Opinion

Moving Durham Public Schools forward: A report to the community

Walking across Duke’s East Campus this summer, I (Steve) was stopped by a shout. I turned to find a teacher doing what so many of our teachers do over the summer: working a second job.

Yet he took the time to say “thank you.” He had covered another teacher’s class for several weeks last semester, and for the first time in his career he was paid for this extra workload.

Those of us in education — teachers, principals, parents, students, and even school board members — know that in a job that is never done, and for which we feel we have never done enough, it can be helpful to recognize the steps that taken to support the good work we are doing and to make that work even better.

As we begin a new traditional school year, this is a good time to remember what we already accomplished.

This past year we hired a new superintendent, Pascal Mubenga. We believe our open, transparent search process (and the attractiveness of the Durham community) brought us a superintendent with the passion and the experience to lead our schools to a new level of success. Dr. Mubenga traveled throughout Durham to meet with parents and community leaders before developing a Strategic Plan for our system.

Academic results for the last school year prove that Durham Public Schools is moving in the right direction. Our students made their highest gains in grade level proficiency in five years, core academic scores increased in elementary and middle schools, eight of our schools exited so-called “low performing” status, and we will not have to fight off an attempted state takeover of any of our schools.

DPS’s most important work is done every day by our teachers in their classrooms and by our families in their homes: educating each one of our children. The best measure of our work as a school board is by the level of our support for our principals, teachers and families. A long-standing hardship for teachers has been the requirement to cover extra classes when substitutes are in short supply. With most teachers already working well over 40 hours a week just planning, grading and teaching their own classes, this is both physically and morally draining. DPS acted to dramatically increase our recruitment of substitute teachers, to pay those substitutes more quickly, and to pay regular teachers when they do the work of a substitute.

On May 16, the school board joined our entire community to rally behind our educators who marched in Raleigh to call for greater resources for our schools. Much of the state followed Durham’s lead in closing schools in support of the teachers. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and community groups delivered more than 20,000 lunches for our children. Many parents and board members joined teachers in front of the legislative building.

Taking care of our own here in Durham, with the strong support of our county commissioners, DPS moved to make custodians full employees rather than contractors, with a guarantee of a living wage. We believe that no one should work full-time and not be able to support their own family, and it is clear that Durham’s citizens are willing to invest the resources to make this a reality.

Durham deserves to know how DPS spends tax dollars. A citizen-led Durham Budget Advisory Committee worked for two years to transform the budget into a model of transparency for the state. We encourage readers to examine the online budget presentation to see how we promote accountability in performance and operational efficiency.

In partnership with the city and county, DPS has been working to increase pre-Kindergarten opportunities for Durham’s children. We know that children who enter school already prepared have a far greater chance of later academic success and eventual job options. Last summer we opened an outstanding new preschool in the historic Whitted School building, and we continue to seek opportunities to work with providers and expand our services. Looking backward, we are grateful and humbled by the many ways that Durham supports public education.

Looking forward, we anticipate the implementation of the superintendent’s Strategic Plan to enhance the performance of every one of our schools. We are pleased to be putting into effect an expansion of our salary supplement for many of our teachers, and pledge to find more avenues to show our support for them and the support staff behind them.

We intend to move forward with the long-awaited construction of a new Northern High School. Our goal is simple: every school a good school. We look forward to a great school year.

Mike Lee and Steve Unruhe are the chair and vice chair, respectively of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

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