Orange County Schools, like all other school systems across the state and nation, is navigating a perilous start of the school year unlike any its ever experienced. The task is seemingly insurmountable and difficult at every turn. It’s likely the first time every player in education — students, families, teachers, principals, administrative staff — have had to re-learn and re-evaluate what’s expected of them.
And yet, at least one member of the Orange County Schools district, considers herself fortunate to be where she is right now in her career.
“Some people spend their whole life searching for their career passion,” said Dr. Kathleen A. Dawson. “I’ve found mine.”
Just two months ago, Dawson joined OCS as Deputy Superintendent, a newly created position to, among other things, assist and support Superintendent Dr. Monique Felder.
“It’s sounds cliché that I feel so fortunate that I found my calling in life early and that I’m getting to commit my whole life to the betterment of our children, especially our underrepresented children. I’m always fighting for what’s in the best interest of all of our students.”
Dawson still lives in Greensboro where she worked in the Guilford County Schools system for two years as Chief Innovation Officer. Prior to that she worked in the Nashville school system and with Boston Public Schools.
“Wherever I am I commit to that community,” Dawson said. “I’m diehard. I serve the students of Orange County Schools. I’m all in. This is my community. I’m going to do whatever I can do to learn and know and serve my community. That’s how I get.”
Dawson isn’t the only recruit to come to Orange County from Nashville. Dr. Felder was also brought in from Music City. Dawson said she didn’t work for Felder, but she did get to observe her leading the academic team in Nashville.
“I saw how she worked to get the students to improve, especially around literacy,” Dawson said of Felder. “I was honored when she and I connected about an opportunity to join this team as the deputy superintendent.”
It’s no surprise that Felder was the primary reason Dawson pursued the position with Orange County Schools. “You appreciate when you can support a superintendent that is aligned philosophically, but also when you have a superintendent that is as committed and dedicated to the students as she is,” Dawson said. “Her leadership style. That was really important to me. And who she is as a person is really important. I always look for that in every supervisor that I support. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have had really good leaders to learn from. I look forward to how much I’ve learned from her mentorship and working with her and observing has been really valuable as well.”
Dawson said her primary role is to support the superintendent and school system in helping to implement what’s needed to accomplish its strategic goals. Those goals are focused around literacy, improving culture, climate and the social and emotional development of students and staff. It also involves strengthening family engagement to develop partnerships for educating their children.
“When I think about my role as Deputy Superintendent, it’s really focusing on supporting schools and how our principals are being instructional leaders, and to be able to do that,” she said. “I’m also involved with helping with taking a look at our systems that we have in place in the district.”
One area where Dawson and Felder’s philosophies align is with ensuring all students have opportunities for an equitable education and recognizing how it impacts education.
“Equity isn’t a standalone goal,” Dawson said. “Equity has to be embedded and infused in everything we do, the way we think, the way we act, the way we make decisions.”
Dawson will also be called upon to help review what systems Orange County Schools has in place and how they align and help with the efficiency of its teams. She will collaborate with different departments, but mainly the curriculum instruction department to make sure the county is meeting its goals.
However, in COVID times, one should expect to be thrown into jobs and expectations that are less-familiar. This has also been the case with the Deputy Superintendent.
“I’ve had to step in and help out with our technology initiative because our Chief Technology Officer is out right now,” Dawson said. “I have had to step in and that’s been a major task. It’s one thing that you’re providing a free public education, especially in times like this, when you have to do so remotely. There are several things you have to do and have in place in order to have equitable access for families and students. The big one is technology. We ran into some challenges when our vendor wasn’t able to supply them in the timeline we originally had because of issues that were out of our control. We unexpectedly had to change manufacturers of our devices. We worked with our vendor to find a different one. All of that takes time. Our first order for some of our teachers and students was delayed. We had to find some other work-arounds. We were able to equip teachers with devices, but they were not new and they needed cameras. So we got them cameras so they could have a class with video. That was important.”
Dawson said one of the biggest challenges with providing technology is internet connectivity. She said the Orange County Board of Education has been advocating for better internet services with government officials.
“We can give devices and hotspots to families that don’t have internet connections, but if there’s no tower for it to connect to, then it doesn’t matter what we can provide,” she said. “That’s where we’re concerned and where we’re advocating for families to have equitable access to online instruction. That’s been a big project that I’ve been working with the IT team to handle. The IT department has been making a huge effort to work through as many of the Helpdesk tickets as possible to meet the needs of our families and staff.”
Dawson said she’s been impressed with the efforts displayed by all levels of the Orange County Schools staff. “Our team has been very strong in that everyone — from our teachers to our school-level leaders and principals, to our central office staff — has been all-hands-on-deck. We’re doing whatever it takes to help our students and families. And we recognize that it’s been a lot on our teachers, especially teachers who are also parents. It’s been a hard pivot for them. We’ve asked them in a short amount of time to quickly learn about new curriculum. And new protocols. How to use new technologies and platforms. We’ve asked a lot from them and we understand that. And they’ve given us a lot of grace in understanding that we’re all in this together. There’s not one person who has experienced this before.”
Although she hasn’t been with the district long, Dawson says she’s been privileged to work with a group of people and a community with the level of commitment she’s witnessed in Orange County.
“I was listening to a board meeting where you heard from a Latinex family,” she said. “Even though there’s so much more we need to hear from the Latinex community and other underrepresented populations, I was hearing much more here than I have heard at board meetings in other communities.That was impressive. It’s very different when you say it’s all about the children and you put children first, and then when you’re actually making the decisions and you know that. That’s what you’re about. It’s the same with equity. You can say it’s about equity, but when it’s time to make the policy changes, or the real systemic changes that we need to do, I see them wanting to take a look at what are the systemic changes we need to make to address the inequities for our kids.”
Dawson, who was born in Seoul, South Korea and came to the U.S. when she was 7-years-old, is familiar with the difficulties facing ESOL families and students. She also believes COVID has done much to further expose the inequities many Orange County Schools students are contending with.
“In the education system, we’ve always known about the inequities. What COVID did was threw off the blanket to reveal the inequities to a much larger audience. For more people to see. Even though OCS knew about certain inequities, or the board knew about inequities, COVID said, ‘Hey World, look at all of these inequities!’ It’s not little stuff we’re talking about. It’s not superficial stuff that can be easily fixed. Many of these inequities are connected to systemic racism. It’s what we have to address if we’re truly going to address the inequities. It can’t be separate conversations. I feel that we’re at a turning point,” she said. “I just hope that, as human beings, we’ll make the right turn. Many people speak of equity, but I wonder if they truly understand what that means, especially when it may impact their own children. Will they be willing to let go of their privilege and status for the greater good?”
Another area of concern that has the attention of the Deputy Superintendent is the county’s low literacy rate. Dawson admits it’s a huge challenge to address, but she believes the county can put changes in place to get moving in the right direction.
“One of the best decisions Orange County Schools made was to bring Dr. Felder here, because she has a real strength and proven performance around literacy. Literacy is a civil right. Every human being has a right to be literate. If we’re not educating all of our students to be literate, that’s a huge challenge to address. Will we be up to the task to tackle this issue? Absolutely. We have a leadership that’s committed. We have a leadership team that is data-driven, research-based, the best practices for our students. COVID and being remote has presented different challenges to overcoming literacy issues, but we will figure it out and work through. We’re in our third week of school and we’re already assessing. What’s working, what’s not working? We’re always considering what will help to improve teacher practices to increase student performances. It won’t be easy and we won’t see immediate improvements, but we know that we have to stay the course. We have to follow the research and the data. Data is another way our students speak to us. We have to really look at that and make informed decisions based on what it tells us.
“Shifting from Boston to Nashville to Guilford County and now to Orange County has broadened my focus of the types of communities I serve,” Dawson added. “I’ve worked with families that are urban, suburban and rural. Each has its own challenges and strengths. Orange County is more rural, so there are inequities affecting rural families that are not affecting families that are closer to town. Rural challenges involve the lack of internet access. Research Triangle Park is just down the road, but we have areas in this county that don’t have internet access? That’s not OK. That needs to be fixed. Families should be able to live in a rural area and still have access. How can we prepare our students to be competitive in the global labor market if we can’t even get them access to the internet?”
Dawson, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin Superior; her Master’s degree from Harvard; and her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania admits to being something of a workaholic. She still tries to find time to find balance by running and working out. She is also an avid dancer.