A Durham teacher of the year nearly quit over troubled 5-year-old. Would this help?

Alexa Goff, a teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary Schools, told County Commissioners on Monday, June 11, that she nearly quit her job in 2015 because she struggled to help a student with serious mental health issues.
Alexa Goff, a teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary Schools, told County Commissioners on Monday, June 11, that she nearly quit her job in 2015 because she struggled to help a student with serious mental health issues.

Alexa Goff, a teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary School, nearly quit her job in 2015 because of the mental health struggles of a 5-year old student she was not equipped to help.

The 17-year veteran, who has been named Club Boulevard's teacher of the year, grew emotional Monday night as she explained the situation to county commissioners and dozens of residents at a public hearing on Durham County's spending plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

"This internal struggle, whether to stay or walk away, had nothing to do with teaching. It had to do with the fact that I had a student in full-blown mental health crisis, who at age 5 was suicidal, who inflicted self-harm inside of my classroom, who expressed himself and the pain he was experiencing," Goff said.

"It was a situation I was not trained for. It was a situation where I did not have the physical capacity to handle. I felt like I did not have support."

Goff believes her experience would have been different had Club operated using the community school model, which brings focused academic strategies and community resources such as health and social services to campuses to improve student learning and build stronger families and healthier communities.

"Community schools do not just offer support in this situation where you have a student in full-blown mental health crisis," Goff explained. "Community schools offer wrap-around supports for students and for their families. It connects kids and families in need with the appropriate community resources."

Goff was one of two dozen educators, parents and students, many wearing their signature red T-shirts to show support for public educations, who attended the public hearing to ask the county to fund two community schools advisers at a cost of about $120,000.

The Durham Public Schools has already agreed to pay for coordinators at Club Boulevard and Lakewood Elementary Schools as part of a pilot program next school year.

But advocates of the Community Schools model want to expand the program to include Southwest Elementary School, E.K. Powe and Hope Valley elementary Schools. Under their proposal, the county would pay for two advisers and they would ask the City of Durham and Duke University to pay for a third.

"It's really exciting for me as a principal to think about having a community schools coordinator who has all day, 24/7, to think about how do we take our school to the next level," said Southwest Elementary School Principal Nicholas Rotosky.

'New money' request

Many of those who spoke in favor of additional advisers also supported a Durham Public Schools' request for $5 million in "new money" for the upcoming school year. School leaders have called the budget request "conservative."

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"With the challenges that we're dealing with in schools every single day, we could have asked for $20 million more and it still would have been a conservative request," said Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators.

But Dick Ford, president of the Friends of Durham, a fiscally conservative political action committee, urged commissioners to not grant DPS' full request, contending the school district has failed black and Hispanic students.

"By its own budget report, the Durham Public Schools has produced poor results for students of color," Ford said. "DPS ranks poorly [educating children of color] when compared to other school districts. In fact, it's almost last for Hispanic students in the entire state and for African-American students, it's in the bottom third."

Ford said it's time to stop blaming children for poor academic outcomes.

"African-American and Hispanic students do better in other districts, so why do we get sub par results for all the money that we spend? Do the commissioners know the reason? Does the school board? Do my red friends here tonight?" Ford said, referring to the educators in the audience wearing red T-shirts.

Losing students

County Manager Wendell Davis has recommended DPS only receive $3 million in additional funding next year. His recommendation is based on enrollment projections that show DPS will lose 231 students next year while area charter school enrollment will grow by 300.

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In a letter to the county commissioners, Davis said he simply can't justify recommending that DPS receive the $5 million in "new money" that Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wants when "the number of students in Durham Public Schools has decreased the last two years."

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Davis' proposed spending plan raises the tax rate 1.9 cents to 78.69 cents per $100,000 of assessed property value. That's a 2.4 percent increase.

The proposed tax rate means if you own a $300,000 house, for example, you would pay $2,360.70 in county property tax next year, or $57 more than you did this year.

Commissioners are expected to approve the county budget on June 25.

Mubenga's proposed $432.9 million "continuation" budget requests $137.1 million from Durham County, including the $5 million increase.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645