On Thursday night, Jan. 19, the pews of the historic Hayti Heritage Center were filled front to back by people eager to hear what our schools and community partners are doing to improve equity for minority students.
The meeting, organized by the People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, was illuminating. I was heartened to see so many people, representing so many parts of Durham, gathering to not only let us share information and ask for help, but also to challenge us to do better.
As a schools superintendent, my highest priority is always on the very reason public schools exist: fostering greater academic achievement. We constantly challenge our students and educators to accomplish more in the classroom: accelerate academic growth from year to year, increase academic proficiency, and deeply engage students in learning. These challenges are universal, and they apply to all students – an academically gifted student must be stretched and engaged just as much as a struggling student. We are here for all students.
But saying that we are here for all students is simply not enough when some of our students are clearly not performing as well as others. The data is obvious. Achievement and suspension rates vary significantly based on the race and background of our students. This is persistent. This is stubborn. This is wrong. If we just fall back on our general mission to educate all students, then at best academic achievement will improve but gaps will persist.
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We have to be intentional. We must better serve black male students. We must better serve black female students. We must better serve Latino and Latina students.
We must better serve any student who comes from a less privileged background – because while the explicit purpose of public education is greater academic achievement for all, the implicit purpose of public education is to give opportunity and hope to all we serve, especially those who come to our schools with less.
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For us to achieve both purposes Durham Public Schools will need help from families, partner agencies, and communities.
It is true that Durham Public Schools has little control over the conditions from which our students come to us. But we have a great deal of control over how we treat our students, and if Durham Public Schools is going to be the great equalizer we ourselves have to be more equitable.
We can’t reflect the status quo or maintain the same kind of institutional privilege that our minority students encounter elsewhere. We have to challenge it.
Achieving that kind of lasting change will be difficult. “Quick fixes” are rarely quick and even harder to sustain for years. We have committed to that path through the hiring of an executive director for equity affairs and the adoption of a five-year plan for fostering cultural change that builds on the work of our community-driven Code of Student Conduct Task Force.
We will also be following this path during an unprecedented time for Durham Public Schools.
The growth of charter schools has resulted in declining enrollment for DPS, and that presents two direct challenges to efforts to improve equity. First, with declining enrollment comes declining per-pupil funding for DPS, meaning that we have to improve equity at the same time that we have to look at reductions in services.
Second, with under-enrolled schools in some parts of Durham and overcrowded schools in others, our staff and school board have begun a redistricting study that will lead to new attendance lines for some of our schools in the 2018-19 school year. I am confident that equity concerns will be prominent in the guiding principles for redistricting that our board will establish. (You can provide input on these principles at our website.)
However, the prevalence of charter schools in Durham means that there are many opportunities for families – especially well-resourced, highly mobile families – to work around district efforts to improve equity. The genie of school choice is out of the bottle in Durham; we will need to be creative and diligent in ensuring that redistricting brings more, and not less, equity.
At the Hayti Heritage Center last month, our audience was respectful and attentive as school, community and law enforcement leaders talked about our efforts to better support students of color. They became even more engaged, though, as we talked about our need to get our own houses in order. I heard them, and I hear you. We will change. We will improve. We are part of the solution.
Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of Durham Public Schools.