Durham News: Opinion

Community must re-engage with Durham Public Schools

Bert L’Homme
Bert L’Homme

I never get tired of telling people about our students’ and schools’ accomplishments, and my last column before the summer break was devoted to those highlights. All of our schools – teachers, students and their extended communities – deserve cheerleaders, because there is a relentless drumbeat sounding through our nation that wants to characterize public education as the root of all evil. There is good news, and we are proud to share it.

But our students need and deserve more than just cheerleading. They also deserve a united effort from within Durham Public Schools and across our entire community to help energize our schools. DPS is continuing to strengthen, but our academic growth is still incremental when it needs to be explosive.

The difficult fact remains that race and economic class are still starkly reflected in our academic data. That this is neither a unique nor new challenge for Durham should only increase our urgency. So, what more can we do to ensure that our minority students – who make up the majority of the DPS population – share in the success of white and upper-income students?

We have to work together. There are phenomenal community organizations, ranging from nonprofits such as Book Harvest and Crayons2Calculators to church groups that mentor our youth, who recognize that low-income and minority students need a network of support that strengthens families and unlocks resources too long denied. These efforts must continue. The most pernicious effect of residents’ flight to more affluent neighborhoods and communities is the loss of community infrastructure and stability to those who are left behind.

We see our students struggle with those impacts every day, and schools and social service agencies cannot overcome them by themselves. I urge all Durham citizens to reengage with all of our neighborhoods: learn about their needs, get to know their children, and identify with them the most urgent priorities.

But as a school system we have much more work to do as well. I think it is fair to say that our school board and administration do not think the state legislature has been helpful to public education in recent years. Our county has been left partially funding positions and programs that were once the state’s responsibility, and our teachers do not feel respected by their state lawmakers. But these are challenges that we must yet overcome, because we are the educators, school staff and administrators who are closest to our students. We remain their first line of defense, even if our supply lines have been reduced.

This year, a leaner central office is reorganizing itself to prioritize spending on the classroom. We are training our schools to provide a more orderly and equitable school environment where every student will feel welcomed and respected, and where academic excellence will be an expectation for each child. We are providing enhanced literacy support to high-needs schools, and we are reevaluating our use of classroom assessments to ensure that they provide useful data to our teachers without detracting from classroom instruction.

We must, and shall, close the achievement gaps. Our students need additional help from our community, but in the end higher student achievement is our responsibility as educators and as a school district. We hold ourselves accountable for that, and welcome the challenge to do more for Durham’s children.

Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of the Durham Public Schools system.