When Durham Public Schools Board of Education Chair Heidi Carter spoke at my installation ceremony as superintendent in July, she acknowledged that I would have to “hit the ground running.”
Sure enough, our year-round schools were about to open, we had a few principal and senior staff vacancies to fill and our summer teacher hiring season was in full swing. There were also many valuable community partners to reacquaint myself with after my time working outside of Durham.
It has been a frenetic two months, but what I have seen in that time has reinforced what a wonderful opportunity DPS has to serve our students and community.
Our principals, teachers and staff know that Durham’s children are our highest priority. After a summer of mixed messages about public education from state lawmakers, our schools have focused on and rallied around our students. On the first day of the traditional calendar I saw happy students, helpful teachers and watchful principals in our classrooms. Our schools were well organized and functioning smoothly. Expectations were already being set: you will study, you will work hard and you will succeed.
We have to be frank with parents and citizens. Durham Public Schools has made significant academic progress in recent years – witness our steadily climbing four-year graduation rate – and any child can thrive in our classrooms. But every child must thrive in our classrooms. Some of our academic indicators are still below state averages and achievement gaps still persist. What will it take for Durham Public Schools to accelerate our growth and fulfill our mission “to provide all students with an outstanding education that motivates them to reach their full potential?”
I have only been back in DPS’s Central Office for two months and am still studying; the strategies we adopt must be appropriate to our school communities and the students we serve. However, I see some clear opportunities for improvement.
First, we must be transparent and accessible to parents and our community. Prior to my arrival, our budget and finance departments took important strides in that direction by producing an annual budget document that greatly clarified how our schools are funded and where that funding goes – vital information at a time when funding is limited and we must be accountable for every dollar spent in our children’s name. We need to extend that approach to communicating with our families: connecting them with community resources, explaining how and why we teach and helping them support their children at home.
Second, we must listen to our school communities. No one knows our students better than the teachers and staff who help them day by day. I am taking time early this school year to visit every campus. No fanfare, no disruption: I am arriving, spending some time with the principal, then walking through the school and looking in on every classroom. As a former teacher, I know that sometimes the only way to really know what is happening is to see it for myself. Each of our 54 schools has its own unique environment, community and challenges. For Durham Public Schools to progress as a district, we must be attuned to those schools’ individual needs.
This is an exciting time for our district. We have the opportunity for a fresh start and yet many of the foundations for success have already been built. This is a thriving, high-tech community that has supported many innovations in our schools from hospital partnerships in high schools to Mandarin Chinese in elementary schools. Let’s take advantage of the resources we have, develop the resources we need and commit to excellence for every child.