially wounding.

But white supremacy is an idea that can only live in darkness, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that." I reminded our staff that shining light is what schools and teachers do—we shine the illuminating light of learning, the warm light of relationships, the beautiful light of creativity and the arts, the clarifying light of truth and fact, and the reflective light of introspection.

To reflect that light, we bought a glow stick for every participant. In the back of the auditorium, we also created three giant hearts out of glow sticks to honor the three who lost their lives due to the rally. As we spoke about shining light into the darkness and supporting one another, we dimmed the lights and sang "Lean on Me" together, 800 voices lifted as one.

This work will not be easy. We will need to lean on one another, and we will need to allow our students to lean on us. As one music teacher later wrote in a Facebook post, "Today our whole city schools' faculty came together to kick off the year. And do you know what we did? We sang. We need each other's voices. All of them. This is why I do what I do."

The moment was powerful. It left us feeling connected and hopeful about our power as educators. It reminded us of why we do what we do.

All photos courtesy of Charlottesville City Schools.

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