Low-performing Durham County schools received a shot in the arm in 2016 when the federal government awarded millions of dollars to help improve their academic performance.

Eastway Elementary was one of five Durham schools and almost twenty North Carolina schools that received a Schools Improvement Grant. Eastway’s grant was worth $3.2 million over five years.

Like its Durham counterparts, almost all of Eastway’s 552 students are black or Hispanic. All receive free lunch. And like four of the five, it’s seen incremental improvements.

The school’s administrators struggled to get students above an F rating for two years; finally, in the 2018–19 academic year, the school earned a D. (Neal Middle and Merrick-Moore and W.G. Pearson elementary schools also improved from an F to a D last year. C.C. Spaulding Elementary retained an F.)

With the SIG, impoverished children are taught resilience. There are classes on yoga and meditation as well as activities like gardening and multidisciplinary teaching methods that encourage different ways of learning. Most of all, children are assured that their school is a safe, caring place—somewhere they are valued.

“What these kids see at home is like defeat, period,” says Reginald Terrell Moore, Eastway’s community liaison coordinator. “It’s like, ‘Why even try?’”

“Eastway has a hierarchy of needs,” says Jonathan Brooks, Eastway’s principal. “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Moore describes the approach as a “community resilience model” that focuses on imparting wisdom, justice, courage, compassion, hope, respect, responsibility, and integrity. Those ideals help children struggling with trauma, food insecurity, and poverty.

Moore points out that their parents often have trouble keeping a roof over their heads, which in turn affects their academic performance. They may, for instance, attend Eastway for the first three months of the school year and then relocate. Sometimes, they return just before end-of-grade testing.

“There’s a number of evictions,” he says. “That meant that their children stayed at a disadvantage. So relationship-building has been the key. Even with the evictions, the parents found ways to keep their child at a school where they are progressing.”

And some Latinx parents have also been “embarrassed” to participate in their child’s learning because they are undereducated, Moore continues.

“They are struggling to learn English, but they are not that proficient in their own language,” he says. “We have some parents who only have a third-grade education. But the public doesn’t see that. All the people see is the end result—the test scores.”

Faced with those challenges, Moore says, it was important to build trust. He relied on surveys that asked parents what they wanted the school to do. Those surveys led to a school garden in which students and volunteers plant and cultivate vegetables and flowers. Moore says he learned that the children often weren’t eating fresh produce at home.

Moore also hosts monthly classes. There’s been a class on coupon cutting, and administrators brought in a barber and a hairstylist for the students and their parents.

But what if teaching kids resilience only scratches the surface? What if, for Eastway and other minority-majority schools to truly be successful, their classrooms had to actually be desegregated?

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and UNC-Chapel Hill alumna who spearheaded the acclaimed 1619 Project and is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on race and public education, posited that idea at an event sponsored by the Public Schools Forum of North Carolina last year.

Integration, she said, is the only thing that has proven effective at closing the academic achievement gap. And despite rapid re-segregation, “the South has been and remains the most integrated part of the country. … If we lose the South, we lose the country.”

Michael Hobbs, director of communication at the UNC’s School of Education, says that disparities in school funding played a role in creating the achievement gap—and in narrowing it during desegregation.

With segregation, the lion’s share of public funds went to white schools. “The minority schools were poorly funded,” Hobbs says. “By integrating the schools, the funding tended to follow.”

Tom Scheft, a professor of education at N.C. Central, says it’s misleading to assert that black and Hispanic children can’t read or write at grade level unless they’re in integrated schools. He points to Lakewood Elementary, where Hispanic and black kids account for nearly 90 percent of students. Lakewood’s improvement was the best in the Durham Public Schools system, says spokesman Chip Sudderth.

“It was an F school, but they’ve gone up to a C,” Scheft says. “They’re doing it there, and I think it’s a combination of good school leadership, great teachers, and an involved community, students that are open and receptive, and parents that are involved.”

The school’s modest improvement in the last academic year isn’t the stuff of dean’s lists and honor rolls, but it might stave off more dramatic possibilities, including a takeover by the State Board of Education, being turned over to a private company, or even closure. And Eastway officials are proud of what their kids have done. Moving forward, Brooks says, the goal “is for Eastway to move from the D to C category” and exceed the state’s expectations.

“The biggest misconception in low-performing schools is you got a bunch of bad students and you got a bunch of bad kids,” Brooks says. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. We have a bunch of hardworking staff members here and kids who are thirsty for success.”


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