Single-gender school idea sparks division on board

May. 14, 2013 @ 10:07 PM

It may be one of the most innovative efforts that Durham Public Schools has considered to try and reach at-risk youths.
But the single-gender school concept is also proving to be one of the most divisive ideas that Board of Education members have discussed in recent years.
If approved, the plan would forge an unusual partnership between DPS and Maureen Joy Charter School – a teaming that once seemed as likely as that of cobra and mongoose.
Superintendent Eric Becoats and Alex Quigley, Maureen Joy’s headmaster, on Tuesday presented the partnership idea to board members as they convened for their administrative services committee meeting.
“We are open and interested in partnering and doing something great for the kids of Durham,” Quigley told the board.
The proposal, which could cost in the neighborhood of $12 million to get off the ground, would call for two new year-round, single-gender schools – one for boys and another for girls – spanning grades 6 to 12. They would open in summer 2014.
One school would be based in a refurbished and expanded W.G. Pearson Middle School campus, while the other would be in the Maureen Joy school building on Cornwallis Road.
Each school, at capacity, would have as many as 350 students. The district would specifically target students at greatest risk of dropping out – minorities from low economic families, particularly those who might be potential first-generation college students.
But the DPS board largely seemed torn along racial lines, with sometimes heated exchanges between members Minnie Forte-Brown, a strong proponent of the single-gender idea, and other board members who are skeptical about it.
“We say that data is the driver,” Forte-Brown said. “We continually see this prison pipeline. We see who’s getting suspended. We can’t continue to do the same thing. We have a population of children failing and we need to do something different. It’s going to happen. The question is who’s going to do it.”
She said that boys get too distracted by girls and learn better without that distraction.
“I am not skeptical about having to address the needs of these children,” said board member Leigh Bordley, “but we need to try to find a way to make this work that doesn’t leave everyone else out.”
She believes that the district could model new programs on successful co-educational schools without segregating by sex.
“I don’t think single gender is what does it for us,” Bordley said.
Board member Natalie Beyer questioned the research that Becoats presented as support for the idea, as well as the viability of W.G. Pearson as a decent learning environment for at-risk children.
“It’s not the best place for our most struggling kids,” Beyer said.
Forte-Brown countered, “If we can preserve these dumps around town and hold them up, we certainly can preserve W.G. Pearson.”
Board chair Heidi Carter wondered about the demand for an all-girls school. Previously, Becoats had proposed the idea of just an all-boys school. However, he noted on Tuesday that the district’s lawyers recommended launching a school for girls too in the name of student equity.
“It almost feels like the only reason we’re talking about an all-girl school is because we have to,” Carter said.
DPS Chief of Staff Lewis Ferebee told the board that he felt confident that demand for a girl’s school would be there.
Board member Nancy Cox pointed to schools in Durham with the best graduation rates, such as City of Medicine Academy, and said that what makes them so great is that they’re small, with tightly focused curricula. It can’t just be boiled down to gender, she said.
Board member Omega Curtis Parker took Forte-Brown’s side, saying that the district should push for the plan because “we don’t know that it’s not going to work.”
Frederick Davis, the board member who served on the committee that developed the proposal for the single-gender school, urged his colleagues not to let concerns about public sentiment hold them back.
“I’m not going to get emotional about this,” he said. “You’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t. We were damned for City of Medicine Academy. We’re still damned for Durham School of the Arts and New Tech. You are in Durham, North Carolina. The citizens as a whole don’t care about Durham Public Schools. If they did, charters wouldn’t be killing DPS.
“So let’s just be damned. Let’s just do stuff that needs to be done for the children.”
Quigley noted that if DPS passes on the opportunity to partner on the project, then Maureen Joy might tackle it solo.
The board is expected to vote on the proposal next month.