Last week I was sitting in teacher Kathryn Osborn’s Advanced Placement U.S. History classroom at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.
The cliché about A.P. courses is that the students take the A.P. test before the end of the school year and then spin their wheels, but Ms. Osborn would have none of it.
Instead, her 16 students tackled college-level research projects on subjects ranging from technological changes during World War I and II to comparisons between the civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights movements. The young men and women presented their projects – some of their parents had taken time off from work to join them – and I simply beamed.
There is only one thing I enjoy as much as spending time with our teachers, and that’s spending time with our students. In a year full of challenges outside the classroom, this was the perfect time for a reminder of who we serve and how we serve them.
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In the last school year, we’ve had a lot to celebrate. Hillside High School produced two more Gates Millennium Scholars, and another Hillside student earned scholarships both from the Coca-Cola and Goodnight Scholars programs. Second graders at Burton Elementary led a water drive for Flint, Michigan. Our outdoor learning lab, the Durham Hub Farm, won an $18,000 grant to expand its gardening sites, and a teacher at the new Little River K-8 School won another grant from Code.org to launch a robotics program.
Carrington, Githens, Lakewood Montessori and Rogers-Herr Middle Schools were each named a 2016 National School to Watch by The Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. Four teachers earned and 20 others renewed certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. The Jordan Rocketry Program was accepted into the NASA student launch program – they even brought their rockets to a recent school board meeting.
Some of this year’s highlights will pay dividends for Durham students for years to come. A large community task force worked together to revise the Code of Student Conduct, which our school board subsequently adopted. The new code provides our schools with more “tools in the toolbox” to foster respectful, orderly and equitable school environments, and we will be working with a group of teachers this summer on developing and communicating best practices. Also this year, the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color won a $250,000 grant from the William R. Kenan Charitable Trust to help us train our teachers and administrators to further break down barriers to academic achievement.
Speaking of the Kenan Trust, they awarded Durham Public Schools an additional grant that will provide the foundation, if further funding can be attained, to establish a college-preparatory middle school on the campus of N.C. Central University. They are also funding expanded literacy support to Y.E. Smith and Eastway elementary schools through the Hill Center.
In many respects this has been a strong year for DPS. We need to be stronger, however. We need to better support our teachers, be more vigilant about eliminating inequities and narrowing achievement gaps, and do a better job of engaging with our community. This last point is critical, because Durham Public Schools will thrive as long as our diverse community feels welcome in and continues to contribute to the vitality of our schools and school district.
This week marks the last of our high school graduations for the year. We will celebrate, take stock, very briefly rest, and then redouble our efforts to ensure that we have much more to celebrate in 2016-17.
Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of Durham Public Schools.