Durham’s skyline, dotted with cranes and new condos, is changing by the day, and so is its education landscape.
The city has been a magnet for charter schools. Sixteen percent of public school students in Durham County attend charters. Since 2012, Durham’s charter enrollment has grown by 3,100 students; Durham Public Schools added only 1,200 students in the same period. In the past two years, the school district’s enrollment has fallen, and two of its elementary schools were considered – but not ultimately selected – for takeover under the state’s new Innovative School District.
Thirteen charter schools have sprouted here, and a 14th is scheduled to open next fall. Charter schools now get state, county and federal funding totaling $21.8 million a year – money that is largely carved out of what Durham Public Schools would otherwise receive.
The proliferation of charters has altered attendance patterns at traditional schools and changed the way Durham school leaders think about funding and structuring schools. Traditional schools that used to be crowded lost students as the new charters moved in, prompting the overhaul of one elementary school. The district is about to embark on a reassignment plan to even out attendance, and the school board chairman has talked about the need to advertise traditional public schools to compete with charters.
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The northern part of the city, which has a higher proportion of white residents, is a hotbed of charter schools, including Durham’s largest, Voyager Academy. Voyager now has three buildings in an office park and 1,350 students. It drew students away from Little River Elementary School in northern Durham, where enrollment dropped from 653 students in 2010 to 350 in 2015.
“That was a perplexing thing for me, because Little River has always been one of our most successful elementary schools,” said Bert L’Homme, Durham’s former schools superintendent.
Little River parents started taking children out of the school when students transferred in from struggling schools, L’Homme said. Under the old federal education law called No Child Left Behind, schools with high percentages of low-income students and low test scores for two consecutive years had to offer parents the opportunity to transfer to more successful schools. Students from poorer schools migrated to Little River.
“It changed the demographic. I think that was part of the exodus,” L’Homme said, referring to families, usually more affluent, who left for charter schools.
Melody Peters saw it firsthand. Peters and her husband, who run a local theater troupe, have two daughters. Isabella is at Little River. Hannah, who went on to Riverside High, was at Little River when all her friends started to leave.
“It was horrible, gut wrenching. Very sad,” Melody Peters said. “It was brutal ... It cut the community in half. It was like cutting off an arm. Friends disappearing and then all of a sudden friends who say, are we not good enough because we didn’t go to Voyager?”
Peters said she believes parents panicked about a feared drop in test scores when low-income families came to Little River. “I think they were chasing something that doesn’t exist,” she said. “The other thing they were running from is race.”
School leaders eventually converted the under-enrolled elementary school into a K-8 school, and Little River’s enrollment climbed to 474 in 2016-17. It has a C in the state’s rating system, down from a B in 2015-16.
A new era
Adapting to the charter growth is now an essential part of running the school district. L’Homme, who retired Oct. 1, believes the county’s healthy local supplement — beyond what the state allocates to the district — has attracted charters.
The loss of traditional public school students to charters has eroded Durham’s per-pupil spending, he said. There’s a smaller amount of money overall, while the district has many of the same fixed costs – it must operate all of its schools and provide services to a population with a significant proportion of low-income students.
Voyager does not offer transportation, making access difficult for students whose parents cannot drive them. The school is 64 percent white, compared to 19 percent in Durham traditional public schools. Nineteen percent of Voyager children are low-income, compared to two-thirds in the Durham district.
The school has a curriculum in which students learn through extended projects, similar to teaching methods at the highly rated private Duke School.
Each day, car lines snake onto the Voyager campus. The buildings have gymnasiums but no cafeterias; hot lunches are brought in by a vendor, and the school covers the cost of lunch for students who need it. About 2,000 students are on the wait list at Voyager, which started out in 2007 as a middle school. It expanded with a high school and elementary, because parents begged for it, said the school’s managing director, Jennifer Lucas.
“Charter schools are here because parents want them,” she said. “So what could those (traditional public) schools do better or differently that would keep their families there from wanting to leave?”
She said Voyager’s younger grades have become more racially and ethnically diverse as the school’s reputation has grown. Because admission occurs through a lottery with a random drawing each year, she said, “we have not personally set out to grow diversity, but at the same time I feel like we embrace it and want to do a good job with all of our students.”
Greg Moore, whose son attended a charter before switching to a traditional elementary, believes Durham is “a perfect storm” for charter schools. Compared with neighboring districts, Durham schools, with a significant portion of low-income children, have had a reputation of being “a laggard,” he said. Yet, he said, there’s a large chunk of Durham that is highly educated, upwardly mobile and liberal-leaning, people who think their children are advanced or need something different.
“They’re progressive, which means that there’s something just not kosher to them about going to private schools,” said Moore, who leads new faith communities for the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church. “So a charter allows you to continue with your progressive ideology.”
Moore and his wife, Molly, enrolled their son, Isaac, then in first grade, at Excelsior Classical Academy. It’s one in a nonprofit network of charter schools, called TeamCFA, funded by wealthy Oregon resident John Bryan. Opened in 2015, Excelsior promised a classical curriculum of grammar, logic and rhetoric, as well as math instruction based on methods from Singapore, daily Spanish and Latin in middle school grades. The school teaches students in kindergarten through sixth grade and is expanding by a grade each year to cover K-12.
Excelsior occupies part of the former headquarters of Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, where students wear uniforms in the school colors of green and gold. Unlike many charters, Excelsior offers bus transportation, free and reduced-price lunch and subsidized uniforms.
Each day in the Moores’ predominantly white neighborhood, two dozen students boarded a bus for Excelsior in northern Durham, opting out of the nearby public school, Spring Valley Elementary.
But the charter school didn’t live up to its promises, the Moores said.
They described bus service that wasn’t reliable, leading parents to drive children from school on short notice. Molly Moore volunteered at the school and saw gaps, including an incident in which a child was screaming in the hallway but the school didn’t have the personnel to deal with the situation.
“I wish the best for the students because they deserve it,” said Molly Moore. “But we’re doing a massive experiment right now. Lifting this cap on charter schools without oversight — really, we are in the middle of that experiment right now.”
Excelsior’s school director, Cynthia Gadol, said that the school had a few wrinkles to iron out after its launch, but she believes the majority of parents are happy.
“One of the issues was communication and we’ve worked on that a lot,” Gadol said. “I think that was the first year a lot of those teachers had used the curriculum.”
Lakisha Brodie had a very different view of Excelsior. After hearing about the school from a friend, she took her children out of Eno Valley Elementary, where one daughter had fallen behind. Now her three daughters – 10-year-old Majesty, 8-year-old Serenity and 6-year-old Nevaeh – are thriving there, she said.
When she looks at the rate at which her youngest child is learning, she wishes all her children had started there. “As much as she knows, it hurts me that my other daughters did not get that same education,” she said. “And that’s hard as a parent.”
Brodie, a pet stylist at a PetSmart, grew up in Durham and attended several elementary schools before she moved to Kestrel Heights, a charter school, for middle school. That was before the eight-year scandal of inadequate credits that forced the State Board of Education to shut down Kestrel’s high school. Brodie said she had been happy at Kestrel.
She wanted a similarly nurturing environment for her children, and she enrolled her daughters at the 363-student Excelsior, smaller than the 509-student Eno Valley.
The school uses the “Core Knowledge Curriculum,” based on the ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr., an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia who 30 years ago published the bestseller “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.” He developed a fairly simple explanation of why low-income students were failing – they were missing key facts and cultural context that left them unable to compete.
“It helps provide the background knowledge that more privileged kids get at home from conversations with parents or from travel – things that they can afford to do that underprivileged kids cannot,” Gadol said of the curriculum. So, for example, when kindergartners learn about the five senses, they also learn the story of Helen Keller. In fifth grade, students read passages from Cervantes’ Don Quixote and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
“They’re learning so much more at a higher level,” Brodie said of her three daughters.
Amy Johnson, an Elon University history professor whose three children attend Excelsior, isn’t sold on the Core Knowledge curriculum and the testing around it, but she likes that her children get foreign language instruction daily.
Johnson and her husband, who works at the Duke Clinical Research Institute, moved their children to Excelsior from Duke School.
The couple had started their children in a private school, in part, because Johnson had a negative experience growing up in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro public schools as a low-income, African American student.
Duke School offered a highly touted project-based education, but after some years there, Johnson said something didn’t feel right. One day, there was a red flag: her child inquired why the family didn’t have its own tennis court.
The couple decided the children needed an environment with more racial and socio-economic diversity. They didn’t consider the Orange County school district where they lived, concerned that it would be too much change at once. They looked into smaller charter schools, but they knew that some charters were as exclusive as private schools. They settled on Excelsior, with its bus transportation and subsidized meals and uniforms.
“One of the things that we like about it, was not only did they talk about diversity but they were putting their money where their mouth was,” Johnson said.
Gadol said 22 percent of students get free and reduced lunch. The population is 55 percent white, 26 percent black, 8 percent Latino and 9 percent who identify in two or more race categories.
The Johnson family has found its community, though there is room for improvement at Excelsior, Johnson said.
“It’s always difficult, I think, to go from a really great school that has a longstanding reputation like the Duke School to a new school that’s trying to find its land legs,” she said. “But we’ve been happy with the commitment and the social exposure that our children have gotten.”
Marketing the schools
Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham school board, wants the district to do a better job of persuading parents to keep their children in Durham schools.
When a KIPP charter opened in Durham in 2015 – the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program has schools across the country – its leaders went door to door, inviting families to apply. Lee questioned why the district didn’t have a similar aggressive marketing approach to counteract the charters.
“It literally is a zero-sum game,” he said. “We lose students, they gain students.”
For example, the 325 students displaced by the closure of Kestrel Heights’ high school, some of whom ended up at Durham’s traditional high schools, can be well served by the district’s varied programs, Lee contends. “We have to change the narrative,” he said.
That narrative, that Durham schools are underperforming, is reinforced by state test results. In 2016-17, the grade level proficiency rate was 46 percent in Durham’s traditional public schools compared to 57 percent at charter schools in Durham. The grade level proficiency rate is based on all state tests taken in grades 3-8.
The Moores’ son, Isaac, returned to Spring Valley after a short time at Excelsior.
At Spring Valley, more than two-thirds of students are low-income, compared to about one in five at Excelsior. Yet both schools earned a C on the 2016-17 state school report cards and both met goals for student improvement from the previous year.
Even so, Molly Moore said Excelsior parents looked at the family “sideways” when they said they were headed back to their traditional public school.
She became president of the Spring Valley PTA, and a few families have followed. Spring Valley isn’t perfect, she said, but the school works, and she’s happy to give it her energy. Her younger son, Elijah, is in kindergarten, and a few years from now, the couple’s newborn son James will follow.
They now walk to school.