This year’s graduations were my last as superintendent. While I didn’t get sentimental about it on my own behalf, I found myself paying special attention to the young men and women walking across those stages.
There were more than 2,200. Many graduated with college credits already in hand. Some of them, including some students at our small specialty high schools and one from traditional Riverside High School, are leaving us with full associate’s degrees.
Our college-bound graduates are going to Princeton and NCCU, Wilberforce and Duke, Stanford and Glasgow, and many more. They were offered more than $40 million in academic and athletic scholarships; $18 million of these alone were offered to Hillside High School graduates.
Durham Public Schools has prepared these students for higher education – prepared them well. And although our community, bounded by so many top-quality colleges, tends to focus on post-secondary education as a goal, we are also very proud of those graduates who are directly entering the workforce or enlisting for military service. Our Career-Technical Education and other academic programs have set them on the path to success as well.
So it was a great pleasure to see the fruits of 13 years’ worth of our educators’ labor–longer if they participated in DPS pre-kindergarten programs – standing tall and proud, tossing their caps in the air as I conferred their status as graduates of Durham Public Schools. Our teachers at every grade level accomplished this. But they weren’t alone.
Counselors, bus drivers, school administrators, and local and district support staff pulled together to support our students and schools. Families prodded, encouraged and inspired their children to focus on the future. Volunteers mentored, tutored and guided. And local elected officials ensured that Durham Public Schools would remain strong and healthy for the coming year.
That last point deserves emphasis.
As discussions about public education and its funding have become painfully partisan in Raleigh, in Durham we have a powerful consensus for public schools. We debate many of the details but no one doubts our community’s support for maintaining and improving a strong public school district.
This year, that consensus was reflected by our public’s historic support of our November school bond referendum. Our elected officials heard the public’s call, passing a local school budget beyond the cautious proposals submitted by me and the county manager. This year, Durham stood when Raleigh would not.
We took further stands – for inclusion, diversity and equity. We built from the community-based work to reform our Code of Student Conduct and deepened our commitment to racial equity in our schools. We hired an executive director for equity affairs and began a substantial increase in professional development for our school leaders and educators. We made public shows of support for our immigrant and refugee students and their families. Prompted by DPS educators, we also tightened our district policies to insist that all of our students are protected by due process in law enforcement. Our students will know that DPS is their advocate.
It has been a strong year for Durham Public Schools, and yet there is still much to do.
Our academic performance has steadily but slowly improved since I narrowed our district’s focus to four simple strategic goals: increasing graduation rates and overall achievement, decreasing suspensions and dropouts. We need to dramatically increase academic performance for students of color and from lower-income families, however. Finding a community consensus among Durham’s many consituencies for how to achieve that rapid improvement is an ongoing challenge. And our work to improve equity for students and schools is only beginning.
All this is true, and yet I still look back to our triumphant graduates. All of our educators in Durham Public Schools and their community supporters have worked together to give our students the means and the will to seize their futures with both hands. The cheers of their families as they turned their tassels still ring in my ears. Today I am celebrating their successes and thanking the teachers, staff and educators for making it all possible.
This is what makes public education in Durham worthwhile.
Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of Durham Public Schools.