Many mornings, Durham’s rush hour leaves me idling in front of Fayetteville Street Elementary School, where I sit in my car and watch students head inside.
I frequently cross paths with educators in Durham. I hear about the first day of school, and I hear about anxiously waiting for test scores. Not too much time has passed since I’ve been a student; I haven’t forgotten what those feelings were like. I just didn’t know what that’s like in Durham. One Friday afternoon, I stopped by Fayetteville Street Elementary to find out.
After signing in at the main office, I shadowed a group of scientists who spent the morning teaching hands-on science projects to students. That Friday was the first time this group of volunteers had worked with Durham Public Schools; it also marked the first time in years one of those volunteers had a glass of chocolate milk with lunch.
Volunteers spent all morning in classrooms. Clad in white lab coats, they led nearly half the school population in experiments they otherwise wouldn’t have had exposure to.
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Students stared with amazed smiles as they learned about density by watching raisins sink – then surprisingly, float – when dropped in a bottle of seltzer water. They learned about inherited traits by surveying their classmates’ physical characteristics; no one in the classroom had attached ear lobes.
The last experiment created what the volunteers called “gloop,” the result of mixing white school glue and Borax. The classic experiment transformed a liquid into a solid and a classroom of rowdy students into attentive observers.
Each student walked away with a prized bag of gloop and a recipe to make it at home. But more important, the science experiments led to bigger results. One student was so enchanted she asked to head back to the lab with one of the visitors to join him in his research. Another asked the volunteers, “When are y’all coming back?”
I left the school and did a bit of quasi-scientific research on my own. A quick comparison of DPS, the Wake County Public School System and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction reveals the following: Each district rivals its neighboring district in teachers who hold advanced degrees. Class sizes are similar. State dollars invested per pupil vary by 9 percentage points.
But here’s the kicker – test scores during the middle grades across each district vary by nearly 40 percentage points, with Durham on the wrong end of the spectrum.
What’s going on here, and what could close that gap?
According to Arrica Moseley DuBose, Fayetteville Street Elementary’s principal, volunteering at your neighborhood school is a good start. Dozens of her students come from lower-income households and face disadvantages at home.
“More volunteers help expose our students to opportunities they otherwise might not have at home,” DuBose said. “There’s a lot that needs doing in the world.”
Her school typically has 10 to 15 regular volunteers who meet with her 280 students, but those volunteer numbers could increase ten-fold. DuBose is adamant about students getting exposed to careers they might not otherwise consider. That type of exposure can pay off years down the road. Research Triangle Park is just a few miles away from more than four dozen schools; connecting Durham’s students to tech opportunities is an achievable goal. More volunteer involvement would drastically increase the exposure Durham’s students have to the great opportunities around them, whether that’s on a college or tech campus.
We’ve done it before. North Carolina, over several decades, has shown a strong commitment to education, from early childhood to college. That has taken a commitment from everyone, not just from families who have children in school now. We knew that educating the next generation of North Carolinians was a sacred task in which everyone has a part. If we still believe that, spending time with Durham’s students is the first building block for a better Durham County, a stronger region and a stronger state. It starts with people who live in Durham caring about students in our schools.
Ideally, each student needs someone to guide her in seeing her education through, like a parent or grandparent. For students from poverty or from lower-education households, the influence of volunteers in schools willing to share their passion and enthusiasm can excite a child about previously unknown possibilities. That’s what will drive repeatable, replicable results: showing students you care about their future. That’s what happened with the volunteers I met, and it left the students wanting more.
So stop by the public school you drive by every day. Get to know the schools in your neighborhood, and ask what you can do to help. You might learn something, too.
Elizabeth Poindexter is marketing coordinator at DurhamCares. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org