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Anxious parents seek answers about new redistricting plan

The Durham School Board has approved new elementary school boundaries for the 2024-2025 school year, but parents have many questions. And school officials say they’re working to supply answers.

Among other things, parents want to know whether siblings can stay together. Which students will be eligible to transfer? And what about future changes at their neighborhood schools? 

The new districts are a part of Growing Together, a plan that officials from Durham Public Schools (DPS) say will expand access to special programs and courses, strengthen school infrastructure, and reduce overcrowding.

Some parents have complained about the changes, but DPS officials say they want to provide clarity through digital outreach and in-person meetings at each elementary school, one of which was at Club Blvd. Elementary School earlier this month.

If all K-5 students shifted to their newly assigned schools, DPS officials say 6,120 children would move.  But 4th and 5th graders do not have to move. In addition, siblings of students in those grades, as well as all pupils, may apply to stay in their schools. As a result, officials say the total number of students affected will be significantly lower. 

This is the first major redistricting plan since the Durham city and county school systems merged in 1992.

“What we haven’t done is a whole-system look at the entire district and how neighborhoods have changed and gentrified, and done it with a lens towards equity,” said School Board member Natalie Beyer in an interview with the 9th Street Journal. “There’s a reason we named it Growing Together–because it is an aspirational plan based on shared community values.”

The revised school map includes five regions: Northern, Central, Eastern, Southeast, and Southwest. Each has a population of at least 50% families of color and a median family income of at least $50,000. All students will have access to programs not currently available at every school–visual arts and music classes, world language, and daily STEM instruction.

DPS says the regions will improve transportation efficiency and that all districts will offer the four application programs: Dual Language Immersion (in Spanish); year-round schooling; International Baccalaureate; and Montessori. 

Several elements of Growing Together will be sorted out over the next few months, according to a DPS FAQ released on Feb. 6. These include which regions will have IB and Montessori schools; implementation rules for Dual Language Immersion programs; legacy enrollment; rules for magnet assignments; and keeping siblings together in the same schools. 

Students may opt-out of their new schools, but DPS officials are still working out details, said Mathew Palmer, executive director for School Planning and Operational Services. 

Parents are also concerned about siblings. Club Blvd. Elementary parent Jennifer Harrill has two daughters in third grade and one son in first grade. Whether her younger child can stay with her older children depends on school capacity. She asked when she will find out if her younger child can stay with his siblings at Club Blvd. Elementary while she applies to other programs.

“We are going to be very mindful about the timing of all these processes,” said School Planner Coordinator Vitaly Radsky in response to Harrill’s question. “I can’t tell you for certain right now, what the timeline would be or what that process would look like, but it’s something that we’re very aware of.”

Another Club Blvd. Elementary parent, Mavreen Scott, has a daughter who will start kindergarten in 2023. She will have to transfer for first grade to a new base school, but Scott wanted to know if she can start kindergarten at that school.

“We’re going to do our best within the capacity we have to minimize transitions for students,” Radsky said.

Radsky added that the Office of Student Assignment “is a great place to start that conversation.”

Parents had mixed reactions about the meeting.

Alyssa Platt has two boys at Club Blvd. Elementary–one in second grade and one in kindergarten. “Everytime I attend one of these things,” she said, “I feel a little better because a few more questions get answered.” 

She agrees that DPS needs a more equitable system, but is concerned about how officials will implement it. 

Megan McCurley has one son in kindergarten and another in second grade. She has attended several listening sessions and board meetings. But she says the board has not offered enough new information, specifically in ways that are accessible to working class families and families of color.

“The sentiment that I hear from LatinX community members is that they just didn’t know it was happening,” said McCurley, who is Colombian.

Theresa Dowell Blackinton, who has one daughter in third grade and another in first grade, has attended so many board meetings that she says teachers ask her questions about redistricting–instead of the other way around.

“I feel like there’s just a lot of talking around answering questions in very opaque ways, and a lot of ‘Trust us, we all want x, y or z,’ and shutting down conversation,” Dowell Blackinton said.

She added she’s still unsure about the transfer process for younger students. 

In her interview with the 9th Street Journal, Beyer acknowledged that the board’s planning process has not been “perfect” and that officials hope to “rebuild trust with the community.”

This fall, DPS staff will begin to ask parents whether they plan to apply to schools outside their district for 2024-2025 in order to get a sense of what school capacities might look like.

DPS will also review secondary school programming throughout the spring, and aims to communicate those changes to the Durham community between June and November 2023. 

“We are really ramping up direct communication to our families,” said William Sudderth, the Chief Communications Officer for DPS.