Orange County Schools (OCS) has announced its pick for the district’s first-ever chief equity officer after the Board of Education (BOE) voted to approve Dr. Dena Keeling for the role on June 4.

This position is new to OCS, and Keeling’s addition to administration follows controversy over equity in the district. That growing controversy was punctuated by a BOE meeting on Monday where over a dozen citizens made public comment regarding equity and other issues in OCS.

“There’s always pushback when you’re changing systems that have been comfortable historically,” Keeling said in an OCS press release. “My hope is that we come together and collaborate on defining what equity looks like for us and for our students.”

Keeling earned her doctorate of education with a concentration in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She also holds a B.A. in psychology from UNC- Chapel Hill, an M.S. in counselor education from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and an M.A. in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Keeling’s career background is in Guilford County Schools, where she worked as a guidance counselor for 14 years. She has also served as an adjunct professor at Davidson Community College and an access therapist with Davidson County Mental Health.

Keeling has also previously acted as vice president of the North Carolina School Counselor Association (NCSCA) and as State Middle School Chair for the NCSCA.

Latarndra Strong, the founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, a group dedicated to working for different equity-related causes in OCS, said that she is “delighted” at the selection of Keeling, and that she thinks the former counselor’s particular set of skills is well-suited to the task of chief equity officer.

“We have a district that’s challenged with equity...and I think that, given her counselor background, she brings a really unique set of tools to the position,” Strong said. “In some ways our leadership has indicated that they’re ready to take some of these next steps for working towards equity, but I don’t think we’re at a point where a majority of people in the district are ready for a change or a focus on equity. [Keeling] is very personable and I’m hoping her background and personality can help equity progress here.”

According to the OCS press release, educating the public on the nature of her role will be one of Keeling’s first tasks as chief equity officer.

“My job is to make sure that all students get what they need so that they can be successful academically, socially and in their future career endeavors,” she said in the release. “This work will be about helping families and students who are overcoming barriers to accomplish their goals.”