About fifty parents, teachers, and administrators trickled into the gymnasium of Neal Middle School Tuesday night for a town hall meeting with Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, filling just about half of the seats.

“Attendance might be down due to the weather,” said Durham Public Schools spokesman William Suhherth before introducing Mubenga.

Mubenga began his presentation by highlighting the progress his administration has made since he took office in November 2017.

“I want to focus on quick wins,” he said. The number of low-performing schools fell from eighteen to fourteen, he said, and he expects that number to fall even more, down to six or seven by year’s end. “We are talking about a minimum expectation.”

He later admitted that DPS has a lot of work to do in terms of improving the performance of students of color. While proficiency levels across demographic groups have improved by about 4–5 percent, he said, there’s still a wide gap between white (about 80 percent proficient) and black and Latinx students (about 40 percent proficient). 

“I am transparent with data, and that is what we need to concentrate on to make sure that our students that are coming to us are not only growing but leaving us proficient,” Mubenga said.

The parents in attendance, however, had concerns that Mubenga didn’t address in his six-minute presentation. In breakout groups afterward, they expressed frustration about the safety of school buildings, the racially disparate use of in-school suspension, the quality of teacher training, and narrow metrics used to determine student achievement. (Mubenga also did not provide details about how DPS measures proficiency.)

“Is there a metric that you’re using besides the end-of-year test for proficiency of students?” parent Beth Newsome asked a DPS official. The official responded that standardized test scores are the only benchmarks the state requires them to report to determine proficiency. DPS uses end-of-grade scores for students in grades three through eight, and end-of-course and ACT scores for high school students. 

Newsome pushed back. “Well, you could come up with something else,” she said. “I know we have to report on what the state is asking for, but we could also use other metrics as a school system.”

After Mubenga finished his presentation, Deputy Superintendent Nakita Hardy introduced DPS’s strategic plan for the next five years.

The plan, she explained, was developed by a committee of fifty-two community members—educators, stakeholders, parents, students, some professors from N.C. Central—who analyzed academic data and participated in what Hardy called a “ninety-day listening and learning tour.”

The five priorities that the committee came up with are increasing academic achievement; providing a safe school environment that supports the whole child; attracting and retaining outstanding educators and staff; strengthening school, family, and community engagement; and ensuring fiscal operational responsibility.

“We have to acknowledge that we can’t do this work alone in DPS. That’s why our engagement in listening to our community and parents to hear what you are saying so that we can make sure that we are in this together,” she said.

But one DPS teacher, Veronica Black, didn’t feel like she’d been listened to. During a breakout session, she said she has complained about air quality in school facilities many times before and received no follow-up.

“Some of our buildings around here are extremely old,” Black said. “At the beginning of this school year my building made me sick and now I am losing my hair and still recuperating.”

The biggest point of contention in the strategic plan was the part about supporting a safe school environment that supports the whole child. Hardy said that within five years, all schools will implement a “cultural framework,” meaning they’ll use research-based strategies to promote positive behavior intervention, social and emotional learning, and culturally responsive teaching.

“There were a lot of people at the last school board meeting who were talking about the training that was going to go on as far as equitable practices and restorative practices in schools, and there was a huge failure there,” Newsome countered.

She was referring to conversations about a viral Facebook post from another DPS parent, Fatimah Salleh, on January 17. Salleh’s post was prompted by what she observed when she accompanied her son to his in-school suspension at Durham School of the Arts.

Salleh wrote: “I am devastated and heartbroken at what I witnessed in my fourteen hours of isolation and virtual captivity in a single room at the basement of that school. Let me be clear, although I was at a school, little to no education was taking place where my son and I were located.”

Not only was the practice punitive, but there was a disproportionate representation of black and brown students in suspension. “I look around the classroom and out of the eleven students there are nine students of color, eight of them boys,” says Salleh’s post. (According to the Youth Justice Project’s recently released equity report cards, black students in Durham Public Schools were 9.7 times more likely than white students to receive a short-term suspension in the 2016–17 school year).

Mubenga published a statement in response, assuring DPS community members that the school system is “transforming our schools’ approach to discipline using restorative justice including turning our in-school suspension programs into Restorative Practice Centers.”

But the parents at Neal Middle School wondered what this will look like in practice, in part because none of the five priorities in the strategic plan include teachers’ professional development, especially as it relates to their training on how to implement restorative, rather than punitive, measures, and cultural frameworks for ensuring the social and emotional well-being of students.

Another DPS teacher, who works in a school where Restorative Practice Centers were supposed to have been implemented this school year, said that she had not yet received training on how to incorporate the new system.  

“I am still trying to figure out what it is,” she said. 

“If we say we’re going to train staff, how are you going to be transparent about that?” asked Newsome.

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