“One size does not fit all.” That is a philosophy that holds true both in a clothing store and also in education.
If you are the parent of more than one child, you know how different they can be. One child may need more structure. Another may need more opportunities for creative expression. Our schools need to respond to, and reflect, the incredible diversity of needs, aptitudes and interests that characterizes our dynamic city and county.
Durham Public Schools provides that kind of differentiated support for our children, including professional development to help our teachers and staff recognize and make the most of their students’ unique gifts in the classroom. We offer “specials” and elective courses that enable them to explore the arts, languages and sciences. A wide range of extracurricular activities catches students’ enthusiasm and engages them in their school communities. For those families seeking a more specialized academic program, Durham Public Schools also offers magnet schools with unique themes or calendars.
This is the great strength of a county public school district: the ability to mobilize community resources to provide a wide range of opportunities to the vast majority of children. For the foreseeable future, our public schools will remain the educational centers of our communities, and a “second home” for students seeking to grow into capable, responsible adults with exciting careers and lifelong learning habits.
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Because our public schools will maintain a central role, they must continue to improve. More of our students must graduate; fewer should drop out. More of our students must be fluent readers at an early age. Our schools must be safe and healthy. Fewer students should be suspended. More students should thrive in advanced courses.
These responsibilities are fully shared between our public schools themselves and the communities and officials charged with supporting them. None of us are off the hook, and now is the time when we must be the most vigilant. That means working diligently within Durham Public Schools, as teachers, staff and administrators, to significantly accelerate student performance and community satisfaction regardless of external pressures.
It also means ensuring that our public schools have the resources they need to accomplish this. Charter schools are rapidly proliferating, including virtual charters whose track records have not been established. Opportunity Scholarships are moving forward after last week’s state Supreme Court ruling. My concern is that the state must not, through legislation or the budget process, further decrease our schools’ ability to provide the level of service that our students need.
For example, virtual charters draw students who were formerly home-schooled, spreading local and state funding even thinner. Charters unevenly and unpredictably draw students from schools within and across county borders, making planning and teacher allotments more difficult. Finally, if enrollment continues to shift to independent charters, the economies of scale that allow us to provide a wide range of services to our students diminish. Per-pupil funding does not “simply” follow students; there may be repercussions that affect our ability to give our children the individual support they need.
I have been a principal of public and private schools, and served as superintendent of county and parochial schools. I know that “One size does not fit all” means that some parents will choose other than public schools. But public schools must remain strong. Our teachers must be able to earn competitive salaries, and our principals must be able to compete to recruit the best of the best. Public school employees must be as respected in the legislature and the community as any other profession.
We must demand better of our schools and those who are charged with supporting them — at the same time. As superintendent, I have pledged to this community that nothing will stop us from increasing student achievement, increasing the graduation rate, decreasing suspensions and decreasing dropouts. I will offer no excuses; I and my team will simply work harder. We hope everyone in our state and community who has a role to play in nurturing the next generation will take up that challenge as well.