How one superintendent is ensuring equal opportunities across his district

Dr. Aaron Fleming's background growing up in North Carolina has served him well as an advocate for all students in the state, not just those in his district.
By: | August 16, 2021
Superintendent Aaron Fleming (left) congratulates the first class of Harnett County Schools' Growing Greatness, students who have committed to becoming teachers after college.

Superintendent of Harnett County Schools in North Carolina Dr. Aaron Fleming couldn’t be more suited to his job—or the district. A native of North Carolina, he grew up in a rural part of the state between Charleston and Greensboro. “I look back often and think about how we had science labs with no gas running to them, and rundown classrooms,” he recalls. “I went on to NC State and met kids from other parts of the state who were so prepared, not necessarily education-wise but they had better resources. Today, I always tell our teachers and our parents that what we offer in Harnett should be the same as what students are getting in Charlotte or the coast or in the mountains. It should be similar for all.”

Entering his fifth year as superintendent—following a stint as Education Policy Advisor to the Speaker of the House with the North Carolina General Assembly—Fleming, like all superintendents in the U.S. in 2021, is facing a host of challenges and decisions that will shape the educational landscape not just while we wait out the pandemic, but for good. District Administration spoke with Dr. Fleming, who is also a member of the DA Leadership Institute, about what’s top of mind for him as we enter the 2021-22 school year.

What problems are at the top of the list to conquer this fall to move forward successfully?
“My greatest concern is the mental and physical health of our students. Many have been shut up with no access to their peers. Many are malnourished, with no access to a meal every day. It’s taken a toll on many, even if not a majority. So, we are going to have to take an active role to ensure these kids get back to where they need to be both physically and mentally. Without that, they won’t be able to learn.

“Second, I’m concerned about learning loss. Our teachers were actively instructing remotely during COVID, but some students cannot pick up that material as easily as others. So, we’ll have to focus on those gaps and how to get them caught up to the grade level they’re in. And we will be spending some of the ESSER funds on additional staff—nurses, additional tutors, special needs support and special needs teachers, and we’ve expanded after-school options, as well as instructional resources to help students advance in the classroom. On the facilities side, because we got $69 million in ESSER funds, we are adding on to several schools and upgrading HVAC systems as well.”

In North Carolina, are there any state-specific issues that stand out above others?
“We are focusing on professional development for our staff in the event we have to go remote again. Our teachers did a wonderful job basically switching over the course of a weekend to teach remotely, but there’s nothing like expecting 100 percent of your students back in the classroom. And just like we have a strong impetus for professional development when it comes to using tech in the classroom, it’s the same for students. We have to make sure devices are ready to go home every day. In this state, we get snowstorms and hurricanes… one storm can shut down our district. When that happens, there might not be electricity at school but those who do have it at home can keep learning if they have the devices. Otherwise, those devices are just sitting at school not being used.

“Last year, we made remote learning days out of snow days. The days didn’t have to be made up, but the students could sign on if they had internet. That’s a challenge in itself: Do we mark a kid absent if they can’t sign on, don’t have Google Meet, or electricity? It’s one thing to keep a level playing field at school but when they leave, they could be going to a mansion or a camper. There needs to be equity when it comes to home learning expectations. Another huge state initiative we have is connectivity for rural communities—making sure students get on high-speed internet at home. We’re nowhere near where we want to be yet.”

What’s been the most valuable part of your membership in the DA Leadership Institute?
“I think what I enjoy most are the opportunities. Two things in particular: One, I meet with my colleagues outside North Carolina that I typically don’t see much but who have a wealth of knowledge and experiences—it’s so easy to get into a mindset of how I’ve always done things, but to meet someone from a completely different background, from a different part of the country, and learn about the challenges they face—you get to exchange suggestions. The second thing I like a lot is that, as a superintendent, we have an opportunity to hear about products from different suppliers and vendors and get a look at what’s on the horizon—it may be edtech or something to do with facilities, but you get an inside look at what’s on the horizon. It gives us new ideas and lets us get a jump on things.”

More from DA