Since I announced my decision to retire in August, I have been overwhelmed by the kindness that has been shown me — by teachers and staff, by community members, and the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. However, I am also intensely uncomfortable when placed in the spotlight. I would rather turn it back where it belongs, on our students and schools.
This brings me to the great news that came this Wednesday, when an external review team from AdvancED — the accreditation agency that is the successor to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — presented their recommendation of accreditation renewal for Durham Public Schools. Accreditation is vitally important for our schools. Among other things, it is a signifier that a diploma from Durham Public Schools is meaningful and valid; colleges and universities pay attention to whether students graduate from accredited schools.
But the accreditation process is also about continuous improvement, and about demonstrating that we have the capacity to dramatically improve student achievement and to foster, in AdvancED’s words, “equitable and challenging learning experiences leading to ‘next level’ success” for all students.
Standards have risen since DPS was last accredited in 2011. AdvancED relies more heavily on performance data and emphasizes equity among students and schools — something that our district has also focused deeply on in recent years. When the external review team told me that they would once more recommend accreditation, one member said, “We see leverage. There are clear levers you can use” to achieve higher performance and greater equity.
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Accreditation does not mean that we are a perfect school district, but it means that we have what it takes to do great things for our students and schools.
They highlighted a number of strengths in Durham Public Schools and our community, qualities for which I am proud and grateful every day. They cited our emphasis on diversity, our growing graduation rate over the years, our array of magnet and career choices, our Advanced Placement performance, our rate of academic growth, our mental health partnerships, our leadership development programs, and the support for DPS in Durham County.
AdvancED recognized the challenges we face as a school district, most significantly in teacher turnover, our capacity for meeting immigrant and refugee student needs, challenges communicating with such a diverse range of families and stakeholders, and overcoming misconceptions about our district. The review team also had recommendations for improvement: strengthening instructional processes, strengthening school leaders’ ability to support and monitor performance, ensuring that every student is “well known” by at least one school staff member, and improving our analysis of student performance data throughout the year. We will receive their full recommendations, in great detail, in roughly a month.
None of AdvancED’s findings came as a surprise to us—indeed, they gave us credit for honestly analyzing our own strengths and weaknesses in the self-assessment we provided. When they came to interview our staff and board members, visited our schools and reviewed our data, they saw that we are who we say we are.
This was possibly the thing I am most proud of in the entire accreditation process. If Durham Public Schools is to be the champion for every child who comes to our schools, if we are to face inequities and eliminate them, and if we are to dramatically improve student achievement, we must be honest with ourselves and our community. I have always believed that of our teachers, staff and administrators. That faith was confirmed in the AdvancED recommendation for accreditation renewal, and it points the way to a brighter future for DPS.
Bert L’Homme is superintendent of Durham Public Schools.