Ivy resident Meg Bryce has announced her candidacy for the at-large seat on the Albemarle County School Board in a bid to succeed Jonno Alcaro, who has said he will not run again. Bryce says her campaign will focus on prioritizing academic excellence in schools and will emphasize strong partnerships between parents and teachers, who she says are the school division’s “greatest asset.” The at-large member on the seven-person School Board is elected by voters county-wide, as opposed to the six seats that represent each magisterial district.
Bryce holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from UVA, where she teaches in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program. She and her husband have four children—a fifth grader, third grader, kindergartener, and a two-year-old—and they have lived for 11 years in the Samuel Miller district. Though her older children have all attended county public schools, Bryce reluctantly moved them to private school last year.
“I loved Murray Elementary,” she said. “The teachers were wonderful and it was really hard to leave, but, ultimately, I’m not comfortable with the people who are in charge—not the School Board and not the Superintendent. We don’t trust that they have our kids’ best interests at heart, and how can you stay in a school when you don’t trust the people in charge?”
Bryce said that her concerns began when lingering Covid protocols kept Albemarle schools closed longer than surrounding counties, despite medical evidence and research presented to the School Board on the closure’s negative effects on student learning and mental health. “It was so difficult to get schools to reopen, and it shouldn’t have been that hard,” she said. “That level of disregard for evidence and for parental concern was alarming and incredibly frustrating.”
She saw the trend continue when parents spoke against the Courageous Conversations curriculum and elements of the division’s transgender policy regarding parental rights, as the board was “dismissive of any concerns.” “I’ve continued to speak at school board meetings, and it’s like shouting into a void,” she said. Even though her kids are no longer in the school system, Bryce feels that her community responsibility is to try to effect change for everyone, so she decided to run for a seat on the board.
“The drum that I want to beat is that we have to focus on academic excellence,” said Bryce. “A lot goes into that, including transparency from the School Board, fiscal responsibility, and parental involvement. People assume that [Albemarle] is the best division in the area. I think they’d be shocked to learn that we’ve been declining for 10 years. We are the only county in our geographic area that has not started to rebound [on standardized testing] since Covid. We have continued to flatline whereas everybody else is on an uptick.”
Bryce sees the county’s attempts at Covid learning recovery as misguided and ineffectual. “There was a half-hearted attempt at summer school, which was only four weeks and most students could attend for only one week,” she said. “They learned nothing.” Relaxed academic policies such as unlimited test retakes and no grading of homework have contributed to a fractured learning environment, she said, pointing to what she observed during Western Albemarle High School’s “Warrior period” study hall for a chemistry class. “It’s a remediation period, but the students are all on different assignments because of retakes. The teacher walks around to each table basically dealing with a semester’s worth of assignments for a minute or two at a time.”
Teachers, said Bryce, are a key underutilized resource in recovering learning loss and closing the achievement gap. “A lower school teacher reached out to me to explain how we are not serving kids well with our reading programs, and described how she earned her own certification in phonics-based instruction to teach her students,” she said. “I wrote back and thanked her and asked what do division officials say when she tells them this. And she said, ‘Nobody’s ever asked.’”
In response to declines in student SOL test pass rates, the division has recently hired a consulting firm to perform an Instructional Practices Audit to determine why it has been unable to narrow student achievement gaps among various demographic groups. “Every time there’s a problem, we just throw money at it,” said Bryce, noting that per-pupil spending continues to rise sharply even as enrollments and test scores stay flat or decline. “As far as I can tell, nobody’s asking the teachers. We’ve got in-house experts right here. Use them. It’s concerning that teachers are afraid to speak up at a time when there’s a teacher shortage.”
The debate over various approaches to core instruction is of particular interest to Bryce. “Reading instruction, specifically phonics and the science of reading, are having a moment right now,” she said. “I would really like to take a deep dive into how we’re teaching reading and math, and I think those are places where we should be spending money and listening to teachers.”
Bryce also thinks that greater attention should be paid to economically disadvantaged students, whose test scores also show consistently wide achievement gaps, a problem which has led to tenuous accreditation status for several division schools. “We seem to have lost the plot on this, because we know that what pulls people out of poverty is a good education,” she said. “That’s what makes a difference for people, but teachers have told me that these disadvantaged kids are just falling through the cracks.”
Better within-school reporting systems that are free from punitive disincentives would help the School Board identify problems before they get out of hand, said Bryce. “I question whether Albemarle High School and Monticello High School are reporting violence properly because they are worried about jeopardizing their accreditation,” she said. “Are incidences of physical altercations really down from last year, or are we just calling it something different? The same goes for absenteeism, which plays into accreditation. Parents tell me their high school kids don’t have to be there for much of the day but are counted as present, and I verified that with the schools, it’s true.”
Bryce believes that the School Board should not been seen as a rubber stamp for the Superintendent’s policy proposals. “It should be a partnership, but good progress is never made when everybody agrees on everything. We talk a lot about diversity, but never about diversity of thought, and that’s very dangerous—that excludes people. We need to de-stigmatize disagreement, and listen to parents, teachers and [contrary] ideas.” She also thinks the board and Superintendent should admit and discuss past mistakes. “There was no self-reflection after they pulled School Resource Officers out of schools in 2021 but now are reinstating an SRO at Albemarle High School, for example.”
Bryce’s late father was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and some observers attempt to link her to every pronouncement he made from the bench. “I love my dad, I miss him, but I’m not running as Antonin Scalia’s daughter,” she said. “I have studied the issues and I have my own perspective and ideas about what Albemarle County needs to do to improve education for all K-12 students. He did teach me to have a deep respect for public education, and I’m a proud product of K-12 Virginia schools, which is why I’m fighting for all Albemarle County children in this race.”
More information on Meg Bryce can be found at megforschoolboard.com. In our next issue the Gazette will profile Bryce’s opponent, Allison Spillman, whose website is electallisonspillman.com.