The newly formed Fresh Start Academy Advisory Board met last month to begin conversations about how to best serve students and what other matters should be considered regarding the academy’s programs, policies and practices.

The board, chaired by former Charles County health department officer Dianna Abney, is composed of a diverse group of community members representing various organizations. They include Catherine Meyers from the Center for Children, Education Association of Charles County president Linda McLaughlin; Yolanda Christian representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; former Charles County NAACP branch president Janice Wilson, who was selected by the board of education; Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles); Kim Johnson who was selected by the county commissioners; current CCNAACP president Dyotha Sweat and education committee chairwoman Christienne Coleman-Warren; and elementary parent representative DaVida Usual.

“There are a couple of things that I hope to bring to this role,” Abney told the Maryland Independent on Monday. “One, is my knowledge of child development as a pediatrician and the view that a pediatrician would have of any program where children are involved. And then also, just having run a practice and led the health department, I have the skills necessary to lead an advisory committee.”

Fresh Start is a program for young children in kindergarten through second grade, “whose academic success is impacted due to disruptive, destructive or aggressive behaviors.” The program, which was expected to start last month, is structured to help students who are still discovering how to adjust to school by providing them with the tools needed to access the curriculum, as well as successfully return to their home school, according to a press release from Charles County Public Schools.

When it comes to best serving students, Abney said some of the basic things that the advisory board will look at include how Fresh Start will help children thrive, criteria for program recruitment and criteria for placing children back in their home schools. But most importantly, the board will ensure the program is “being run justly and efficiently” so that positive outcomes are produced.

“Are the outcomes as expected and, if not, what needs to be done to improve those outcomes?” asked Abney, who is past president of the Center for Children’s board of directors. “We’re also having discussions about [whether other people] need to be at the table — perhaps a teacher or child development person. But we haven’t made any firm decisions yet.”

She said the only way to “get a fair board” is to have people from “all walks of life” who will look at this program “objectively.”

“We have people who are for, against or perhaps not quite sure how they feel about it. I think it’s important that we have all of those different opinions on our board,” Abney said. “One of the things that you have to do when you have varying opinions is you have to be a good listener, and you have to make sure everyone gets their say. You also have to depend on the fact that the people around the table are reasonable adults and will listen and make decisions based on objective data that they get. I really feel that we have a board that is capable of doing that.”

“Nobody is going to be a shrinking violet on this board,” Abney continued. “I think everybody is going to speak up and listen. We’re going to make decisions regardless of which way those decisions go.”

Superintendent Kimberly Hill said the school system is happy to consider perspectives from the advisory board as it moves forward. The board has agreed to make all future meetings open to the public in an effort to be more transparent.

“I think it will reassure the people that their voices are being heard,” said Abney.

Hill said the board’s first meeting, which was held Nov. 21, was “very productive.” Abney’s leadership has not only been helpful with making sure the school system understands the community’s concerns, but also hear and address those concerns as best as possible, she said.

“The NAACP is an important community partner and we wanted them to be a part of the Fresh Start advisory board from the beginning,” Hill told the Maryland Independent on Nov. 25. “I’m grateful that [branch president] Dyotha Sweat and her leadership team reconsidered and chose to be a part of this board. We need their voice at the table.”

The CCNAACP has and still strongly opposes Fresh Start, having worked tirelessly to prevent the program’s implementation since March. Sweat, who submitted an opinion piece to the Independent on Nov. 26, said the organization believes that “the program is unconstitutional and violates state and federal laws against education segregation, and the expulsion of children during their early childhood development.”

In addition, Sweat said the CCNAACP was “outraged at the notion that [it] was in agreement with the academy’s implementation” following the school system’s surprise announcement about the advisory board in May.

“After a highly publicized effort, the CCNAACP was unsuccessful in preventing CCPS from implementing the Fresh Start Academy at the start of the 2019-2020 school year,” Sweat said in her letter to the editor. “After meeting with Dr. Hill, the CCNAACP has agreed to sit on the advisory board. I made it clear that the CCNAACP will not be participating partners, but instead will be there to ensure the civil rights of every student identified by this program are not violated. The CCNAACP intends to ensure that identified students are properly screened and provided all resources mandated by law to receive an equitable education in the CCPS system.”

Hill submitted her own opinion piece to the Independent in June, stating that Fresh Start will give the school system’s “youngest learners the tools they need to access the curriculum and be successful.”

She also confirmed three major program changes, one of which included making enrollment voluntary.

Despite ongoing community concerns, Hill said she was very appreciative of all the representatives who attended last month’s meeting, which included a tour of the Fresh Start facility at the Robert D. Stethem Education Center in Pomfret. She looks forward to continuing conversations regarding how the school system can improve Fresh Start, which has yet to begin operation.

“We don’t know when the first student will be in the program because there’s a process that has to be gone through at the child’s home school,” Hill said. “At the Stethem Center, the luxury that we get is the ability to design a space around the needs of the program, rather than trying to force a program into an existing space. It’s all brand new. Everything you would need in a school is there to service the children.”

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