At least one District 1 seat on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education will be up for grabs this election cycle.
John Davenport Jr., who currently occupies one of the two seats in the predominantly black district, has announced that he plans to run for one of the three at-large positions on the School Board.
Davenport, a Republican, was controversially appointed to the board in 2011 by the Republican-controlled Board of Education. He fulfilled a seat left vacant after Democrat Geneva Brown stepped down because of health reasons. Davenport, CEO and president of his own engineering, design and consulting firm, said he felt that as a Republican, his odds would be better in a countywide race rather than in the heavily Democratic District 1.
“The same people who would’ve voted for me if I were in District 1 can vote for me at-large, and then I’ve got voters from all over the county who can also vote for me,” reasoned the father of five.
All nine members of the School Board are up for reelection this year. If Davenport is elected to an at-large seat, the board could have the most diverse makeup it has seen in recent history, as both District 1 seats are likely to be occupied by African Americans, pointed out longtime board member Vic Johnson, who also represents District 1.
“He could win at-large and we could get another person in this area on the board – another black person,” noted Johnson, who said he is “still thinking about” whether he will run for reelection himself. “So I think he should run at large.”
Elisabeth Motsinger, one of just two Democrats (along with Johnson) on the board, and Republicans Jeannie Metcalf and Irene May, who was appointed to the Board last year after Donny Lambeth was elected to the General Assembly, currently are the at-large members.
Johnson, who has served on the board since 1997, was among the early critics who believed another Democrat should have succeeded Brown, but the former educator says Davenport has proved to be moderate in his decision making.
“He’s done a good job. We’ve gotten some stuff done,” Johnson stated. “…He’s done a pretty good job, as far as I’m concerned, dealing with the African American community.”
School board elections were briefly nonpartisan, a measure that Davenport supported. He was one of only two dissenters when the board made the move to return to partisan races in 2011.
“Honestly, I feel like your general elections – local elections – are not about national politics, and once you get on that board, you find that out real quick,” he said. “Most of our votes have not been partisan split; they’ve been split on other issues.”
Davenport joined the school board with specific goals in mind. Addressing the achievement gap that exists between white students and students of color, increasing literacy in the early grades and improving graduation rates systemwide were among his chief objectives. To that end, he has pushed for WS/FCS to explore new programs and ideas, such as single gender classrooms, which now exist in five schools across the district. Although the concept received a tepid response early on, the feedback he has received from teachers and administrators since the program was implemented has been unequivocally positive, especially at Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy, where the program was launched this year, Davenport said.
“There were a number of people from Winston-Salem Prep, teachers that were skeptical, but the feedback that I’ve gotten from the teachers since it’s been implemented is ‘We absolutely love it,’” he stated. “…The girls, particularly at the middle school level, felt less social pressure and were able to feel comfortable being themselves in the classroom.”
Davenport said the single gender classes are one of many ways he hopes to foster a higher level of student achievement, especially among groups that are disproportionately represented in negative statistics such as dropout rates and disciplinary issues. Next on his agenda is re-imagining the use of Equity Plus funding, which the school system awards to schools with a certain percentage of students on free and reduced lunch. The program has gotten away from its initial focus, which was to provide additional support to the system’s most under-resourced schools following the implementation of the School Choice plan over a decade ago, Davenport said. If Davenport has his way, the funds will be diverted from the wide range of schools it currently serves to a select sampling of schools that need it most, for use in the creation of new programming, such as initiatives that promote literacy – a key precursor to student achievement – in grades K-2.
“We can’t have schools in the suburbs that are Equity Plus schools,” he said. “That’s not what it was designed for.”
If elected to a full term of his own, Davenport said he will work for greater parity across the board, making sure the less advantaged schools have access to the same resources and technology that the more affluent schools have. Serving on the selection committees for principals in predominantly African American schools, including Carver High School and Mineral Springs Middle and helping to recruit Dr. Beverly Emory as the system’s new superintendent are among his most important roles as a Board of Education member to date, Davenport said, but there is much more work to be done.
“I want to make sure that we’re not just graduating students,” he remarked. “I want to make sure that the students have the skill sets to be successful.”