This is without a doubt my favorite time of the year.
We just recognized the Durham Public Schools Teacher of the Year for 2017-18, Ms. Kirtina Jones of R.N. Harris Integrated Arts and Core Knowledge Magnet School. We made the announcement as we do every year during a banquet at the Washington Duke Inn, surrounded by all of the great teachers nominated by their peers from each school. (And I would like to once more extend my thanks to EmergeOrtho and North Carolina Specialty Hospital for their sponsorship of the dinner.)
We are also in the throes of graduation season. Our four small, specialty high schools – City of Medicine Academy, New Tech High School, J.D. Clement Early College High School at NCCU, and Middle College High School at Durham Tech – all celebrated their graduates last Thursday. Seniors at our remaining high schools will march across the stage and turn their tassels the week of June 12.
In my mind these are the two signature events of the school year. The first celebrates the core function – teaching – and the most important role – teacher – in a school system. Without strong teachers, we cannot get to the second event, which is the culmination of everything we all work toward. Graduation is the gateway to a brighter future for our students, an ending and beginning at the same time. No wonder my spirits are lifted during this time, even when our district has hard work to do and tough choices to make.
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The close of a school year isn’t just about these celebrations, however. It can also be a grueling time. With the end of the year comes additional tutoring and review, final exams and testing – all of the last-minute work to bring the school year to a successful conclusion. There is a lot of pressure on our students for a strong finish to the year. That pressure also falls on our teachers, principals and staff, whose hours become much longer as they grade into the night, manage a torrent of student data, and help their students make the final push.
It’s hard to tell sometimes who looks forward to the summer more, our students or staff.
The end of the school year therefore also is a vivid reminder of how much we ask of our teachers and staff – not only now, but throughout the year. I would like this time to be more about accomplishment and celebration, and less about exhaustion.
Getting there requires effort of all of us, working together, to continuously improve as educators, administrators, and supporters of public education. Especially as state budgets for K-12 education have tightened and school districts – Durham included – have had to make service reductions in response, our schools and school communities have felt increasing pressure.
Although my retirement is on the horizon, Durham Public Schools is not going to enter a holding pattern waiting on my successor. Working with our school board and in conversation with our community, our district leaders are making plans for the new school year. We have to choose our priorities in order to see better results in the classroom, more efficient use of our facilities and funding, better marketing of our schools in a challenging and competitive climate, and greater equity among all of our students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, orientation or identity.
The answer to continuous improvement is not to make our teachers, schools and departments simply “do more with less,” although in these tight budget times some of that is inevitable. We have to identify our priorities for the next school year and beyond, determining where to direct our best efforts for the greatest impact. Sometimes, that will mean saying “no” to a good opportunity in order to say “yes” to a better one.
Summer will be a time of rest, recovery and rejuvenation for our school communities. Our work will also continue over this time to make Durham Public Schools an even better district – both to give future DPS leaders the strongest possible foundation to work from, and to give our students, teachers, and school-based staff more to celebrate at this time next year.
Bert L’Homme is superintendent of Durham Public Schools.