What kind of schools do we want for Durham’s children?
It isn’t difficult to come up with strong answers to that question. Most of them focus on the end result: we want our children to be fully prepared for careers and higher education when they leave us. We also talk about wanting our graduates to become lifelong learners, productive and thoughtful citizens, and healthy in body and mind.
Aside from the family, our schools are the one institution in which we pour all of our hopes and dreams for the next generation. This may be why, for all our general agreement on what kind of schools we want, putting that vision into practice is often a complex process. I have seen this in every school district and setting in which I have served. We want everything for our children, and we frequently feel as though our priorities are at odds – that if we work toward one end, it will come at the expense of another.
At their May 26 retreat, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education members had a thoughtful, rich conversation about their beliefs and guiding principles for our schools and district. They talked about Durham’s strengths and resources, as well as our unique challenges. It was a rare time when board members were able to think deeply and discuss our schools’ purpose with no distractions, and it was a pleasure to watch and learn from them.
At one point, they discussed two guiding principles they were considering, high academic achievement and supporting the “whole child.” They observed that there was some tension between these principles. Advocates for the whole child were concerned that too much emphasis on achievement metrics would work against children and teachers. Others were concerned that if academic progress was not measured and accountability not held, then children would be overlooked and not succeed.
The outcome of that conversation was that both are important and would be part of the initial drafts of the school board’s guiding principles. But our board also recognized that it is not enough to simply say, “We’ll have both,” and move on. Instead, it is important to work through and resolve the apparent contradictions. We have to actively find the best way to meet the whole spectrum of our students’ needs. I believe this is a lesson that applies to a host of other issues for Durham Public Schools.
I believe that we can focus on academic achievement – helping our children become better at math, reading, writing and science – while at the same time seeing to the needs of the whole child: the health, safety and social supports that every child needs to become resilient and engaged. I believe that we can assess the effectiveness of our teaching and learning without overburdening teachers and stressing our children.
I believe that we can call out and respond to the inequities in our community – the impact of poverty, race and class on the resources families can bring to their children’s education – while at the same time challenging every teacher and inspiring every student toward higher achievement. I believe that we can work for social justice for our children while recognizing that labels don’t reflect the true potential of any individual student.
I believe that our schools and school district can and must be more efficient and effective, while at the same time recognizing that our teachers and classrooms need more resources than our state and county currently provide. I believe that we can prioritize the services and strategies that best support our children while identifying new opportunities to reduce suspensions, increase student engagement and increase academic achievement.
We live in one of the most diverse, progressive communities in North Carolina, with elected officials, county and city staff, educators, business leaders, volunteers, community activists and researchers all united in their desire to build a bright future for Durham children regardless of race, income or background. In this first year as superintendent, I have been reminded why I love this community so much: because this community loves its schools.
As we prepare for a new school year, I hope that all of us will not only continue to rally around our students, but that we will be even more open to discussing our hopes and expectations for our schools. From unity of purpose can come unity of action, and that is what both our students and schools need to succeed.
Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of the Durham Public Schools. Tell us what you think about this column at firstname.lastname@example.org