Heartbroken Schools are exactly what they sound like. Places where heartbroken staff are leaving public schools faster than we can replace them, or even find substitutes because the working conditions aren’t allowing us to adequately serve the students we love. Where staff are forced to choose which of their critical jobs to do and which have to wait another day. Where, after exhausting weeks of extra duties, we are having to choose between recovering on the weekends, or working our second jobs, or frantically catching up on all our lost time during the week. Where heartbroken families and students are losing their favorite educators, and being forced to consider other schooling options.

Every single educator we know is afraid that their school could become a Heartbroken School someday, sooner or later—if it isn’t already. Next month, next fall, or three years from now. We all know that if things don’t start changing fast, we are literally going to run out of qualified staff for our schools and our kids are going to suffer.

We know these heartbreaking conditions weren’t caused by anyone in Durham. They weren’t caused by the COVID-19 pandemic either— though that did make them a lot worse. Unfortunately, these conditions aren’t even an accident. These conditions are all part of a coordinated, billionaire-funded national campaign to sabotage our public schools and drive families (and tax dollars) towards for-profit alternatives. There are no local solutions for these privatizer attacks. To really stop them, we will have to unite public school supporters all over North Carolina to stand up to school privatizers and shift the balance of the state legislature.

However, for the first time in years, we have a real opportunity locally to get relief to schools thanks to $150 million of federal School Emergency Relief (ESSER) dollars DPS received last year. Our district and school board members have been busy trying to find the right uses for those funds, and they have taken steps in the right direction. To help the district determine what schools’ highest priority needs are, and where those ESSER dollars should go, members of our union, the Durham Association of Educators (DAE), conducted a qualitative survey of DPS staff in the fall. What we heard were hundreds of ideas for immediate relief and long-term transformations.

Immediately, the greatest needs were overwhelmingly clear: first, do whatever we can to keep staff and find more qualified adults to be in our buildings to help provide a safe learning environment for our students and second, we need more time and support to do our jobs successfully. So, how can the district prioritize those needs in their ESSER plan? Larger retention bonuses for all staff to address cost of living increases, more workdays, a better plan for handling COVID outbreaks in schools, and a better system for bringing in substitutes and volunteers. In less than three weeks, we have gone door-to-door in our buildings collecting over 1600 staff signatures across 33 school sites on our petition demanding these priorities.

Long-term, we need way more than relief. We believe the best remedy for Heartbroken Schools is the Community Schools model. Community Schools are the heart of their communities—places of hope where all students, families and educators are empowered. Durham currently has two elementary schools that have adopted this model of school transformation, Lakewood Elementary and Club Boulevard. The core of this model is engaging all stake-holders by deeply investing in community organizing, democratic decision-making, and leadership development. In the last few years Lakewood and Club have taken on a new, bottom-up, collective approach to problem-solving instead of top-down “silver bullet solutions,” and it has led to dramatically more connection with families, better working conditions for staff, and better learning conditions for students.

We believe everyone in Durham—every child, every family, and every educator—deserves a Community School, but for this kind of big-picture transformation to be possible we need full, stable staffing in our buildings. We need relief right now so that career educators can stay in Durham, building relationships with each other and the families we serve, each year adding to the strength and vibrance of our school communities.

Right now, all over Durham, there are Heartbroken Schools full of exhausted educators, overwhelmed students, and worried parents. Over the past few months, thousands of DPS staff spoke clearly about what we most urgently need. On Thursday, we sincerely hope the Board will listen.

Editor’s note: For those interested in attending Thursday’s DPS school board meeting, the meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. inside the Fuller Administration Building (511 Cleveland Street). Public comments also begin at 6:30 p.m.

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