Will Atherton

Will Atherton is Chair of the Board of Education for the Orange County Schools district.

Will Atherton is on his phone, pacing between the outdoor seating of Weaver Street Market. The morning is brisk and the specialty grocery store is busy, but in a fairly typical way for a Thursday in late winter. The sky was colorless and blank; the air tense and anxious with coronavirus fears.

Off his phone, Atherton is all apologies for delaying our meeting. He’s been in close contact with Orange County Schools Superintendent Dr. Monique Felder. He would receive several more phone calls before the end of the next hour.

For Atherton, the wheels of anticipation have been in motion for days over how the district would respond to the growing wave of cancelations and closings. As Chairman of the Board of Education for the Orange County Schools District, Atherton considers it a top priority to take part in as many school-related functions and information gathering and sharing events as possible. One might believe Atherton either has an identical twin or has discovered time travel.

Little did he know that by the end of the day, Atherton’s normally full schedule of school events would be indefinitely wiped clear, as Orange County Schools would become one of the first in North Carolina to close its doors to students and staff, doing its part to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Atherton is in the second year of his four-year term on the Orange County Board of Education. It’s a role for which he spares no passion in carrying out.

“To do this job right, it is a lot of work,” Atherton said. “You can be on the school board, go to two meetings, show up, vote and leave. Then you spend weeks being disconnected and then come back. To do the board position correctly — and to do the chair position correctly — it is a large time commitment. People who are considering running need to consider how they would properly balance that.”

When he first decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education, Atherton discussed with his wife what it would take to make it possible. 

“Our son was going to be going to college,” he said. “We had two children that were going to be going into kindergarten. We had these issues and concerns, and I read through candidates profiles. I just felt I could bring a different perspective and I wanted to try to make fundamental changes. I didn’t come up through the school system in the sense of being a teacher, or anything like that. I have an engineering background. I wasn’t going to look at things and just say, ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ People will tell you that I’m not very good at hiding some of my emotions. When I hear someone say, ‘well, this is just the way we do it,’ I normally try to be very respective and say, ‘Why don’t we look at a different way of doing this, because just because we’ve always done it this way, it doesn’t mean it’s the right way.’

Preparing the students 

Much of Atherton’s focus was how the school board could help schools better prepare students for life after school and how to make them more aware of the options. He is a big booster of Career Technical Education (CTE) and rarely misses an opportunity to promote the use of high school interns in local small businesses.

“Getting kids the experience of working in a business, even if it’s just for two hours a day, or a few hours a week is a huge benefit to the kids and the businesses,” Atherton said. “We have so many small businesses in our community, and those small businesses need kids that are skilled and who want to stay in our community. The best way to keep those kids here is to give them opportunity and help them build the passion in that area.”

Getting to see that passion come forward is a big part of what drives Atherton’s physics-defying schedule and commitment to attend as many school and school board-related events.

“If somebody takes the time to invite me to an event, I make it my purpose to attend,” he said. “There are times when I’m at an event at 5:00, at one at 5:30, then at 6:30. It is very rewarding to me to see the teachers, staff and the kids be so proud of what they’re doing. In talking with them you can see and hear the students’ passion. To me, it’s not a matter of being at the school board meetings. It’s a matter of being at the schools and in the community and seeing the results. 

He also seeks out teachers for their input and opinions. 

“I try to go to the schools and I’ll ask teachers three things — and I’m careful to not interrupt their class: What are you most proud of in your school? What’s your biggest challenge? What can I do as a school board member to help?” 

Keeping a high profile at school events and his frequent communications with students and teachers helps Atherton keep a finger on the pulse of the school system and the community. It also keeps him informed of programs schools are involved with that the Board of Education can get behind and support.

“What I find is a lot of teachers will talk about the community, unique programs at the school,” he said. “When I learn about them, I bring that information to the school board meetings.

Yes, he has a job

Some maybe surprised to learn that Atherton has a full-time job. 

“My daughter tells me all the time that people think school board is a full-time position,” he said. “She’s not wrong, by the way. I do work full time. I work for the Clorox Co. It owns several subsidiaries, including Bert’s Bees, which is where I work. If it wasn’t for its flexibility, I wouldn’t be able to do this. Clorox has been very generous in allowing me to make up the time so that I can be involved in Orange County Schools events. I do have to use vacation. There are meetings and events where I’m using my vacation time so that I can attend. This is something we decided as a family. We wanted to do this to give back to the community, to be more involved and help as we could. My wife has her own business as well. It’s been the right balance for us, but not an easy balance.”

When he is not working or at a Board of Education function, Atherton said he loves to spend time with his family. 

“We love to go out to parks. Enjoy the community. A lot of it is just family time, because it goes by so quickly,” he said. “Having a child who is now a sophomore in college makes you hold on to the kids who are in elementary school. You look at your child in the first grade and say, ‘This goes by really quick.’ 

Atherton said he never loses sight of the fact that he is a parent first and foremost, and puts his children’s events first.

But the demands of serving on the Board of Education is rarely off his mind. And sometimes, his position is viewed with skepticism and as a sounding board.

“Public sentiment can be difficult to gauge, especially in social media,” Atherton said. “People on social media will sometimes make assumptions and assume negative intention. If I’m on social media and I see something that isn’t right, or I feel like this person needs a better understanding, or they’re saying something that concerns me about the school, I will message them and introduce myself, give them my number and offer to chat with them. A majority of the time, people have taken me up on that. I can tell you that I’ve had people who are very upset — they leave messages at the school, not on my phone — and I’ll call them back to talk. I’m not faulting them for being upset. I don’t take it personally. But there’s no value in not having a conversation with someone who is upset about something going on with the school system. It doesn’t mean we’re going to reach an agreement, but in having a conversation, at least we can understand each other’s position and figure out a way that makes sense. You have to have the conversations, even if they’re difficult. It’s been a good experience for me to hear the positives and the negatives. A lot of people have good ideas. They just don’t always have a mechanism to voice them.”

Working with the superintendent

Another area Atherton takes seriously as chair of the Board of Education is his work with the OCS Superintendent, Dr. Monique Felder. Despite being on the board for a short time, Felder is the third superintendent he has worked beside.

“For the school board members to be effective, they have to have a close working relationship with the superintendent,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to agree and disagree. That’s what makes it work. I have often told the superintendent that she has job security, because I would never want to be superintendent. You have to work with so many personalities and keep an open mind. You have to work with the board, work with the chair and work with the community and all of the school system staff.

“It has been a pleasure for me to work with her, to get her insight, to keep me grounded and at times for us to challenge each other,” Atherton said. “It’s why it works. We haven’t always agreed, but I can tell you that when we get to the end of the conversation, we are comfortable with where it is.”

He circles back to the importance of communication. “Early on, I was asked what my biggest concern was when working with the superintendent. I said, ‘I don’t want to be surprised.’ If we have something going on in the school that is of significance, whenever you know, you should tell us. I don’t care if we have a resolution, I don’t care if we have all the facts. Keep us informed, we’re going to keep you informed. I share with Dr. Felder a lot of what I see on social media, or what I hear from people at schools and in the community, because it’s not the job of the school board to investigate. Giving issues and concerns to her gives her better visibility into what’s going on in the community. She doesn’t have time to go into social media and find what’s being said or what group has a concern with that. Hers is a very difficult job. She does it well.”  

Facing challenges

For all of Atherton’s optimism about Orange County Schools, he is well aware of the district’s challenges.

“If children come into the schools and they’re hungry, or if they’re dealing with mental trauma at home, it’s hard for them to focus on being successful in school,” he said. “They’re dealing with the parts of the foundation that should already be set in order for them to build to the next level. We have to make sure we’re meeting all of those needs to get the students to a common base. We also have to make sure that all of the educational needs of our students are met. If you look at our subgroup data, it’s embarrassing. To see these huge disparities in our demographics of students that are successful and not successful. We’re looking at how to change that. That’s a systematic change. This is something we’re going to have to step back and look at the system as a whole and develop an approach. Like how we’re teaching students to read. At the other end, we have the challenges of keeping kids engaged and making sure they graduate. Making sure these kids are thinking about what they’re going to do when they graduate and making sure they’re part of that discussion. Those discussions need to be happening earlier. Not all kids are going to go to a four-year college. Not all kids even want to go to a four-year college. But they should know about other options. We need to address those to become a stronger community. These challenges are not unique to Orange County. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix them. The opportunity gap is a problem everywhere, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to tackle that problem. We cannot sit back and say, ‘Well, everybody has that problem.’

And the challenges don’t just end with the students. Atherton said the school board and school system has identified recruiting and keeping qualified teachers a a challenge. It addressed the issue with a Grow Your Own program.

“One of the biggest successes has been the Grow Your Own program,” he said. “We have a lot of diversity, but much of it is with teaching assistants who want to be teachers, but haven’t had an opportunity to do so. The Grow Your Own gives the teaching assistant an opportunity to get an alternate license and become a teacher. So now we have teachers that are in these roles who can now become what they want to be, which is a teacher. They’re part of our community; they know our kids; they know our schools and families. Now they’re in that position. Now that opens up a position for a TA. We recruit at HBCUs, but it is very difficult to convince someone to come here when they’re so far away. And, maybe they could go to another state and make more money versus coming here, but we’re looking at all the ways we can encourage people to stay.”

The staff and the community

Atherton lists the staff of Orange County Schools as its top asset, noting its dedication and commitment to the students and families, which will only become more evident as the eventual closure of the schools would reveal. Teachers that would be forced from their classrooms by an invisible menace will hurriedly set up shop in virtual classrooms, pushing the envelope of their training. Teachers that will stand up to the challenge and focus on continuing to prepare students for their next level.

Sitting in the iron chairs on the patio in front of Weaver Street Market Place — chairs that would, one week later, be stacked and put away to keep people from gathering — Atherton uses the popular grocer as another example of the school district’s assets: the community.

“One of the things Weaver Street Market does that is not well known is its Round Up program,” he said. “It gave Orange County Schools $198,000 for food through our families by way of the Round Up program. We’re talking crates of food that was given out to all of our schools. It’s amazing. It’s the same with the work being done by TABLE. These are local dollars. These are people coming through the door and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to add 10 cents to this, or 12 cents or 50 cents.’ This is a company that is focused and engaged on community, it’s a big deal to me. This is why Weaver Street is such a great asset to our community. They’re focused on ensuring our children and families have what they need.”

Atherton is almost as active on social media as he is present at school functions. His tagline is “Proud of my school.” For him, ‘school’ is far more than a building where students learn and teachers teach. It’s where communities meet and reach out to each other; where families are helped; where futures are shaped, challenges are faced, problems are solved, passions are formed and events are held. It’s all on hold for now, but when it starts back up, you can bet you’ll find him there.