Kindergarten classroom
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Durham’s board of education voted 6-1 to advance a Durham Public Schools (DPS) policy called Growing Together. Beginning in 2024-25, Growing Together will 1) reassign thousands of elementary-aged children to different schools, and 2) expand specialty magnet school programming.

Before you read further, I want to acknowledge my positionality. First, I am a white, highly-educated mother of children who attend a diverse DPS neighborhood school, something I sought out. I am a researcher who studies school choice. I benefit from the privileges of my skin color, my socioeconomic status, and my expertise. Second, I believe all students should have access to high-quality, fully-staffed, and well-resourced schools and that they shouldn’t have long bus rides to access them. Finally, I am not arguing against redistricting, and I understand that means disruption in the short term. 

What is the goal of Growing Together? There are many. Relieve overcrowded schools, diversify schools, reduce busing, ensure students have access to “high-quality” schools, this is long overdue, etc. DPS highlights four goals for this single policy – growth, access, diversity, and equity—without much definition, making it hard to measure the policy’s success. Last week, INDY Week published a piece magnifying the importance of diversifying schools. There are unanswered questions about whether the plan as defined will accomplish that worthwhile goal. 

As municipalities grow, redistricting follows. We have over-enrolled schools and schools that have the physical capacity to serve more children. A straightforward plan would shift attendance boundaries to address these imbalances in enrollment. Some parents will be unhappy understandably, but the approach is simple. However, in a place that is segregated along racial/ethnic lines, this alone won’t result in diverse schools.

To diversify schools, Growing Together proposes numerous strategies—new attendance zones, “regions” that determine what schools students can access, complex rules about legacy for current students, and the expansion of specialty magnet schools. Notably, these magnets will have attendance boundaries, guaranteeing seats to students who live nearby and requiring students who live outside the neighborhood to apply and win a lottery. Two of the most coveted magnet schools are located in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods less than two miles apart. Students who live in those neighborhoods will be guaranteed admission. Everybody else will have to navigate an application process, and research has shown that this is a barrier for marginalized families. 

Growing Together also has implications for schools. The decisions about which schools would be converted from neighborhood schools to magnet schools (and vice-versa) were top down without input from educators. Educators will have to be trained in new curricula and reconceptualize the way they teach—a big lift when they are already stretched thin in a district suffering from teacher vacancies. Integrating new teachers and students into a school community is difficult work that requires intentional planning and dedicated resources.

This policy is disruptive to current DPS families and educators who have stayed with the district through the pandemic. Plus, there are more changes to come with the impending redistricting of middle and high schools. However, disruption can be tolerated if policy goals are attainable. So will Growing Together result in diverse schools? The evidence presented publicly is lacking. The district has not described how they expect school-level demographics to shift nor have they shown the demographics of redistricted students. I believe Durham residents would support an evidence-based plan because of our shared desire for strong schools. However, asking stakeholders to come along for the ride without a road map won’t work. And complex systems, like the one proposed, often work best for people with the social capital and know-how to navigate them.

School choice is a reality in urban districts. I’ve worked with districts that have undergone similar changes. These choice policies consist of infinite microdecisions that determine whether the system will be implemented successfully. The devil is in the details, and it’s useful to learn from other districts. To say that designing and implementing policy is difficult is an understatement, and I commend DPS for their willingness to do the work. But policies that are most likely to succeed share common features:

  • Simplicity. Policy should be easy to understand and easy to implement. We learned during the pandemic that if something is complicated, it will be challenging to communicate and difficult for individuals to navigate, especially individuals who do not have access to adequate resources. 
  • A clear, singular goal. Policies often fail to meet their goals and have unintended consequences. Being explicit about the policy goal and the motivation is key. When policies have multiple goals, solutions that meet one purpose are often at odds with another.
  • Buy-in from stakeholders. The world of education is full of top-down decisions in systems that are very locally driven. A district or the state legislature determines a policy, but it’s left to local schools to figure out how to get it done. Successful policy requires those who will be impacted to be partners in the process.
  • Learning along the way. Other districts achieve this by partnering with researchers who have strong analytic skills and are neutral parties. This inquiry builds trust between the public and the system by providing unbiased information publicly. It also points to areas of implementation that need improvement. 

In Durham, we are uniquely positioned to face challenges. Our city has long-time residents who are invested in their communities and have experienced firsthand the difficult merger of city and county schools. Let’s tap into their knowledge and insights. We have a large network of nonprofit and academic organizations that can support policy implementation. Let’s figure out how to cut through bureaucratic tape, tap into our community resources, and think outside the box. We need good governance. That means making space to ask hard questions, expecting policymakers to provide evidence to justify decisions, and working through disagreements publicly. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s essential for making productive change. All leaders need the public’s trust—trust is necessary for success, and trust is earned. Durham, let’s use our shared values to build trust and govern together.

Lauren Sartain is an assistant professor of education policy in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

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