DURHAM — For about 10 minutes Thursday morning, the Durham Public Schools’ challenges educating Latino students were spelled out in black and red marker in a hallway off Hillandale Road.
Principals, assistant principals and others at the Staff Development Center wrote down the district’s strengths and weaknesses in teaching the public school system’s estimated 6,000 Latino students.
The weaknesses showed a need for more interpreters and bilingual counselors, teachers, front-office staff and homework helpers. The language barrier, they said, keeps some parents from advocating for their children and leaves some students more likely to be labeled special education students or be recruited by gangs.
On the plus side: community partnerships, cultural awareness training and trips, and events and courses for Latino students and parents.
Principals and others spent about 40 minutes creating the lists with the citizen organization Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods). Later, teachers repeated the exercise.
The goal is to improve Latino student achievement, but Thursday’s conversations were just one key step, said Ivan Parra, Durham CAN’s lead organizer.
Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal complaint against DPS alleging discrimination against Latino students and their families. The national civil rights organization cited several concerns, including an insufficient number of translators compared to the number of Latino students, ineffective communication with parents who don’t speak English, and hostile school environments.
In response, the U.S. Department of Education and DPS agreed to a number of steps, including strengthening the school district’s anti-discrimination policy, translating report cards, and improving communication with parents who are not native English speakers.
While Durham CAN wasn’t involved in the federal complaint, members share some of the concerns. A new Latino Parent Council is working on efforts like Thursday’s meeting to address the concerns.
“It’s recognizing that any kind of change really requires the input from the people who are doing the work with the kids,” Parra said.
Next steps include Durham CAN and DPS leaders analyzing the information and addressing the identified issues. On May 3, Durham CAN will hold an assembly and ask Superintendent Eric Becoats and Board of Education members and candidates to commit to participating in a retreat to discuss recommendations.
A major concern, Parra said, is the need for more interpreters. “The challenge is that it costs money, and it is a difficult budget cycle for the schools,” Parra said.
Jeff Nash, DPS spokesman, said the district has eight full-time interpreters and three staffers who serve in other roles, such as registration, translating discipline notices, responding to phone calls, and calling schools on behalf of parents and vice versa. There are about 7,000 students who need those translation services, including about 5,500 Spanish speakers, Nash said.
While more resources are needed, principals said, the system has to be careful not to elevate Latino students at the expense of others.
Still, things are improving, they said. Some proud moments included a teacher who helped prevent a student from being deported, significant participation in Latino Parent Advisory Committees, and increasing parent communication, they said.
For example, Valerie Andrews, principal at W. G. Pearson Middle School, held a “cookies and conversation” event and learned one reason she was seeing fewer Latino parents in student conferences was because many didn’t have or wouldn’t renew their driver’s licenses because they feared deportation.
“So instead of having them come in, we are calling,” Andrews said. “We are doing phone conferences.”