Photo courtesy of DPS. 

Thirty years ago, Bill Bell, Steve Schewel, Eddie Davis, MaryAnn Black, Steve Unruhe and other Durham leaders fought to merge the Durham County Schools and Durham City Public Schools, creating our Durham Public Schools System. These leaders knew that a unified and strong public school district with equitable opportunity for every student to learn and thrive was an essential step toward dismantling systemic inequities that are deeply ingrained in American institutions. 

We are now in another pivotal moment for shaping our public schools. Through its Growing Together Initiative, Durham Public Schools (DPS) is embarking on a journey to address the inequalities in our district through a comprehensive, multiphase process to revise its magnet policies, school assignment policies, and school boundaries for K-12. 

The first phase of the work focuses on elementary school magnet policies that the Board of Education will vote on in December. This ambitious project provides the Durham community with a unique opportunity to reckon with the history and policies that have created the current conditions in our schools and our community. Another opportunity of this magnitude to impact our schools may not come for another 30 years. We beg you to not sit this one out.

Durham is proud of its progressive politics, and we claim to be a progressive beacon. Yet, our community members are choosing not to go to school together. Out of the 115 school districts in North Carolina, we have the fifth-lowest public school enrollment rate. Only three out of five students in Durham County attend DPS. This hurts our ability to live into our vision for a just and equitable Durham for all and creates barriers to educational equity.

We see the disconnect between the politics we claim and the reality in our schools today in how our public  schools are highly segregated, both by race and socio-economic status. Though our community is diverse, only 19 percent of students in DPS are white. In regards to the distribution of socioeconomic status across our schools, some schools in our district are 99 percent students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

This segregation exacerbates the inequitable distribution of resources across our public schools. For example, compare Morehead Montessori and CC Spaulding Elementary. These schools are in the same school boundary but one is without a PTA and one has a PTA that has the capacity to raise significant private dollars every year and deploy those resources to improve the educational experiences of the students at the school. One is a neighborhood school and one became a magnet with a walk zone through the organizing of parents in the neighborhood. 

While DPS is designed to give parents choice, schools are not equally accessible. As a result of our current policies, some magnet schools are entirely lottery based and some have preferential walks zones associated with the schools. This means that even for some of our magnet schools, being able to afford living in a particular neighborhood increases a student’s chance of acceptance. 

The current policies also create inefficiencies that result in our district spending more on operations and transportation than is necessary. For example, our school transportation is more expensive than many of our peer districts and leaves our children on buses for long periods.

This doesn’t have to be our reality. As a community that champions equity and public schools, this is our moment to align our values with our actions. Then, our district will be positioned to bring to fruition our dream for our children and schools by creating a set of policies that leverage the magnet policies, school assignments, and boundaries in service of equitable access to robust quality education for all children. We cannot let this moment pass us by. We must engage in this process together. 

Embracing this moment requires our community to grapple with some essential questions. How do the legacies of the merger, redlining, and residential segregation impact the current realities facing our children and our schools today? What do our children need in order to thrive and what decisions are we willing to make to create the best outcomes for the greatest number of our students? And how do race, class, and privilege impact our individual and collective vision for our schools and our decisions to engage in the work of building the system we wish for all our children?

These questions, which we must wrestle with on the individual and collective level, are centerpieces of the DPS Growing Together initiative, which kicked off on October 5th.

We need everyone’s voice at the table to learn alongside DPS and to provide feedback on ideas  based on the vision of the School Board. We encourage everyone to engage in the following ways: 

Watch this video about the DPS Growing Together Initiative to understand the magnitude of the problem our community is trying to solve. 

Register for “Race, Class, and Privilege in  our Schools” a community conversation co-hosted by The Durham Public Schools Foundation and Student U. 

Attend a DPS Growing Together session and bring your community with you. 

We believe that Durham can be a progressive beacon in the South. But realizing that vision hinges on us also realizing the promise of public education in Durham. Our public schools are at the heart of our community. Durham can be a place for all people to thrive only once our public schools are places where all students can thrive. 

Alexandra Zagbayou is the Executive Director of Student U. Magan Gonzales Smith is the Executive Director of The DPS Foundation.

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