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Engagement: Superintendent’s Neighborhood Walk and Talk

The Community Center at South Estes/Ridgefield is tucked at the back of the housing complex, and on September 22, the Director of Chapel Hill Public Housing, Faith Brodie, had set out refreshments and organized seating in the small building, well before Superintendent Nyah Hamlett arrived for the first CHCCS Neighborhood Walk and Talk of the 2022-23 school year. Accompanying Dr. Hamlett were the CHCCS Communications team and interpreters Loyal Wai and Norma Centeno, as well as a wagon load of turquoise “swag bags” with school supplies and one page summaries of the new Strategic Plan 2027: Think (and Act) Differently. 

The Superintendent’s Neighborhood Walk and Talks are intended to be a new series of informal visits that will take place on scheduled weekdays, and for those present at the inaugural visit to South Estes, it was a great success. The goal is to connect with families in diverse communities in a natural, unscripted way – hanging out, listening, and sharing nuggets from the Strategic Plan. No formal work attire or folders of official papers– just jeans and tee shirts, as well as athletic shoes (see below!)

Dr. H playing horse

One of the first children into the Center was a Phillips Middle School 6th grade student who initially seemed eager to go back outside to play with friends, but once Dr. Hamlett engaged him in conversation, he was ready to hang around, sharing his thoughts about playing basketball at school. When he was joined by a 7th grade friend, they both quickly announced with excitement that Phillips football had beaten a rival middle school the previous day.

“Would you all like to shoot some baskets outside with me?” Dr. Hamlett asked the children who had filed into the Center. “Just don’t ask me to play Horse,” she added, moments before she found herself on the court, playing horse with the students from Phillips. A number of younger children looked on, eating bags of Skinny Popcorn provided by Brodie. 

After several mothers joined Brodie inside the Center, Dr. Hamlett returned to introduce a few of the Core Values from the Strategic Plan 2027. The children piled back inside for more popcorn and the swag bags, and Dr. Hamlett asked them who their Rashkis and Phillips teachers are and what they like to do in school. “Math!” one very small child shouted. 

community center at S Estes

She asked the children whether they have much homework, and whether they know where and how to seek academic support. “Do you older students check to see if the younger ones need help?” she asked.

One of the mothers was quick to answer, “These kids are all so wonderful! We are a big community of families, and there’s always someone here who can help.”

Dr. Hamlett named the five Core Values of the new Strategic Plan: Engagement, Collective Efficacy, Social Justice Action, Wellness and Joy…and then she asked the children what JOY means to them. “Happiness!” a child said (who was enjoying her third bag of popcorn.)

As the residents began to disperse for dinner and homework, Dr. Hamlett said, “Before you go, I want to thank you for giving me a chance to play with you all, because that’s really important to me.” She paused. “One last question – Can I come back again to play basketball with you?” and even the smallest children nodded in agreement. Dr H at S. Estes

Before the CHCCS team left South Estes, they were joined by Julian Gerner, a maintenance supervisor from the Town of Chapel Hill, and along with Wai and Centeno, they walked around the units to speak to additional children or adults outside, as well as deliver a few more swag bags containing highlights of the Strategic Plan. Loyal Wai knows every Burmese and Karen family in the housing development, and his presence was clearly familiar and reassuring to those parents who are English learners. Loyal at S. Estes

Days later, Dr. Hamlett tweeted her thoughts on this casual, yet unique form of engagement: “CHCCS #Heartwork > suits, meetings and bureaucracy!”

Interested in having a casual Neighborhood Walk and Talk where you live? Start the conversation by sending an email to communications@chccs.k12.nc.us, and a member of the team will get back to you.