Expectations are high as Pascal Mubenga take the reins of the Durham Public Schools this week.
Mubenga will be sworn in as superintendent at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Fuller Administration Building, 511 Cleveland St. He was hired last month to replace Bert L’Homme who retired after just over three years on the job.
Mubenga, who was hired away from Franklin County Schools, has a reputation for improving low-performing schools and academic outcomes for boys and young men of color, two issues that have bedeviled the school district for as long as anyone cares to remember.
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“I am ready to get right to work,” Mubenga said.
In North Carolina, schools are considered low-performing if they received a state performance grade of “D” or “F” and a school growth score of “met expected growth” or “did not meet expected growth.”
DPS currently has 18 schools deemed low-performing by the State Department on Public Instruction. Black and Hispanic male students fall at the bottom when it comes to student achievement in the district.
Mubenga will earn $222,500 under a contract with DPS that runs through June 30, 2021.
What are the expectations?
So, as Mubenga begins, how much progress can parents, students, teachers and others reasonably expect?
“When you have a new superintendent faced with the challenges we have, like restart schools and the recent threat by the state to take over two schools and give them to a charter-school operator, the new leadership is going to have high expectations placed upon them,” school board Chairman Mike Lee said. “I think he’s prepared for that, and I think he understands that completely. He’s ready to work.”
Lee said it’s unreasonable to think all of the district’s challenges will magically disappear, but he does expects measurable progress starting in Mubenga’s first year.
“I see a reduction in the teacher turnover rate,” Lee said. “I see plans for all of our restart schools completed and academic gains made on state tests. I see a greater focus on equity and a stronger focus on data.”
School board Vice Chairman Steve Unruhe said he expects Mubenga to hit the ground running.
“One of his many strengths is his sense of what it takes to run a good school district,” Unruhe said. “I expect for him to be a strong presence in schools and in the district.”
Unruhe said he’d like to see Mubenga set a clear direction for the district.
“I would, and I think he would too, like to see a blueprint that sets goals and priorities and measures of accountability for the administration,” Unruhe said. “One of the most important things he’s going to bring is a sense of confidence about where we’re going as a district.”
Putting leadership team together
Mubenga has already begun to assemble his leadership team, selecting Nakia Hardy to serve as deputy superintendent for academic services.
Hardy, currently the chief academic officer for Guilford County Schools, will start work in January. She will replace Stacey Wilson-Norman who went to work as chief academic officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Mubenga will have several more big hires to make in the coming weeks, unless he restructures the district’s central office or promotes staffers currently serving in interim roles.
DPS has been without a permanent deputy superintendent for operations since long-time Hugh Osteen retired. Chief Finance Officer Aaron Beaulieu is serving as the interim deputy superintendent of operations as well as interim superintendent.
The district also has an interim human resources director. Kim Hager was appointed to that position after Thomas Crabtree took a long-term medical leave. Crabtree is not expected to return.
And Alisa McLean, the former assistant superintendent of high school teaching, learning and leadership for DPS, left to become superintendent of Granville County Public Schools in July.
As the parent of a senior at Hillside High School and athletic director and teacher at Rogers-Herr Middle School, Darryl Beasley sees the district’s challenges firsthand.
“I think expectations are fairly high,” Beasley said. “Durham needs to be patient, though, and there has to be a greater focus placed on elementary and pre-K. By the time they get to middle school it’s often too late. Many times an inability to read and comprehend creates frustration in students, and that can lead to behavior problems and disruptions in the classroom.”
David Vanie, a Glenn Elementary School parent, said it’s important that Mubenga sets a tone for transparency and inclusiveness to reach DPS parents who have not always felt welcome or heard.
Vanie, who was a parent leader in the recent fight against the possible state takeover of Glenn, said the superintendent must also ensure that school leaders and district leaders are held accountable for academic outcomes.
“It’s one thing to have a good pitch, but it’s another to see things through and to hold people accountable,” Vanie said. “I’m expecting that bar to be raised in legitimate and authentic ways that may require moving people out of positions that have contributed to things being the way they are.”
Vanie also said he’d like to see Mubenga embrace the community school model, a model under which schools become hubs bringing educators, families, and community partners together to serve students and families.
Under the model, for example, if a student needs eyeglasses to be successful academically, then the student would get the glasses with the help of the school.
Vanie is part of a growing movement for community schools in Durham, and Mubenga will likely have to contend with that movement as he begins his tenure in Durham.
“Our parents are fully on board, our staff is fully on board,” Javiera Caballero, a Club Boulevard Elementary School parent told school board members at a recent meeting. “I’m personally excited about it. I do education consulting work professionally, and this community schools model has been successful in many places.”
Want to go?
WHAT: Swearing-in ceremony for Pascal Mubenga, superintendent
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 27
TIME: 8:30 a.m.
WHERE: DPS Central Services Building, 511 Cleveland St.