Durham's school system has long fought its image as the Triangle's lowly stepchild.
Some real estate agents in surrounding counties reportedly have advised people not to buy homes in Durham because of the schools. And the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau releases a comparison of the district's student achievement data with those of other Triangle counties -- attempting to refute what it calls "water cooler talk" that students can't get a good education in Durham.
But now Durham is moving out of the shadows of the Wake and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems, thanks to several initiatives that are shaking up the iconic image of high school.
This year, with the opening of the "early college high school" program at N.C. Central University, Durham became the only place in the region where an entire class of high school freshmen takes classes on a college campus. Starting with a 92-member inaugural class, the school will serve 400 students.
Within two years, Durham will open two other small high schools --the City of Medicine Academy and a middle college high school -- where students will earn one to two years of college credit along with their high school diplomas.
And still more innovative high school programs are in the works.
"Durham really is on the cutting edge," Vann Langston said. Langston is executive director of High Five: Regional Partnership for High School Excellence, an organization working with Durham, Wake, Orange and Johnston counties to reform high schools.
Durham schools Superintendent Ann Denlinger said her phone rings repeatedly with people wanting to pick her brain about the new programs "from far away, not just North Carolina anymore."
High school reform is perhaps the biggest movement for systemic change in public education in decades. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has served as an impetus by bankrolling reform efforts nationwide.
Durham has seized the opportunity, with all three projects receiving funding from the foundation.
High school reform seeks to convert the one-size-fits-all, mega-high school structure into a small, specialized, more personal setting. The aim is to promote what have been coined the new three R's -- rigor, relationships and relevance -- to reduce dropout rates and better prepare students for the work force.
The state's reform efforts began about five years ago but have been slow-moving, said Janice Davis, deputy state superintendent.
"These big comprehensive high schools ... work for some kids, but they don't work all that great for any kids," she said.
Durham leads pack
Other Triangle districts have started high school reform efforts but lag behind Durham when it comes to small, specialized schools.
The Wake County school system is in the design phase of what it hopes will be several early college high schools. These are small schools housed on college campuses. They allow students of high school age to attend college classes and complete an associate's degree or their first two years of college.
Richard Murphy, Wake's director of high schools, said the district has approached the heads of various universities to gauge their interest.
In Durham, the early college high school targets students underrepresented among the college population -- students of color, low-income students and students whose native language is not English.
Next fall, Durham will open its middle college high school at Durham Technical Community College. The middle college will allow students to take classes that can lead to an associate's degree while they also earn their high school diplomas.
The Orange and Chapel Hill school systems are looking into opening a joint middle college high school with Durham at Durham Tech next school year.
But perhaps the biggest buzz among Durham schools watchers is the City of Medicine Academy, slated to open in a building adjacent to the Veterans Administration Hospital on Fulton Street in fall 2006.
Focus on health care
The academy will convert Southern High School's health sciences specialization center into a 400-student school. Officials envision a high school that will prepare students to enter a variety of health fields by allowing them to take pre-med college courses, earn a two-year dental hygienist degree or gain nursing or medical transcriptionist certifications.
Kathy Glenn, Southern's health science center coordinator, said when students learn material that is immediately relevant, it motivates them to plow through even when it gets difficult. That benefits both the students and the community, she said. "Picture, if you will, the future medical leaders of our community coming from this high school," she said.
Durham's spot on the regional high school reform stage has impressed Wake County's Murphy. He said that he often calls his Durham counterpart for ideas and information. Districts know they need to change, he said, but some have been more quick to move on it.
Denlinger is well aware of the image of her schools, and she knows that becoming a leader in high school reform can only give them more luster. But while she smiles at the thought, she said that has never been her drive.
"That would be a nice outcome, ... but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to create success for our students," she said. "We understand that our students and families are counting on us to prepare them for the future. The future is not sitting still, so we can't either."
Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 956-2433 or email@example.com.