Durham County

Durham Public Schools must tackle bias to bridge racial achievement gap, school admin says

Kelvin Bullock is the Durham Public Schools’ director of equity affairs.
Kelvin Bullock is the Durham Public Schools’ director of equity affairs.

White students in the Durham Public Schools outperformed their white peers statewide on last year’s state end-of-grade tests for students in grades 3-8.

But on those same tests, DPS’ African-American and and Hispanic students not only fell far short of their local white counterparts but also trailed their black and Hispanic peers across the state.

The trend is similar for DPS black and Hispanic students on end-of-course tests for high school students.

And unless DPS works to address cultural biases in the student-teacher equation, the district will be hard-pressed to narrow the achievement gap that exists between white students and their North Carolina black and Latino peers, Kelvin Bullock, the Durham Public Schools’ executive director for equity affairs, told members of the Durham Board of Education during a recent meeting.

“We all have biases,” Bullock said. “We all have certain inclinations that we have to acknowledge and work through if we want to work with our young people.”

Bullock, a former Hillside High School teacher, said once educators get to know their students and build meaningful relationships, it becomes easy to figure out what needs to be communicated to students through the curriculum.

“But if we don’t know the kids and are still being hindered by the cultural barriers that exist between us and the kids, then we’re never going to see the gains that we want to see and we will not become the district that I know we will become, which is a prototype for effectively educating students of color and our white students,” Bullock said.

He noted that as a 23-year-old African-American teacher he found it easy to connect with students at majority black Hillside.

“I didn’t realize it at the time that culturally, I was just naturally connecting with some of my students,” Bullock said. “Being a black male and teaching in a predominately African American school, there were certain cultural connections that I was unconscious of but were present.”

Connecting takes work

As he grew older, Bullock said connecting with young black students began to take more work.

“I have to do some work now to connect with 16 year olds,” Bullock said. “Just because I’m an African-American doesn’t mean there isn’t a cultural distinction between myself and the young people I work with.”

Bullock said the hard work of connecting with black and Hispanic students can prove even tougher for white teachers, who make up a full 66 percent of the Durham Public Schools’ teaching corps.

Black and Hispanic students make up 76 percent — 46 percent black and about 30 percent Hispanic — of DPS’ enrollment, giving the school district the largest proportion of students of color among the state’s 10 largest school districts, Bullock said.

Meanwhile, the fact that nearly 72 percent of the district’s principals are black can also create cultural tension between principals and majority white teaching staffs.

“There can be some cultural dissonance often between teachers and students, but you also have the added dimension, with more than 70 percent of our principals being black, of an interesting dynamic between teachers and principals,” Bullock said.

Latino hirings key

He said the district must also do a better job hiring Latino teachers and principals.

“That’s something that we have to be mindful of and thinking about how we recruit and retain Latino teachers, and particularly be thinking about Latino principals,” Bullock said.

The data around short-term suspensions for DPS is alarming, Bullock said.

The data for short-term suspensions during the 2014-15 school year, the numbers available to Bullock when he prepared his report, shows 81.7 percent of the school district’s short-term suspensions being handed down to black students who make up just 46 percent of DPS enrollment.

Short-term suspensions are those lasting five days or more.

Data for the 2015-16 school year was similar to the 2014-15 data, with 81.5 percent of the district’s short-term suspensions received by black students.

Overall, DPS suspensions declined significantly last school year, but black students still received the vast majority of the suspensions handed out.

“If you compare that to our student demographics where our black students make up 46 percent of our student population, you’ll see there shouldn’t be an 80 percent representation of black students in short-term suspensions,” Bullock said.

Graduation on rise

A highlight for DPS has been improvement in graduation rates, particularly among African-American students.

Four-year graduation improved from 80 percent in the 2014-15 school year to 82.1 percent in the 2015-16.

The statewide graduation rate was 85.8 percent.

Bullock said black female students in DPS have a similar graduation rate to white males, and black males graduate at a higher clip than their male peers in many larger urban districts.

“That’s something to be celebrated,” Bullock said. “The challenge we see is the graduation rate for black males and Latino males are a bit lower than their female counterparts.”

Testing vs. graduation

DPS Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee asked about the disparity between low test scores and the district’s improved graduation rate.

“How does proficiency level affect the graduation rate?” Lee asked.

Bullock said high school students take 28 courses toward graduation and that end-of-course tests are only taken in three courses.

“That’s just the grades students receive versus the larger scheme of their work that leads to graduation,” Bullock said of the end-of-course tests.

School board member Xavier Cason noted that the disparity between low test scores and the district graduation rate is something that is discussed in the community.

“What I tell them is it’s like my wife grading me for what I do on Valentine’s Day, her birthday and on Mother’s Day and the other days don’t count,” Cason said.

In the coming weeks, Bullock said DPS principals and administrators will participate in Racial Equity Institute’s Groundwater Training, which is a three-hour introduction to racial equity.

“The idea is to give principals a kind of grounding in this racial equity work and from there, we will continue to build upon it,” Bullock said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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