When I returned as superintendent to Durham Public Schools, I identified four top priorities that would be my early focus. I expect that these will remain consistent throughout my time here, as they are fundamental to everything that public schools are meant to achieve and essential responses to our community’s unique opportunities and challenges.
As I shared in last month’s column, our overall academic theme is “Graduate Durham” – a theme that encompasses not only results in our high schools but also the foundational work our earlier grades must accomplish to adequately prepare our students to meet this goal. My vision is that every student who walks across the stage at graduation is prepared to follow their dream. No student should ever have to settle for less.
All of our four priorities, each in their own way, contribute to the overall “Graduate Durham” mission.
First, we must increase student achievement at every level. At a minimum, our goal should be for every child to perform at least at grade level. More importantly, we should reach that higher bar of every child being ready for college and career. According to the high standards adopted by the state, we have much work to do in that area; when we look across all subjects and grades, 34.8 percent of our students are performing at a level considered college- and career-ready.
Second, we must directly concentrate on increasing our graduation rates at each of our high schools. This is in addition to our long-term effort to better prepare our younger students; our current high school students cannot wait for our help. Although our graduation rate is at a six-year high at 81.5 percent and close to our state average, we must better reach students who are not on that path whether in their schools or through nontraditional options such as the Performance Learning Center.
Third, we must decrease our system-wide suspension rate. We have an absolute obligation to maintain safety and discipline in our schools, but when we suspend a child from school we are breaking their connection to the adult supervision and social support that they need to remain engaged and productive. We have alternatives to suspension in place: are they sufficient? Are we making the most of programs such as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, parental involvement opportunities and community partnerships to intervene before suspensions are even a consideration?
Fourth, we must decrease our dropout rate. Increasing our graduation rate in high school focuses on our end goal; decreasing our dropout rate draws attention to the day-to-day challenge of keeping our students engaged in learning. It’s essential we continue offering our students hope and motivation, encouraging them to keep putting one foot in front of the other rather than taking an early, potentially devastating exit from our schools.
We have realigned staff and resources in Central Services to provide stronger mental health services and alternative settings, better professional development for our teachers and more efficient support for our schools. This is only a start toward making “Graduate Durham” a reality. Long-term improvement in Durham Public Schools will come from steadily strengthening a confident culture of learning in each of our schools, bolstered by an open dialogue among our teachers, families, students and community about how we can achieve these four priorities.
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