It’s been three months since Bert L’Homme was sworn into office as superintendent of Durham Public Schools.
L’Homme, 64, succeeded Eric Becoats Jr., who resigned last year after the school board voted not to extend his contract when it expired in 2016.
His last job was superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, as well as interim chief operating officer, director of education policy and coordinator of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign for Marian Wright Edelman, and the Children’s Defense Fund.
We sat down with L’Homme to get his take on the state of things in Durham Public Schools and his approach to handling them.
Teacher retention is a problem statewide, especially in Durham. What will be your approach at trying to retain teachers?
L’Homme: If you ask teachers, salary is a big deal. Some of the things we have control over and some of the things we have no influence over. But when I met with that first group of teachers, do you know what every one of them asked me? Professional development. Some of the ways that prevent teacher-burnout and prevent teachers from leaving the profession is ongoing, quality professional development.
When teachers feel that they are part of the solution – if you’re in a classroom and your principal is not including you in the decision-making of the school on how to go forward, that creates burnout. But if you’re part of that conversation, if you’re part of developing the plan ... every time we look to make that next step forward, it’s going to begin with teachers.
A lot of people are afraid that charter schools will drain the money from the traditional public schools. Lately, Durham has been a hot bed for charter schools. How will you address that?
L’Homme: Charter schools do take local money, but there is a finite amount of local money. So every time a child goes to a charter school, we decrease the amount of money we can spend on a public school child. So that does have an impact on us. I think absolutely the way forward is for charter schools and (traditional) public schools to work together. I think that in the future we are going to look for every opportunity when we can collaborate with each other.
How do you break the school-to-prison pipeline?
L’Homme: One of the best, most-powerful ways to keep children out of the pipeline is to ensure that they learn how to read before they get out of first grade. If you looked at the four big goals, which is to increase student-achievement, increase graduation, decrease suspensions, and decrease dropouts, it’s really the same goal as diverting children out of the pipeline from prison into college. Because if you teach them how to read, and you teach them to be successful in school, and they graduate high school, the chances they are going to be in the pipeline to prison are severely decreased. That has been my goal since I started in the ’70s.
Why come to back to a struggling school system?
L’Homme: It’s precisely because they are struggling. It’s because of the people and students that are here. You walk up and down these halls and I can show you one person after another who is determined that we are going to have great schools for every single student. ...You have many people who want this to work. It wasn’t a hard decision.
Durham has a high suspension rate, especially among its black students. How will you address that?
L’Homme : When student achievement goes up, suspensions will go down. Meanwhile, we have to ensure that our teachers and our administrators know how to motivate students to achieve at a high level. And we can’t ever be tolerant of inappropriate behavior in the schools. But on the other hand, every time a child is suspended, it has to be coupled with learning.
Where would you like to see the district five years from now?
L’Homme : I want to see the district as close as possible to graduating every student that comes into our schools. The goal is to “graduate Durham.” These are all the things that have to occur in order to ensure that all students graduate: We have to have parents on board with us. Parents and teachers have to be partners in this effort. We have to make sure kids learn how to read. We have to make sure they learn bullying is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. And if there are mental-health issues, then these are issues we can deal with and will deal with.