Durham principal ’100 percent’ sure school will reach new, ambitious academic goals

Karen Kellett, the new principal at Glenn Elementary School, apologizes if she sounds too confident.

But Kellett, who moves from high-performing Mangum Elementary School this school year to Glenn where students struggle academically, is certain her new charges will meet every academic goal in Superintendent Pascal Mubenga’s five-year strategic plan.

“One-hundred percent,” Kellett said.

“The school that Dr. Mubenga asked me to come to, Glenn Elementary, I wouldn’t have taken that role if I didn’t believe passionately that we could do the work,” she said.

Even so, Kellett knows the challenges will be many as she takes over a school where only one in three (32.3 percent) students were proficient on end-of-grade tests in reading and math and science. More than 92 percent of the students are black and Hispanic and nearly 100 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

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That’s a big change from Mangum where 84.6 percent of the students were proficient on state tests. Eighteen-percent of the student body there is black and Hispanic and only 22 percent of them receive either free or reduced-price lunches.

The district’s new strategic plan calls for 60 percent of DPS students to be proficient on state end-of-grade and end-of-course tests by 2023. The district’s current proficiency rate is 46.4 percent, 13.6 percentage points below the goal.

Only 14 of 52 DPS schools met of exceeded the goal following the 2016-17 school year.

Moving mountains

When Mubenga named Kellett to the Glenn job, he said she has the skill set to help the staff transform the school.

“We need faster progress,” he said. “Ms. 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.”

Kellett will have to move mountains to increase proficiency at Glenn 27.7 percentage points by 2023 to meet the district goal.

“Every school has challenges in increasing student achievement,” she said. “Our focus is going to me more on coming to the table with solutions rather than focusing on challenges or what’s a barrier to increasing student achievement. Our conversations are going to be more rich and more personal at the school level about what we can put in place for students to succeed.”

The strategic plan also calls for at least 90 percent of all Durham Public Schools to meet or exceed standards for year-to-year academic growth. Seventy-five percent of DPS schools, 39 of 52, met or exceeded growth in the 2016-17 school year.

Proficiency and growth help determine state performance grades. The grades are based on an 80/20 formula with 80 percent of the mark coming from proficiency on end-of year tests and 20 percent from student growth

Under that formula, Glenn is considered low-performing, one of 14 across the district, and carries a state performance grade of “F.” Meanwhile, Mangum received the state’s top grade of A-plus.

Kellett isn’t guaranteeing an A-plus at Glenn but she does promises the school will move to a “C” within two years.

“We’re going to set our sights high,” she said.

Glenn, along with Lakewood Elementary, were among five low-performing schools across the state targeted by the state for a potential state takeover because of students’ academic struggles. The two Durham schools were eventually removed from the N.C. Innovative School District list of finalists for state takeover.

They are now both “restart” schools and have charter-like flexibility to operate. They could, for example, have longer school days and different school calendars as well as route more money to professional development and support specific areas that affect learning.

Kellett said the support pledged by the district and committed teachers and other staff members will be critical to moving Glenn forward.

DPS support will include literacy, math, and teaching and learning coaches, hiring teachers that reflect student demographics, coaching, and professional development for teachers, principals and other staff members and updated technology and professional development on how to utilize the devices for learning opportunities.

Higher graduation rate

Improving the four-year graduation rate for students who start with DPS in ninth grade to 90 percent is also a major goal in the strategic plan. The current four-year graduation rate is 81.4 percent, with black males, and Hispanic males and females struggling the most to get across the finish line.

Dick Ford, president of the Friends of Durham, a political action committee, said he is concerned the strategic plan doesn’t show enough specific strategies.

“The goals don’t show particular focus for blacks and Hispanics, both of which rank low compared to state counterparts on state tests,” Ford said. “We support the new superintendent and think his emphasis on school leadership is important. We hope that he can show some good outcomes for students of color and especially those who are economically disadvantaged.”

Nakia Hardy, the district’s deputy superintendent for academic services, describe the goals as “ambitious but attainable.”

“I’m confident we can reach them,” said Hardy, explaining that doing so will require focusing on each child’s needs, providing support to teachers and principals, setting high expectations and ensuring students in each school have engaging experiences.

School board member Matt Sears said ambitious goals send the right message.

“It tells this community that we care about our students as it relates to their academic performance, we care that our kids are able to read and do math,” Sears said. “I applaud our superintendent and administration for putting this out there. These are the performance levels our community should expect at the very minimum.”

Sears said he expects quarterly updates on the plan and will continue to push for data on the performance of low-income students.

“If we see trends that Durham students [from low-income families] are below the state average, then we need to be asking why,” he said.

School board Vice Chairman Steve Unruhe said Mubenga has a track record of rising to the challenge.

“I’ve wanted to see a superintendent say this is the way I want to go, now hold me accountable for getting us there and this is how I’m going to do it.”

In Franklin County, where Mubenga was superintendent before taking the DPS job last November, he moved the district from seven low-performing schools to one in just two years.

And by the time Mubenga left Franklin County Schools, the district had surpassed three of the benchmark goals laid out in its five-year strategic plan, three of the nine were within a percentage point of hitting the goals and three others were on target to be reached by the 2019-2020 school year.

The mascot at Glenn Elementary School is a lion.

Kellett said if you listen closely over the next few years, you’ll hear the students and staff at Glenn begin to “roar” as the school builds a new culture of academic success one student at a time.

“We’re going to be having a very different conversation the next time we talk,” Kellett said, making no apology this time for her confidence in the school’s future success.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645
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