Key set to retire, urges focus on graduation rate

Jun. 18, 2014 @ 03:23 PM

The answer came to Jim Key, a longtime educator in the Durham Public Schools, a day after it was posed.
Key, 52, the Durham Public Schools’ area superintendent for high schools who is retiring at the end of the month after 30 years in the school system, was asked what he thought is the most significant challenge facing new Superintendent Bert L’Homme, who starts work next month.
After a day of reflection and after watching hundreds of Durham Public Schools’ seniors cross the stage to receive diplomas in Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium last week, Key had an answer.  
“I think the most significant challenge facing the high school area is how to improve the high school graduation rate,” Key said. “Honestly, I think it’s the biggest challenge and maybe the most important work we face as a community, not just the Durham Pubic Schools’ high school area.”
Last year, the school district reached a milestone when it graduated 80 percent of the students who entered ninth grade four years earlier.
Key, while proud of that achievement, believes DPS can and must do better.
“I’m so proud of the fact that we’re reaching and supporting and helping eight out of 10 make it, but every one of those two out of 10 who don’t make it has a name, a family, has a story, and as a school system and a community, we’ve got to find more effective ways to engage our youth who feel disconnected, who sometimes feel hopeless, who sometimes don’t have good role models that make them believe this can happen and should happen,” Key said.
Recalling his 15 years as a wrestling coach in Durham schools, Key said he quickly learned that to ensure whole team success, he had to focus on strengthening weaker wrestlers.   
“We were only going to be as strong as our weakest link, so I developed a culture where the fourth-string wrestler was just as important as the first-string, superstar wrestler, and we all became a family and took care one another and made each other better,” Key said.
He said Durham needs to apply the same philosophy to its school children.
“We’re only going to be as strong as our weakest link,” Key said. “We have too many young people who live in poverty who don’t always see that there is a way out. That high school diploma is a gateway to more education, more opportunity, to a better future.”
The UNC Chapel Hill grad – he earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at UNC -- was a social studies teacher for 11 years at four different schools.
Key also served as principal of several different schools, with his last assignment before being promoted to area superintendent for high schools, coming at the former Chewning Middle School, which is now The School for Creative Studies, a year-round magnet school that focuses on applied creativity, media, design and communication arts.
Before that, Key was principal of Riverside High School from 2004-10, during the time interim Superintendent Hugh Osteen’s children were enrolled in the school.
“I would call him an ideal educator,” Osteen said. “He’s been a teacher, coach, principal and an area superintendent. He’s really dedicated his life to teaching others and he has touched the lives of thousands of families and students.”
Osteen said Key’s mantra about being on time and being prepared has had an impact on students for decades.
“My kids still remember that,” Osteen said. “He’s been a part of my kids’ life too.”
Key was the school district’s Principal of the Year in 2008 while at Riverside and was twice named Teacher of the Year over the span of his career.
At last week’s graduation, Key said he is most proud of the relationships that he has built with parents, students and educators over the past three decades.
“I’ve watched three students graduate from high school this week whose parents I taught,” Key said. “That’s what makes me most proud.”
Key said he has no definite plans for retirement, other than to complete a lengthy honey-do list for his wife, Ruth.
He said retirement also will allow him and Ruth to take care of aging parents.
“I have served students, teachers and parents of Durham Public Schools for 30 years and loved every minute of it,” Keys said. “At the same time, I have sacrificed a few things along the way and it just felt like it was time to spend more time with family, be able to take care of elderly family members. It just felt like the time is right.”
In retirement, Key said he will continue to look for opportunities to serve the children of Durham and those attending Durham Public Schools.
That’s something Osteen is counting on.
“He’s the type of guy we’ll love to come back and help us out when he can,” Osteen said.
Key worked under new Superintendent L’Homme when L’Homme was an assistant superintendent for Durham Public Schools.
He said L’Homme is an excellent educator who will do well as superintendent of the school district.
“I have a lot of faith that Bert [L’Homme] will come in and do a great job of building on the foundation that’s already in place,” Key said.
In the early days of the school district’s search for a superintendent, Key’s name was sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate.
But Key said he has always felt that his place was in a school building with students and teachers.
“I’ve enjoyed my time in central office, but my true calling is being a school-based leader,” Key said.