Hi Christopher! Thanks for taking the time to meet with me. Can you give me a rundown on where you started and what led you to where you are right now?
I am Christopher Blair, and I live in Montgomery, Alabama. I’m currently serving as Superintendent of Bullock County Schools in Union Springs, Alabama. It’s a very rural community right outside of Montgomery, mostly serving students who come from families that are socially and economically disadvantaged.
I got into education as a non-traditional graduate. I was at the University of Alabama at Birmingham studying Communications and English. I started working in the academic lab tutoring students in English, and I found a passion for getting the light bulb to come on and helping students work through their writing, grammar, and mechanics issues to become more confident writers. I had an advisor ask me if I was interested in education, and at first, I thought it was more about management than the academic growth process for the child, so I said no. However, that experience working in the academic lab really led me to pursue a Master’s in English Education. So, I finished my Communications and English degree and went into an educational program at Alabama State University. I became certified in 6-12 English and began teaching middle school and high school English. I did that for a couple of years and discovered that I had a knack for organization and leadership. I had a principal encourage me to go into educational leadership. So, I went and received a Master’s in Educational Leadership and became a principal. From then on, it’s been a 25-year journey in educational leadership. I have had a plethora of experiences in the classroom and as a central office administrator of various programs and services, which is really why my passion in Union Springs is so deep–because I’ve always worked with those underserved students, and I’ve done that from an equity lens.
What do you mean by equity lens?
I didn’t know it back then, but I was really trying to figure out some of the barriers to learning that adults are causing, and I say causing because it’s either directly or indirectly: law situations, systems, services, funding, etc. We’re asking children to be successful but not creating the environment for success. We’re challenging them when it comes to high-stakes tests, behavior, and more, but we’re not really embracing who children are, where they come from, especially when talking about high-poverty minority children. So, my work is around the question: How do we embrace who people are, value their culture, value what they bring to the table, and make them feel accepted while we give them what they need to be educated in terms of skills, strategies, and experiences? So, I come with that passion, and I’ve been able to push that through a lot of the work here in Bullock County.
I can see that you’re very passionate about your work and the children you serve. What are you working to implement now in order to create that successful environment you mentioned?
One of the tangible things we are working on right now is the physical environment. I’m in one of 17 high-poverty rural districts that are part of what we call the Black Belt. These counties do not have a strong economic base to create facilities and places of excellence for children because there is not an influx of revenue to put towards these spaces. We expect children to be successful students, but we put them in environments where the roofs are leaking, the windows are cracked, the bathroom facilities are falling apart, the classrooms haven’t been painted, and that’s an indication of value to me. So, when I came to Bullock County Schools, we actually went out and lobbied for a tax increase and got that passed. Now, we’ve been able to start fixing these facilities, buy buses, and do general simple things that have increased the value that children feel for themselves.
How has the pandemic impacted these existing equity gaps, and what issues of learning loss have you encountered in the past year?
Well, for us, the pandemic didn’t exacerbate our equity issues–It generated a response. We always knew we needed technology. We knew we needed better heating and cooling units and more resources to keep things clean. It was almost like we had to go through this terrible sickness for people to see what we already struggle with in these high-poverty areas. Now we can give internet to our children, because our children didn’t have those resources in the first place. There was a learning curve for teachers to set up online classrooms and parents to navigate new technology, but it was exciting that it was happening. It’s now a conversation that’s being held, and resources are being put in places where I don’t think they would have ever been placed if not for this pandemic.
What kind of professional development do you think would add value to your district right now?
In thinking about my district, but also thinking about others, we do a lot of professional development around pedagogy and how to develop effective lessons to engage children. However, the lacking piece, I believe, is that we don’t tap into culturally responsive curricula, and a lot of teachers don’t know how to respond culturally to the children. For example, how can we make instruction relevant so that we can talk about dancing in class from a historical perspective? There’s something about music that makes you feel good! But there’s a history to music that can inform why it makes you feel that way. There are culturally relevant ways to incorporate children’s history into instruction. There are 275,000 African American children in Alabama’s public schools that are still underperforming when compared to white students. It’s important for those children to understand the cultural and historical relevance of things like music, dancing, literature, just like it’s important for African American children to see themselves in the books in their classrooms or other media. So, there’s this gap of cultural relevance and response. If educators don’t ever tap into it, children will never learn how to value themselves.
What’s an example of an opportunity to create those culturally relevant experiences for children?
We had the best experience this summer with our Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School. It served over 40 children ages 4, 5, and 6. It was a six-week program full of cultural relevance that taught children to become better readers. Those children gained such an awareness of who they are along with improved reading comprehension skills. It wasn’t about making Black children feel like somebody owed them something; it created a safe space to beat a drum and dance but also read eloquently, comprehend what they’ve read, talk about it, write about it, draw about it, and see themselves in the books they read! That’s what it was about. Now, those students that experienced the Freedom School are more confident, skillful, and competitive. When they go back into the classroom and are faced with a standardized test, they’re going to have content in that test with unfamiliar words such as “yacht,” and they don’t know what a yacht is, but we have given them the skills to use context clues to get through the text and comprehend what was read.
Those are valuable experiences that we need more of. The state department funded the program. They granted us $100,000 to implement the program after a group of education leaders from my district, the Alabama Department of Education, and other state educational entities and departments participated in a site visit to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). It’s an awesome place to visit–they’re impacting thousands of children. During our visit to HCZ, we learned how to disrupt poverty in Alabama from a strategic, cultural perspective to get children to learn at higher levels. I’m thrilled that my district is going to offer a Freedom School again this summer. I think that’s an example of a glimmer of hope and the things one can do that will impact children.
That’s a great example, and I’m happy that it will continue next year! We are so grateful to have you as a member of our Advisory Board, and we are excited to continue these conversations.
I’m glad to be a part of the R7CC Advisory Board to have the lens of what’s systemically happening across Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi and how we can support the populations that are underserved. We’re going to keep having a lot of conversations around social reform, but really people want to be respected, they want to have opportunities, they want to feel like they’re valued. I just appreciate being a part of this team to see what works and what still needs to be addressed.
Photo of Christopher Blair (2021)