Riverside High senior asks DPS Board of Education to improve conditions for students of color

Riverside High School senior Jaden Jules (left) is being introduced to the Durham Board of Education by Riverside Principal Tony Williams during the board’s business meeting Thursday, March 23.
Riverside High School senior Jaden Jules (left) is being introduced to the Durham Board of Education by Riverside Principal Tony Williams during the board’s business meeting Thursday, March 23.

Moments after he was honored as the Durham Public Schools/Herald-Sun Student of the Month on Thursday, Riverside High School senior Jaden Jules called on the school district to do better by its African American students.

And not long after Jules made his remarks during a Durham Board of Education meeting, a string of teachers marched forward to complain about a shortage of substitute teachers and over-worked English as a Second Language (ESL) and Exceptional Children’s teachers.

Holly Hardin, a teacher at Northern High School, said she is on the verge of quitting because of the workload created by a lack of substitute teachers which forces full-time teachers to fill in for absent colleagues.

“I feel like I’m not in a sustainable place,” Hardin said. “I’m taking home more work than ever and I don’t have time for my family and I don’t have time for the things I need to do to keep myself well.”

Hardin and other teachers said the big issue is the loss of their important planning period when they are forced to fill in for absent colleagues.

That means students get short-changed because teachers don’t have time to adequately prepare their lessons, Hardin said.

“Something is up, something is going on and I need y'all to look into that,” Hardin said, referring to the lack of substitute teachers. “If I’m feeling this way, I know other teachers in my school are feeling this way and I know other teachers in the district are feeling this way.”

Meanwhile, Jules, who founded a Black Student Union (BSU) at Riverside to advocate for academic equality on behalf of black students, called on DPS to increase the number of blacks in Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) programs and rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

“Schools legally desegregated 63 years ago to ensure that students of every skin color would get equal and equitable education, but sadly that vision has still not been accomplished,” Jules said. “What we now see is a lingering form of separate but equal happening right before our very eyes.”

Jules received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks and several speakers referred to them when they addressed the board.

He noted that while 79 percent of white students pass end of course tests, only 35 percent of black students pass.

Jules also pointed out that the average ACT score for white students is 22 while the average score for blacks is 17 and that the number of black students enrolled in AP and honors courses is not proportional to the number of black students enrolled in DPS.

Jules said African-American students often do not have the support system in place to help them to be successful in the classroom.

“Too often, the students who are struggling and who need need the most nurture aren’t receiving it from their teachers, their schools and their school districts,” Jules said. “This creates a dangerous cycle of neglect, failure and inability to fulfill their potential.”

Jules, who is headed to Vanderbilt University in the fall on a full scholarship, created the BSU at Riverside after attending N.C. Governor’s School last fall.

He noticed that there were few blacks in the program and wanted to do something to help position more Riverside students of color to take advantage of such opportunities.

“I am very proud of the success I have garnered, but it would be negligent of me to believe that my story is common,” Jules said. “I am the exception to the rule.”

In addition to calling on DPS to increase the number of students of color in AP programs and AIG courses, Jules also asked the board to continue its research into its stubborn achievement gap.

“Make it public information for everyone to be able to have an open, honest discussion on this very serious topic,” Jules said.

He also called on DPS middle schools and high schools to “identify every student that is academically capable” and encourage them to take honors and AP classes.

“If I can walk into a classroom and guess if it is a standard or even an honors class based on the class’ demographics, there is a problem,” Jules said.

Jules also wants students enrolled in honors and AP courses to lead tutoring sessions for those struggling in the classes and all DPS schools to set up daily tutoring sessions for students serving in-school suspension.

“For those who say that this cannot be done, well I happen to disagree,” Jules said.

He said Riverside’s BSU has successfully fought to get more students of color in honors and AP courses and has led tutoring sessions to help students better prepare for the ACT.

“We as students see the injustice in Durham Public Schools and we will not hold our tongues any longer,” Jules said.

Later in the meeting, DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme said he saw a stark contrast between Thursday night’s celebration when several dozen students and educators were honored for achievement and the comments he heard about the district during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“To me it was striking to listen to both the celebrations and the comments,” L’Homme said. “Those celebrations are happening in all of our schools and they’re happening for a reason because our students are making progress and many of them are excelling.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645