Superintendent Interview Series

The Importance of Student & Staff Wellbeing: A conversation with Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson


Daybreak Health CEO Alex Alvarado talks to Superintendents from across the country to discuss topics and trends affecting their school communities like chronic absenteeism, student mental health, academic outcomes, and more. These Superintendents represent districts from urban to rural, large to small, and range in their minority enrollment and number of students who are economically disadvantaged. Our goal is to capture different voices and perspectives on the challenges facing our schools today.

Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson, a lifelong educator, shares the ethos of the district, exploring themes of culture, fostering excellence, and the importance of student and staff wellbeing.

Creating a Culture of Belonging

At the heart of Dr. Jackson's leadership philosophy lies a profound commitment to fostering a culture where every individual feels seen, valued, and empowered to thrive. Transparency, open communication, and a shared focus on problem-solving form the bedrock of this culture. Dr. Jackson's background as a music teacher imbued in him the virtues of collaboration, improvisation, and harmony, which he seamlessly translates into his role as superintendent: “The lessons I learned in music are truly the lessons that I bring to the leadership table,” says Dr. Jackson. “Collaboration, cooperation, improvisation, structure, all of those things matter as a leader, but they're essential as a musician. To read music, you learn very quickly that your eyes have to see things that your fingers or your instrument don’t quite yet react to. So that's kind of a whole notion of visionary leadership.” 

Just as a skilled musician anticipates the notes ahead, Dr. Jackson encourages his team to envision future challenges and proactively navigate them with resilience and creativity. He shared, “Sometimes as a leader you have to be able to see things that aren't quite there yet.” Through nurturing authentic relationships and prioritizing the needs of students, Chatham County Schools cultivates a community where everyone feels a sense of belonging and purpose.

Prioritizing Educator & Staff Wellbeing

Just as the wellbeing of students is a priority, Dr. Jackson emphasizes the significance of supporting the holistic wellness of educators and staff as well. “Probably the biggest challenge that I'm seeing right now is that we have to be as intentional with adult wellbeing as we are with student wellbeing,” says Dr. Jackson. “I believe that if we're going to meet the needs of students, the adults have to be healthy and whole. And for them to be healthy and whole, we've got to be very deliberate about providing pathways and opportunities for them to check in and take care of themselves. So that we can, without apology, ask them to take care of our kids.”

Acknowledging the immense pressures and challenges faced by adults in the educational ecosystem, the district implements initiatives to promote self-care and resilience. “We go overboard to ensure we are consistently communicating to our staff about the importance of their mental health and wellbeing to try to destigmatize it.” By normalizing discussions around mental health and providing resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), Chatham County Schools fosters a culture of care and compassion where individuals feel empowered to prioritize their wellbeing without stigma or judgment. “Self-care is not being selfish,” he says. “You really have to do something for yourself every day.”

Equitable Mental Health Support for Students

The evolving landscape of student mental health demands a multifaceted approach that goes beyond traditional paradigms. Dr. Jackson said, “We can't solve our post-COVID reality with pre-COVID strategy. We have to be so very open to trying new things.” He underscores the importance of recognizing students' cries for help and providing them with safe spaces to express their challenges and aspirations. “I see students who are craving attention––but not just attention. They are craving real relationships where they can honestly build understanding about the pathways that are in front of them.” He added, “We have to be open to hearing them, listening to them, giving them voices, and build space safe places for these kids to ask questions, get answers, and express who they are and what they're thinking. [We want] to give them the ability to work closely with school staff and their families to problem-solve.” 

“We have behavior specialists and we've invested heavily in our MTSS model here so that we can identify our kids with the greatest need, and get support for them as quickly as we possibly can,” says Dr. Jackson. The partnership with Daybreak exemplifies Chatham County Schools' commitment to addressing mental health needs proactively. By offering innovative solutions such as teletherapy, the district ensures that students receive timely and tailored interventions. Through collaborative efforts with local partners and leveraging technology, Chatham County Schools endeavors to bridge the gap between mental health needs and accessible support services.

The Impact of Daybreak Partnership

The collaboration between Chatham County Schools and Daybreak marks a transformative milestone in the district's journey towards holistic student mental health support: “Daybreak helps us triage at the front end. We can help students and families before we get to that critical need where they need face-to-face intervention.” By expanding access to mental health services and leveraging innovative approaches, the partnership empowers students to navigate challenges and thrive academically, emotionally, and socially. “We don't wait for the students to fall apart before we try to support them,” says Dr. Jackson. “That's the biggest lesson. We can't wait for them to fall apart before we start intervening. And so that's why we're really, really thrilled to be working with Daybreak, as well as our local partners, our school social workers and counselors to try to build that safe place for kids.”

The district’s creative use of resources is necessary in a time where schools lack the resources to meet every student’s needs: “We find ourselves in a place where we have more need than we have capacity. So in our community––which is a pretty well resourced community––we don't have enough support to meet the needs of our students. So we have to go out and look for innovative ways of being able to get support for our kids.” The Daybreak partnership is a cornerstone of the district's support framework and underscores the district’s unwavering commitment to ensuring that every student receives the resources and care they need to succeed. “Our goal is to try to figure out ways to get more and more [mental health] support into the places where we need them. So we have to be innovative. That's why teletherapy works,” says Dr. Jackson. “It has been a tremendous partnership [with Daybreak] that we hope to leverage in the interest of kids as we move forward. Unapologetically, we care about our kids. And so we're going to do whatever is necessary to ensure that they are healthy and whole.”

Chatham County Schools epitomizes the convergence of visionary leadership, compassionate stewardship, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Dr. Jackson is steadfast in his dedication to nurturing a culture of empathy, belonging, and wellbeing to meet the educational and emotional goals of this generation.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.