Is next superintendent a ‘make or break’ hire for Durham Public Schools?

For Antonio Jones, the search for a new superintendent to lead the Durham Public Schools is a “make or break” deal for the school district.

Jones, the father of a 3-year-old son, says the board must select someone who inspires confidence in parents. If not, he thinks more students will leave DPS for charter schools and private schools.

“The next superintendent can make or break Durham Public Schools when you put that against the rise of charter schools,” Jones told school board members recently.

The next superintendent must come prepared to navigate Durham’s tricky political landscape, Jones said. He or she must curb teacher turnover, improve test scores, stop the enrollment decline and steer DPS through what will likely be a contentious redistricting process.

“The new superintendent has to really be willing to make change and come with a plan,” said Jones, a former treasurer who worked at Lakewood Elementary and Hillside High schools. “In Durham Public Schools, a lot of time the can gets kicked down the road. Well, the road is coming to an end.”

While school board members agree it’s important to pick the right person, they think calling the next superintendent a “make or break” hire overstates things.

“A school system is much larger than the superintendent,” board member Steve Unruhe said. “There are lots of outstanding people who work for the school system. I believe those good people are going to stay with us and do good work.”

Most children attend DPS Schools

While the overwhelming majority of the county’s children attend DPS schools, charter schools have fast become a viable option for some parents.

Durham charter schools posted an enrollment of 3,509 students in the 2012-13 school year.

By the 2016-17 school year, their enrollment had nearly doubled, climbing to 6,416 students.

Meanwhile, DPS projections call for charter schools to grow by nearly 400 students this coming school year to push the total to 6,796 students.

Charter school growth would be even greater, but the opening of a new middle school, which was expected to enroll more than 300 student in its first year, was put on hold for at least a year while the Durham County prepares for an expected legal challenge over the county Board of Adjustment’s approval of the charter school’s site plan.

The continued loss of students to charter schools is a major concern for DPS because the dollars to educate those students follow them to the charter schools.

It’s also cause for concern because the enrollment losses come as the county’s population is increasing.

Between July 2010 and July 2016, Durham County’s population grew from 269,352 to 295,373, or more than 26,000 residents.

The private option

Jones said Durham’s private schools offerings are also an option if he’s still uncomfortable sending his child to a DPS school in a couple of years.

He and other parents already spend $1,200 to $1,400 on child care each month, he told the school board, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to add a “few more dollars” for private school.

“Parents in my position, and we talk, we’re having this conversation, what are we going to do? Durham Public Schools? Charter schools? Private schools?” Jones said.

School board Chairman Mike Lee understands parents’ anxiey but says even before he was elected, there was never a doubt where his children would attend school.

“I knew then and I know now that public schools are the best option for my kids,” Lee said, adding that DPS offers the richest, fullest educational experience.

“I know test scores and arbitrary letter grades don’t tell the entire story about what DPS has to offer,” he said.

Tiffany Matthews, whose 6-year-old attends Duke School, a private K-8 school, isn’t watching the superintendent search as closely as Jones.

She is, however, paying close attention what is happening to public schools and thinks state budget cuts are beginning to take their toll.

Part of the reason Matthews said she decided to send her rising first-grader to private school is that the General Assembly appears to be turning its back on public schools.

Matthews also is a true believer in the teaching style at Duke School.

“Public schools focus on grades and test scores instead of a child learning,” Matthews said. “At Duke School, the focus is on learning and teaching the child.”

After eighth-grade, Matthews said DPS will become a viable option because she believes the district’s high school offerings exceed those in nearby counties, area charters and private schools.

“My thought is to wait a few more years to see where her interests lie, but right now, [Duke School] is the best route for us to get that discipline embedded in her,” she said.

Matthews, who is black, also noted that Duke School, in its effort to increase diversity, has worked hard to make the school affordable for her family.

The achievement gap

The school district’s stubborn achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts, is a major concern for Jones as he considers whether to send his son to a DPS school.

Statistics show black males fare worst in the district than any other group, scoring at the bottom of almost every category used to measure academic success.

It’s an old problem in Durham, but one for which Jones believes DPS must quickly find an answer to or risk rendering itself obsolete.

He said it simply appears the school system is not keeping pace with the progress the rest of Durham is making, particularly the renaissance downtown.

Unruhe, a retired DPS educator, noted parents have made similar comments about DPS during his 30 year-career as a teacher in the school system.

“Some said if we merge that would be the end of the school system and others said if we don’t merge it would be the end of the school system,” Unruhe said, referring to the 1992 merger of the former city and county school systems. “It’s nothing new that people speak very strongly and feel very strongly about this issue because it’s important.”

He acknowledged there is a negative perception about the district in some quarters and that the new superintendent will have to convince parents DPS is the best choice for their children.

“A large challenge for the new superintendent is going to be reshaping the image of the school system.”

School board Vice Chairwoman Natalie Beyer said one person will not make or break the school district.

“These schools belong to the community,” Beyer said. “The selection of the new superintendent is not going to have that profound impact.”

She also noted that the challenges faced by DPS are not unique.

“They’re facing school districts across the state and the nation,” she said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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Tentative superintendent search timeline

July 10 – Application deadline for superintendent hopefuls.

July 26 – School board selects finalists for the superintendent post.

Oct. 4 – New superintendent named and introduced to the community

Nov. 3 – New superintendent starts work.