Education

Durham superintendent not ready to let bad behavior slide just to reduce suspensions

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga chats with Nakia Hardy, the district’s new deputy superintendent of academic affairs, before a meeting with black parents Monday, Dec. 18, as part of a event held by the Education Committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
Superintendent Pascal Mubenga chats with Nakia Hardy, the district’s new deputy superintendent of academic affairs, before a meeting with black parents Monday, Dec. 18, as part of a event held by the Education Committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. gchildress@heraldsun.com

Reducing suspensions means little if students aren’t making academic gains, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga told a group of black parents Monday night.

“You may have 20 students in a classroom, and one can destroy the whole classroom,” he said. “That’s why teachers and principals sometimes make tough decisions. We have to be able to communicate so we can know the what is the struggle and where we need support.”

A preliminary report shows Durham Public Schools had 40 percent more short-term suspensions last school year when a revised Code of Student Conduct was supposed to reduce suspensions. Short-term suspensions are under 10 days.

“I’m going to need your support,” Mubenga said. “Yes, we want to make sure that our students are in school, but we don’t need to be talking about suspensions without talking about academic achievement.”

He noted that 75 percent of the district’s principals are African-American.

“They’re people like you, and they’re struggling dealing with our students,” Mubenga said. “So, you’ve got to give them time in dealing with our students.”

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Mubenga spoke at an event held by the Education Committee of the Durham Affairs of Black People to give parents and others an opportunity to meet and hear from the new superintendent.

Joined by several members of his staff, including Nakia Hardy, the district’s new deputy superintendent of academic services, Mubenga fielded dozens of questions about academic achievement, charter schools, teacher retention and other issues.

“I’m very optimistic with the team that I’m bringing together and the team we have here,” Mubenga said. “In two or three years, you will be pleased with the results we’re going to have for our students. We’re going to work day and night to make sure our babies are getting the right education so they’ll be successful in career and college as well.”

He said revising the Code of Student Conduct was a good step, but it’s going to take more time for new principals to build relationships with students and parents before suspensions begin to decline.

The public schools in Philadelphia recently revised their student conduct code and were also disappointed in the first-year results, Mubenga said.

He said students there who previously received frequent suspensions showed no academic gains when principals became more tolerant of bad behavior. At the same time, there was a decline in achievement among student who traditionally performed well in school, he said.

Mubenga cited Hillside High School as an example of a school that’s reduced suspensions and improved academic achievement.

“That used to be one of the toughest high schools,” Mubenga said. “Last week, when I asked for data for the past four years, achievement data as well as discipline, discipline [problems] is down and achievement is up.”

They’re people like you, and they’re struggling dealing with our students. So, you’ve got to give them time in dealing with our students.

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga on DPS principals

Setting high expectations

Mubenga said the school district must set high expectations for all children regardless of their backgrounds.

He made that point by sharing a story about a football player who was being recruited by N.C. State when Mubenga worked in Jones County Schools.

Mubenga said the athletically gifted student missed out on a chance to play for N.C. State and possibly a pro football career or basketball career because he didn’t not have the required 2.0 GPA to play for the Wolfpack.

“He was so talented,” Mubenga said. “I got with my coaches and my staff and said, no athletes will play if they don’t have a 2.0. The first year, my quarterback was benched and parents were calling me names.”

But by the second year, Mubenga said most of the athletes had 3.0 GPAs because they “really wanted to play.”

“I told my staff that it’s a disservice to the students to be involved and getting championships and end up on the street once they get a high school diploma because no one will pick them up,” Mubenga said.

Mubenga noted that Durham has substantially more resources than some of the other districts in which he’s worked.

“If we can put those resources together we should be able to make a huge difference in our students’ lives,” Mubenga said. “I’m not just talking about money, I’m talking about you sitting here.”

Parents worry about achievement

Tina Ndoh, who has one child at Jordan High School and another at Githens Middle School, spoke about the creation of the Parents of African American Children (PAAC) organization in February to discuss issues that concern parents of black children who now make up the majority of students at the school.

“Our student are failing by and large when we look at end-of-course tests,” Ndoh said. “When we look at Math I and English II, those are two key indicators for college readiness. African-American males are at 60 percent not proficient for English II and for Math I it’s 80 percent.”

Ndoh said the statistics at Jordan are “heartbreaking and overwhelming” and are similar at other schools across the district.

“When we look at our white counterparts, the numbers are almost flipped,” Ndoh said. There’s a huge gap in college preparedness and readiness.”

Jovonia Lewis, who co-chairs the Committee’s Education Committee, said PAACs are also in George Watts, Southwest, Club, Eastway, Glenn and E.K. Powe elementary schools this year.

Mubenga said the low-passing rates for black students is “unacceptable.”

But he said the administration must first show principals and teachers how to improve student achievement.

After that, Mubenga said they must be held accountable.

“We must hold people accountable, including me,” Mubenga said. “If I’m sitting in this position for three years and I’m not moving the district, the [school] board might make a decision differently because they’re expecting results.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

The numbers

Last school year, the first under the revised student code, students received 5,520 short-term suspensions, which is 1,634 more suspensions than the 3,886 handed down during the 2015-16 school year.

Short-term suspensions, those under 10 days, increased for all but six of the school district’s 23 middle and high schools and in 17 of 30 elementary schools. In all, 34 of 53 schools saw more suspensions.

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