Board remains divided over single-gender school option

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 08:48 PM

Although the superintendent and half of the Board of Education support plans for a single-gender school, the other half remains skeptical as to whether the model will work.

The Durham Public Schools board will vote on the idea during their June 27 meeting.

Passions ran high during a committee meeting this week as the community and board members weighed in on the issue.

They seemed torn over how effective and economically feasible a single-gender school would be for addressing a segment of the student population that seems to fall through the cracks - minority males who live in poverty and run a higher risk of struggling in school.

“This is not the silver bullet,” Superintendent Eric Becoats said. “But I do know from research and what I’ve seen that there are improved outcomes from both male and female students using this model.”

As the proposal currently stands, a male academy would pilot through a partnership with Maureen Joy Charter School before growing into its own space at an undesignated location within the district.

The program is proposed to pilot in the building on Cornwallis Road that had been home to Maureen Joy Charter School, which is moving to the old Y.E. Smith school building on Driver Street in East Durham.

The academy would cost an estimated $12 million to start and would serve males in grades six through 12. An all-female school would eventually follow, but is not required to begin at the same time as the all-male academy.

It is also estimated that the initial professional development for the faculty at the single-gender school would range between $15,000 and $20,000.

Becoats explained that low interest bonds could be used for renovations to existing buildings, but not for construction of new ones.

The academy would be funded through state funds that are allotted per student in addition to supplemental funds, including dollars for at-risk youth.

When this option was put before the board in May, board members were divided and they remain so. Several concerns repeatedly emerged as points of contention.

“This is a very resource-intensive endeavor that would require more money than what follows a student,” said board member Leigh Bordley. “To be true to the success of these types of schools, we’ll need that additional funding.”

Bordley cited the success of R.N. Harris Integrated Arts/Core Knowledge Magnet School as a model already in place that serves the same purpose as the proposed single-gender school.

“We are doing it,” she said of reaching the most at-risk children. “We’re having success there and we’re not replicating it. I want our resources to go to our neediest children. It takes more than the funds that follow a student to make this successful.”

Becoats said that the single-gender academy is the extra step that Bordley is asking for to help meet the needs of students who fall through the cracks.

Board Chair Heidi Carter said that she needs more concrete information before she can support this type of model.

“I don’t think there’s a crystal clear mission among all of us as to our goal,” Carter said. “We’re trying to break that link between poverty and school success. I think that we know how to be successful, but how do we get the funding to do it?

“Unless we’re going to pour resources into a school that focuses on our most challenged, I can’t support it.”

Carter added that some of the practices suggested for the single-gender academy already are done, such as school uniforms and extended school days. She asked if the energy put into the issue of single-gender schools could be redirected to existing programs.

Board Vice Chair Minnie Forte-Brown said that the community is watching the board to see if members are bold enough to step outside the box to meet the needs of children because if they don’t, someone else will.

“We know that we have children who are drowning. But what are we going to do to help them?” Forte-Brown said. “I want you to think and stop being scared. You’ve got to step out on faith. We’ve had kitchen table conversations, but we’ve never had the community that’s before you today.

“If it works, it works. If it fails, it fails. But to not do it is unconscionable.”

Board member Omega Curtis Parker said decisions can’t always be based just on money.

 “We can’t stop living or educating these children because times are hard,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to do what we can for our constituency. It’s been presented to us and funds have been identified.

“But there is a particular segment of our community that needs to be serves, who tend to be minority. Why are we so much against what’s good for our children?”

Becoats assured the board that resources would not be pulled from existing schools to support the single-gender academy. He added that it would be similar to Durham School of the Arts and City Medicine Academy, with their small class sizes, focused/themed instruction and a staff dedicated to a prescribed culture.

County officials are awaiting feedback and the board’s decision on the single-gender academy proposal, Becoats said, adding that he still fully supports the idea.

“I’m going to continue to go back to Guilford County,” he said. “Both of the programs [there] are on college campuses, they are small and focused and have leaders there that are focused.”