An open letter to Durham’s new school superintendent:
Welcome to Durham. I wish you a successful tenure as our new school superintendent, which will surely be a challenging and rewarding job. I appreciate the thoughtful process used by the school board to hire you. Your experience should serve you well in leading Durham Public Schools (DPS). As a parent of a DPS student for the past six years, I wanted to offer three concerns to you, ones which may be somewhat hidden and which all definitely affect our most vulnerable students.
First, based on my experience and reports from other parents, while students in honors and gifted programs like AIG seem to be receiving excellent instruction, those in regular classes may not be. Problems for non-AIG classes include larger class sizes, disciplinary issues that disrupt class (and ineffective ways to address them), and a corresponding lack of creative, project-based learning. Too often I have heard parents voice great frustration that their non-AIG students were not experiencing a stable, quality learning environment on par with students in the honors offerings.
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A second concern is the dismal state of DPS food. For over two years, a group of parents has researched the situation and offered solutions, to little avail. Food Director Jim Keaton has a shockingly poor budget to work with, based on inadequate federal money, no state enhancements and a burdensome overhead charge of $800,000 from the county.
Like many schools across the country, the lack of funding means that students are served highly processed, sugary, carb-laden and, to ask a student, unpalatable meals, all driven by lobbyists for industrial food companies. Such food contributes to poor health outcomes (obesity/diabetes) and, lest we forget, poor academic performance. (A large 2017 study in California found an average four percentage point increase on standardized tests with healthier lunches; this improvement cost five times less than raising test scores through smaller class sizes.) DPS adopted a Wellness Policy that addresses some of this, but with no Wellness Coordinator in place (lost due to budget cuts), the policy is not being enforced. To make matters worse, posted menus on the DPS website are routinely completely inaccurate. Especially frustrating, the district refuses to cooperate with parents’ efforts to improve school food funding, the number one root problem. With better funding, districts in other parts of the country are serving healthier meals that kids will eat.
A third concern is the very tight funding for school physical facilities. Across the district, school building and grounds maintenance is poor. This is due not to lack of effort from school maintenance staff, who work hard and have been cooperative with parents and community groups. The funding is just not there.
As a result, schools and school grounds are in rough shape, certainly not reflecting a world class system, and sending the wrong signal to students. “Does anyone care about the place where I go to learn? Am I important?” Parents and community groups can and will fill in some of the gaps, but this is a recipe for disparities between schools in richer and poorer areas. In the end, the school system needs to allocate more operations and capital funding (including outside grants) for day-to-day maintenance, upkeep and physical upgrades (like improved playgrounds, more outdoor learning spaces/school gardens and up-to-date auditoriums, for example.) And, of course, pursuing more school bonds is an option here.
As the new superintendent, you have a tough job ahead of you, with many issues to address. Through strong communication and open dialogue with parents, you and DPS staff can create a true staff-board-parent collaboration to address all of the tough problems together. Again, welcome to Durham and best wishes.
Fred Broadwell has a sixth grader at Brogden Middle School and has been active in the PTA there and at E. K. Powe Elementary.