Education

Will a change in principals at this Durham elementary school produce better results?

David Vanie looks on as his wife, Tamara, speaks out against a then-potential state takeover at Glenn Elementary School on Oct. 10, 2017.
David Vanie looks on as his wife, Tamara, speaks out against a then-potential state takeover at Glenn Elementary School on Oct. 10, 2017. Bernard Thomas

What would happen if the best and brightest principal was moved to one of the district’s lowest-performing schools?

It’s something educators talk about a lot, but it seldom happens.

That’s about to change at one Durham elementary school.

Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga has named Karen Kellett, principal of high-achieving Mangum Elementary School, to lead Glenn Elementary School, which was the target of a potential state takeover this year because students at Glenn struggle academically. Glenn and Lakewood Elementary schools were both eventually removed from the N.C. Innovative School District (NCISD) list of finalists for state takeover.

Both schools will operate under the state Restart Reform Model next year with charter school-like flexibility. They could, for example, choose to institute longer school days and a different school calendar as well as direct more money to professional development and support specific areas that affect learning.

Glenn routinely receives a letter grade of F under the state’s controversial school performance grades system, while Mangum has for the past two years received the top grade of A-plus.

Mubenga made the switch because academic gains were not being made quickly enough at Glenn.

“Our teachers and staff at Glenn have been working hard for many years to provide a high-quality education to our students and families,” Mubenga said in a statement. “We need faster progress. Ms. [Karen] Kellett is coming to Glenn as an experienced, successful principal who also has a track record of working with diverse populations to help transform schools.”

David Vanie, a Glenn parent who has twins attending kindergarten at Glenn, said he welcomes the change.

“I think its a bit overdue,” said Vanie, who helped to fight off the state takeover. “I’m grateful the superintendent moved in that direction.”

Try as he might, Vanie said current principal Cornelius Redfearn simply wasn’t moving the needle academically.

“Either we blame poor families or we blame poor leadership,” Vanie said. “We can’t do both.”

Meanwhile, Chris Roberts, the Mangum Parent-Teacher Organization president, said some parents were disappointed at the news of Kellett’s departure, which she shared at a school play last week.

But Roberts said most are excited for Kellett and the opportunity and new challenges Glenn will offer her.

“She’s the right person for that job, but we’re going to miss her,” Roberts said. “If anybody can make a change at a low-performing school, it’s her. This is right up her alley.”

Kellett became principal of Mangum in 2014. Before that, she was an elementary curriculum and professional development facilitator who helped schools such as Glenn, Easley and George Watts elementary schools identify areas of improvement and analyze student data. She also coached and mentored staffs in schools with high poverty and diverse student populations.

“Every student craves real and relevant engagement from their teachers and school community,” Kellett said in a statement. “I can’t wait to meet with Glenn families and staff and start building the foundation that will help our students succeed in middle school, high school and life.”

In a interview Thursday, Kellett noted that her background is in school improvement. She said that she is “eager” to move to Glenn to begin the hard work of transforming it into a school where children succeed academically.

“I think that’s what my gift is,” Kellett.

She warned, however, that success won’t come overnight.

“It’s going to be more like turning an oil tanker than a sailboat,” Kellett said.

The decision to move from Mangum to Glenn was not a difficult one for her, Kellett said, because she believes in the vision Mubenga has for the district.

“I believe in Dr. [Pascal] Mubenga with every piece of my being,” Kellett said. “I’m about moving student achievement for every child in Durham Public Schools.”

Kellett pledged to focus on core instruction, develop a shared vision and leverage community partnerships to support students and families.

Assistant Principal Gwendolyn Dorman will become interim principal of Mangum and will lead the school through the 2018-19 school year.

Kellett will inherit a school significantly different from the one she now leads. At Mangum, 76.7 percent of the school’s 333 students are white, while 17.9 percent are black or Hispanic. Compare that to Glenn where 91.5 percent of the school’s 350 students are black or Hispanic and only 3.8 percent are white.

Nearly all — 98.8 percent — of Glenn students receive free or reduced-priced lunches while only 22.52 percent of students who attend Mangum receive free or reduced-priced lunches.

DPS Board of Education member Minnie Forte-Brown often advocates for sending DPS’ top talent to low-performing schools.

“I think that is really a positive move,” Forte-Brown said. “Ms. [Karen] Kellett is going to Glenn and they need a different face. [Glenn Principal] Cornelius [Redfearn] has done as much as he can do.”

Forte-Brown said Mubenga was asked to improve academic performance when he was hired last year. She said moving Kellett to Glenn is about putting the right person in the right place.

“As a district we have everything that we need,” Forte-Brown said. “We just need to put the resources we have in the right place.”

Jovonia Lewis, interim chairwoman of the Education Committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs Black People, applauded Mubenga’s move to place a top principal where she is needed most.

“It’s a bold, brilliant move,” Lewis said. “He’s [Mubenga] allocating resources to where they are needed.”

Lewis added that moving Kellett to Glenn would challenge the 2017 Principal of the Year finalist and help her continue to grow professionally.

In addition to the Kellett move to Glenn, Mubenga made one other that’s designed to improve the district’s low-performing schools.

He’s hired Stacy D. Stewart to become assistant superintendent for school transformation. Stewart will oversee 12 elementary schools identified by the state as “low performing” and an additional three elementary schools.

Stewart comes to DPS from Edgecombe County Public Schools where she is assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. She also served as executive director of K-8 education and federal programs for Franklin County Schools.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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