When Patricia Townsend, the newly hired coordinator of Whitted School, read the description for the preschool that will open this month, she immediately knew that she wanted the job.
Townsend, a veteran educator who most recently served as an assistant principal at Partnership School in the Wake County Public Schools system, said she was drawn to Durham by the community’s commitment to universal preschool.
She believes that pre-kindergarten is the way forward in the fight to close a stubborn achievement gap that has bedeviled Durham Public Schools and other school districts for many decades.
“Being in a K-5 school, we saw how students who have not had preschooling are deemed behind because they don’t know their letters or can’t spell their name,” Townsend said. “I think this preschool will help close the gap. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
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Townsend’s thinking is in line with the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, the Board of County Commissioners and the City Council, all of which have passed resolutions in support of universal pre-kindergarten as a way to close the achievement gap.
That support led to the convening of the The Community Early Education/Preschool Task Force that has called for increasing and expanding quality for Pre-K to all low-income 4-year-olds in 2019.
The plan also calls for extending Pre-K to all 3-and 4-year-olds by 2023, using income — 200 percent of the federal poverty level — as an eligibility guideline.
Whitted School will add eight classrooms
Townsend will lead a school that will be comprised of eight preschool classrooms, two for exceptional children, that will serve 144 children in the newly renovated Whitted School building on East Umstead Street.
The classrooms will bring the total of preschool classrooms provided by DPS to 50.
The children attending Whitted School will share the facility with the Veranda at Whitted School, a 79-unit apartment complex for senior citizens, which is already operating.
The developer — Atlanta-based Integral Group — and Durham leaders see the $21.5 million intergenerational facility as a place where children and senior citizens can support and learn from each other.
Townsend also sees it as a community gathering place.
“It’s important that Whitted School be seen as a place where the community can come and gather,” Townsend said.
Sue Cotterman, director of the school district’s Office of Early Education, said Townsend’s time at Partnership School made her an attractive candidate because that school focuses on building a community school through partnerships.
“We were looking for someone with that background,” Cotterman said.
Staffing, students shaping up
Cotterman said all teachers, teaching assistants and administrative positions at the preschool have been hired or recommended for hire.
“We’re in good shape,” Cotterman said about hiring staff for the school.
And Cotterman said she is confident that all 144 seats at Whitted School will be filled when classes begin at the end of the month.
She said letters have been sent to families in the priority attendance zone for Whitted School, which is comprised of attendance zones for C.C. Spaulding, WG Pearson, Eastway, Y.E. Smith, Fayetteville Street and Lakewood elementary schools.
Seats not filled by students from those priority zones will become available to other Durham County children.
Cotterman said Whitted School is a “huge accomplishment” that will help DPS as it fights to make progress in improving students’ achievement.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about for a long time and its big commitment coming from the commissioners and school board,” Cotterman said. “I think it’s great and we certainly know we have children who need the service.”
Including the 144 new seats at Whitted School, there will be a total of 955 publicly funded Pre-K slots in Durham when school starts in August.
The task force estimates that 1,136 low-income 4-year-olds will not be served.
Education is key
For Townsend, who grew up in rural Robeson County, education has always been the path to a better life.
She said her parents instilled in her and 16 siblings the value of education even though neither of her parents completed high school.
“I’m a believer that it does not matter where you come from, education is the equalizer,” said Townsend, who began her career in education as a teaching assistant at Club Boulevard Elementary School. “It will take you to many places.”
Townsend earned a B.A. degree in English and a master’s degree in school administration, both at UNC-Chapel Hill.
She is pursuing a doctorate in administration and supervision at N.C. State University.
“I’ve made it a goal to go as far as I can in pursuit of education as a way to honor my parents,” Townsend said.