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Parents describe growing pains for ‘Growing Together’

At a school board meeting in early March, a group of administrators shared updates on Growing Together, a reassignment plan going into effect in elementary schools in the fall. When the slide presentation ended, board member Millicent Rogers asked what seemed like a simple question.

“How many touches do I as a parent need to have with DPS to ensure that my students have care in the fall? For their academic needs, for their transportation needs and for their after-school needs?”  

Rogers wanted to know what parents need to do, and when, to make sure their kids’ school years start smoothly. 

It took three administrators more than 15 minutes to answer the question.  

“Please accept my apology for asking a difficult question,” Rogers said. “I think it’s difficult for parents to navigate.”

Interim Superintendent Catty Moore replied, “If you’re a parent and you’re trying to walk through all of these changes, you’re going to be confused.” 

Growing Together marks Durham’s first reassignment plan in three decades. The first phase goes into effect next school year and will affect elementary school assignments across Durham. 

School system leaders say the plan is intended to address under- and overcrowding issues and to advance diversity, equity and access among the schools. It includes sweeping changes for many Durham elementary schools, including curriculum changes, calendar changes and student reassignments. 

But many parents call the plan “growing pains” and say it is broad and overly complex. They say they are frustrated by what they describe as its complicated rollout.

As the school year draws to a close, parents complain about fragmented information, confusing applications and a lack of information-sharing between central administrators and schools. Some – particularly those who have requested transfers from their assigned schools — say they don’t know where their elementary school children will attend school in the fall, and they don’t understand the process for getting those answers. 

Seeking clarity on their reassignment questions, parents say they have to talk to several different people at schools and within the DPS administration. And sometimes the answers they get are conflicting. 

Lauren Sartain, PTA president at E.K. Powe, told board members in March, “School staff and families are confused about where students will show up in the fall.” 

District leaders, meanwhile, express confidence. At the same board meeting in early March, DPS assistant superintendent Deborah Pitman said, “We feel that we’re well-positioned to launch our schools with the opening of the year-rounds in July.” 

When asked to comment for this story, Crystal Roberts, a spokeswoman for the school system, said, “From the inception of Growing Together, DPS has been committed to ensuring that the process was inclusive and transparent.” 

New calendars, new curricula

Girija Mahajan, a parent of two Powe students with a background in public education, has paid close attention to Growing Together from the start. She says the simultaneous reassignment plan and classified pay issues have created a “condition of chaos” that she worries will strain the district’s search for a new superintendent. 

“Our school system is struggling to complete the two most critical functions: student enrollment and staff payroll,” Mahajan said. “This thrusts confusion and uncertainty into thousands of Durham households.” 

New attendance zones, as pictured on the Durham Public Schools website:

Growing Together includes a wide range of changes. The plan, in the works for years, splits Durham County into five regions with comparable school options in each — neighborhood schools and specialized magnet schools, including year-round, Dual Language Immersion, Montessori and International Baccalaureate schools. 

Some neighborhood elementary schools will become magnet schools next year, which means new curriculum for teachers and students, and in some cases, new calendars. Each magnet will have a base area where families can automatically enroll, and some will accept lottery applications for students outside of their base region. 

The number of year-round schools will more than double with the addition of Hope Valley, W.G. Pearson, Oak Grove and Eastway. Four elementaries will transition to dual language programming — Holt, Merrick-Moore, Club Boulevard and Lyons Farm. One elementary school, Little River, will become the district’s third Montessori school. And one, E.K. Powe, will become an additional International Baccalaureate school.

The plan will reassign some 2,000 elementary students to new schools come fall, according to past estimates, but there are exceptions. Fourth and fifth-graders can remain at their current schools, and their younger siblings can stay for a year or two. Families zoned for specific specialized programs — such as year-round schools or dual-language schools — who want to send their children to other schools can apply for an “opt-out” or “hardship” transfer, though transfers are not guaranteed. 

After-school programs, meanwhile, have a separate application process. As a result, parents whose children need after-school care as well as instruction must pursue two different application processes.

The Durham school district has made a number of efforts to inform families about the Growing Together plan and seek feedback, including holding meetings, conducting surveys, sharing announcements and producing videos. 

Yet many Durham families remain confused. 

Though many parents support the goals that inspired Growing Together — diversity, equity and access — they say they are concerned about its execution.  

A confusing process 

Parents seeking exceptions to their assigned schools — “hardship transfers” or “opt-outs” — say that process is particularly bewildering. 

Jenna Crowther has been outspoken with her concerns about Growing Together during school board meetings. 

Crowther’s eldest child is a first-grader at E.K. Powe who has been reassigned to a different school for next year. At a school board meeting in March, Crowther told the board that when her daughter asked where she would attend school next year, she didn’t know what to say.  

DPS staff told Crowther to apply to Powe with a hardship transfer application for next year, but the application did not list Powe as an option, she says. She called the administration for guidance and was told to select her “base” school as the transfer school and write in Powe in an open notes section of the application. 

“I hope you can see that I have trouble trusting in this guidance,” she told the board. “Please remember that you are dealing with people and families and children — especially children — who need to be able to trust what they are told by DPS, to trust the technology used, and to be able to plan their lives.” 

Theresa Dowell Blackinton, who has a second- and a fourth-grader at Club Boulevard Elementary, says she feels parents’ concerns about Growing Together go unheard at board meetings and in feedback sessions. 

She says parents tell school system leaders they want strong, fully staffed schools with a thorough curriculum. 

“What I don’t hear people saying is, ‘I want a lottery system, I want waitlists, I want to have to be zoned out of the school my child currently attends,’” she said. “People weren’t looking for special programs.”  

Dowell Blackinton was able to keep both of her children at Club for the upcoming school year after a series of administrative gymnastics. But many of her children’s friends are leaving the school. Four in her younger daughter’s class left the school system last year to attend Central Park School for Children, a charter in downtown Durham, seeking more stability.

Online, a chorus of confused parents has taken to Facebook groups to post about their situations and seek guidance. They wonder whether their children will be accepted off of waitlists; they worry about neighborhood schools that are transitioning to year-round schedules, dual-language or other specialized programs; some ask for advice on transferring to private or charter schools. 

Many post in the Facebook groups anonymously. Numerous parents interviewed for this story asked to speak anonymously, too. They expressed fear that publishing their names would negatively impact active school applications. 

Sammar Simmons, an E.K. Powe mom, says some Durham families have been reluctant to share their experiences. 

“There is a sentiment of folks being hesitant on providing feedback and sharing their experiences because it will be dismissed or fall on deaf ears — all under the guise of ‘change is hard,’” she said. 

Yet change is coming. 

“Next year is going to happen, and there’s not a lot we can do about it,” said Dowell Blackinton, the Club Boulevard parent. “What I would like to see from the district is a true, honest evaluation of Growing Together as implementation happens, and a willingness to be truthful about what worked and what didn’t.” 

Above: ‘Growing Together’ logo, featured on the Durham Public Schools website.