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Posts published by “Michaela Towfighi”

The barbershop: A space for honest conversation about bias in Durham schools

When Jermaine Porter wanted to better understand the experience of boys of color in Durham Public Schools, he asked them.

Not in just any setting, but in barbershop chairs. “In our community, in barbershops you just talk about anything you want,” he said. 

Porter is the boys of color initiative coordinator for Durham Public Schools, a job focused on building support systems for students who don’t always feel bolstered at school.

With Daniel Bullock, executive director for equity affairs, Porter invited administrators, male students and parents to speak their minds at three public events this year. At each, panel members sat in black leather barbershop chairs while answering questions.

Listening to students’ honest words wasn’t always easy. “I walk around with a target on my back,” Donte Alexander, now a high school junior, said at a session in April.

Yet even that tough news was helpful. “We gave students the floor and listened to them, listened to their perspective, listened to the advice they gave for how to improve outcomes for boys of color,” Bullock said. 

What Porter and others learned helped shape training on implicit bias for principals and assistant principals this year. It also spawned a leadership program for middle and high school students.  

Jermaine Porter, boys of color initiative coordinator for Durham Public Schools, stands in front of students Ronald Hernandez Solarzano and Donte Alexander. Photo by Truitt Avery O’Neal for Durham Public Schools Office of Public Affairs

Getting started 

Porter and Bullock launched Barbershop Talk Series: Building Systems to Support Boys of Color in February. The first session featured school administrators. In April five high school students took the stage. In October, parents spoke.

This was one response to the 2018–2023 Durham Public Schools strategic plan, which includes a call for more programming to help address disparities experienced by students of color. In 2016–2017, for instance, the suspension rate for all students was 8.44%. However, 17.18% of black males were suspended and 6.14% of Hispanic males, according to the district.

At first, Porter and his team were unsure how many people would attend an optional Tuesday night talk. But when they opened the doors for the first session at the Holton Career and Resource Center, over 200 people filled the audience.  

For the second event, principals nominated students from various schools. Porter ensured that boys with varying degrees of academic success joined the panel to better understand a range of experiences.

As a former basketball coach, teacher and school administrator, Porter said he’s concluded that relationships are at the heart of a student’s success. 

“If a student is sleeping on the floor with no electricity, they do not care what x equals. But you wouldn’t know that if you had not built the relationship with the student,” he said. 

Students speak 

Michael Graham, a senior last spring, said misjudgment from teachers was something he struggled with throughout his years attending Durham schools. He was once escorted out of class because a teacher falsely assumed he had drugs on him, he said.  

“The teacher only thought that about me because of my skin color or how because of the way I chose to act or because the vernacular that I choose to use,” he said. 

David Madzivanyika, also a senior, said he’d endured flawed flash judgment too. “Why should a teacher be surprised when a boy of color is doing well in their class when we are in the class every day, and we are learning the same material?” asked Madzivanyika, who enrolled at Harvard University this fall.

Daniel Bullock, executive director for equity affairs, (standing) and Durham Public Schools superintendent Pascal Mubenga (seated) with students and Porter after the April event. Photo by Truitt Avery O’Neal for Durham Public Schools Office of Public Affairs

Negative assumptions about academic promise are too common, Graham said. “In a public school system where it can be predominantly white, you can’t just be smart. Even if you were smarter than those who aren’t your skin color, ‘Oh he’s cheating’,” Graham said. 

But some teachers do build bonds, the young men said. Alexander recalled the first time a teacher connected with him in seventh grade. He did it by drawing analogies between classwork and something they had in common – playing Madden NFL on a PlayStation. 

When Bullock and Porter developed training on implicit bias for principals and assistant principals this summer, they included videos from the Barbershop Talk events.  

The series also sparked a new program called We Are Kings. Middle and high school participants have access to additional academic resources like field trips, guest speakers and college tours. Bullock and Porter are brainstorming how to expand opportunities for more students. 

They may host another series too, though which format they’ll select is not yet clear. 

We have the potential for even more people to be involved, and attend and to expand the conversation,” Bullock said.

At top: Students Michael Graham, Ronald Hernandez Solarzano, David Madzivanyik and Donte Alexander (left to right) at the Barbershop Talk Series event in April. Photo by Truitt Avery O’Neal for Durham Public Schools Office of Public Affairs

Election Night 2019: Mayor gets $95 million housing bond

Mayor Steve Schewel celebrates his re-election and a yes vote for the housing bond. Photo by Cameron Beach

Steve Schewel was elected to a second term as mayor, as expected. But he had even more to celebrate Tuesday night.

In February, during his city address, Schewel introduced a plan for a $95 million bond. An ambitious and aggressive solution to Durham’s affordable housing crisis, the bond is expected to create 1,600 affordable housing units, among other initiatives. 

Today, the bond passed with 75.89% of votes in favor. Schewel can confidently say he now has the funds and resources to accomplish his housing goals. 

The bond is a “big bite out of the apple,” for an affordable housing issue that has permeated all corners of the city, the mayor said. 

In a victory speech following incumbent re-elected candidates Javiera Caballero, Charlie Reece, and Jillian Johnson, Schewel thanked the crowd for their continued support of him as mayor and for voting to enact the bond. 

Schewel said the City Council worked to prepare the city for the bond and make the case for the affordable housing solution. “Everyone knew the problem but we needed a big, bold solution,” he said. 

The next step for Schewel and the City Council is to ensure the bond is implemented according to their five-year plan. 

“It is going to be hard, we are going to make mistakes, but with our leadership it will work,” he said.

Election Night 2019: Exuberant Javiera Caballero

Javiera Caballero celebrating election results Tuesday. Photo by Cameron Beach

In a dark, loud pub on East Main Street cheers erupt as the polls close. The Bull City Alliance is victorious, with incumbent city council candidate Javiera Caballero appearing to beat challenger Joshua Gunn by less than 500 votes 

After a close vote with precinct 3 and 31 casting the deciding votes, Caballero emerges from the corner of a booth she was sheltered in, and the crowd erupts. 

“I feel good but we have a little work to do. One step forward in accomplishing the work we need to do,” Caballero says. 

Amongst the cheers, Caballero stands up on the table, the Durham city flag centered behind her. 

After being appointed to Steve Schewel’s vacant city council seat in 2017, Caballero explains that she chose to do something different with her city council appointment. She specifically chose to work with co-council members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson, also winners Tuesday. 

The three of them even campaigned on a shared Bull City Together platform. Through their 98 proposed policies, Caballero tells the crowd that they are choosing to do something “different, harder, and more courageous.” 

Caballero ends her victory speech with a deep breath and a long list of thank yous. Her family, her campaign manager, the Bull City Together team. 

Despite a tumultuous campaign, including an accusation against her citizenship with no evidence offered, Caballero says she is particularly grateful for those who stood by her campaign. “It was bullshit but also emotionally tragic,” she says.

“Pick people who love you, respect you, and hold you in dignity,” she says. 

A cheer of “te quiero” breaks through the crowd in response: “I love you.”

And as she steps off the table into the crowd of supporters, the rhythm of “si se puede,” chants and claps permeates the pub. 

“Yes you can.”

Steve Schewel: Progress made and not yet done from 2017 campaign

Candidate Steve Schewel reflects on his goals for Durham as he prepares for a highly likely second term as mayor. Photo by Cameron Beach

Sitting at a large oval table in his City Hall Office, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel pauses and gazes out the window at the city he first moved to in 1969. The clock on his office wall ticks as he takes time to carefully consider how to phrase his priorities for local government.  

“I prioritize them by what the needs of our community as expressed by our community,” he said. 

In his run for re-election against long-shot opponent  Sylvester Williams, Schewel’s top three priorities are ensuring Durham remains affordable, diverse and safe for everyone who calls the city home.

“We want Durham to be a welcoming city for all people and we want everyone to know that whether they are a refugee, or they have lived here all their life they are welcome here and that we love them, and we want them,” he said. 

Schewel is still working on completing the goals he promoted during his 2017 campaign, which moved him from a City Council seat to the mayor’s office. Two years ago his platform focused around eight central issues – transportation, jobs, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, police reform, housing, and trash, trees and trails. 

After two years in office, here is a loose accounting of progress made or not made from some 2017 goals.

Transportation 

Durham needs a mobility strategy for the next 50 years. I am proud to have led our region’s support for the 18-mile Durham-Orange light rail project, and this year we must push it over the finish line for federal funding. We must also provide an expanded, efficient bus network for our 22,000 daily riders—and it’s time to begin the work to make the system fare-free.” 

On April 8, 2019 the Durham County commissioners mournfully killed Schewel’s proposed light rail project. This vote came after Duke informed GoTriangle it would not support the project in February. A missing, needed commitment from North Carolina Railroad and a tight North Carolina General Assembly funding deadline weakened its prospects too.

Schewel said he is looking for alternatives to what would have been the core of his transit plan. He supports the Commuter Rail Transit project which would connect Durham to Raleigh on existing train tracks. Transportation development will now be integrated in the city and county’s comprehensive plan.

In this plan, Schewel still hopes to advance his second goal of expanding the local bus service so that is accessible to all residents. Expansion would include creating more routes and infrastructure such as bus shelters.

“We need a beautiful phoenix to rise from the ashes of the light rail,” he said.   

Police Reform 

Durham needs strong council and community oversight of our police force to ensure that everyone lives free from fear. I support Chief C.J. Davis’ reform of our police department and her emphasis on de-escalation and racial equity training. I will continue to work towards a police force that effectively fights violent crime while actively seeking to build the trust of our entire community and enforcing the laws free from racial discrimination.”

Despite Schewel’s support of Davis during his 2017 campaign, the mayor could not convince all city council members to give her more police officers this year. Council members rejected Davis’ budget increase request to hire 18 additional police officers with a 4 to 3 vote in June, something Schewel has said was a mistake.

That said, Schewel praises Davis for multiple changes at the police department, including enforcement of the council’s written-consent-to-search policy, decreasing traffic stops and car searches (a study before she took over detected bias against black drivers with such stops), and outreach to minority communities members, including LGBTQ groups, among other things.

Housing 

We must double our local expenditure on affordable housing this year from $2.75 million to $5.5 million. We must support the redevelopment of the aging Durham Housing Authority units that serve 6,000 of our most vulnerable residents. We must leverage publicly owned land downtown to build affordable units. We must support our local non-profits as they build new units and preserve the affordability of older ones.” 

Alongside city council candidates, a $95 million-dollar housing bond will be on the ballot on Tuesday. If this bond passes, Schewel can confidently say he has money needed to tackle his 2017 housing goals. 

With these funds, Schewel outlines the city’s plans to construct 1,600 new affordable housing units, preserve 800 affordable rental units, among other construction plans.  

“It will be a really big bite out of the apple in terms of our affordable housing work,” Schewel said. 

The bond would also support first-time home buyers, efforts to house the homeless and an expansion of construction jobs in Durham. 

“If we do it right, we can leverage the affordable housing bond into a really good program of employment and economic development for low income people in Durham,” he said. 

Jobs 

We can support the Living Wage Project’s recruitment of businesses to voluntarily comply with the $15 minimum. We can work with the schools and Durham Tech to make sure that our young people are educated in the skills they need to get the great jobs available in Durham. We can ensure that the City’s job training programs are effective and that our NCWorks career center does a great job connecting job-seekers to local employers.” 

Despite failing to fund more police hires, the June budget approval devoted money to support local business in Durham and to expand the $15 hourly minimum wage already established for full time worker to include part-time and seasonal city employees.

With the creation of Bull City Foundation, which was a $300,000 dollar initiative, Schewel’s city council approved increased support for female and minority owned businesses through training in accounting, marketing, and finance. 

Schewel hopes his next step will be establishing a debt and equity fund over his next term that would provide financing to these businesses. However, he recognizes this big goal is “difficult to do”.  

The budget also included funds to support the Summer Youth Work Internship Program, which will allow for 50 additional students to be hired in paid summer internships in Durham. Currently 300 students have participated in summer internships, within a five-year goal of hiring 1,000 students. He hopes that skills learned in the classroom can be translated to local jobs for students in Durham. 

“We can make sure that we have a pipeline between our schools and our good jobs we have here,” he said.  

Daniel Meier: Yes to more police and equitable criminal justice

In a Nike Dri-Fit polo, khaki shorts, and a Notre Dame baseball cap, Daniel Meier reclines casually in a leather chair at his downtown law office.

But once he starts talking about conditions in Durham that concern him, the city council candidate is anything but relaxed.

“Local elections actually matter. Everyone focuses on the presidential elections, but whoever the president is has nothing to do with our law enforcement policy, whoever the president is has nothing to do with us getting a new bike path,” Meier said. 

Despite polling last among the six candidates who won October’s primary, Meier is working hard to reach voters. The criminal defense attorney’s platform focuses mostly on reducing crime and equal opportunity for Durham residents. 

Like other challengers to three incumbents seeking re-election, Meier said he is frustrated with the current city council. “The current city council says, ‘Let’s just ignore the short-term solutions and focus on long term.’ And I say no we can do both,” he said. 

Reducing crime is Meier’s biggest priority. He understands this problem better than most, he said, due to both his profession and his wife’s work. After a long career in the Durham Police Department, Leslie Meier is now a county deputy sheriff.

Despite decreasing in recent years, violent crime in Durham increased in 2019, with 35 homicides in the last nine months. The second-quarter crime report released by police chief C.J. Davis revealed a 16% increase in violent crime within the first six months of this year compared to 2018.

Daniel Meier explains his thinking at Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidates forum at city hall last week. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

“There are three components to crime: ability, opportunity, and desire. Everyone has the ability to commit a crime so you can never do anything with that. You need to take away the opportunity to do crime,” said Meier, who studied law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Meier supports hiring more police officers in Durham. The city council rejected Davis’s budget increase request to hire 18 new police officers with a 4 to 3 vote in June. Instead they approved a budget that provided an increased minimum wage for city employees. 

That vote inspired Meier to run. “What really pushed me was the tone-deaf response to the rise in crime and request for more law enforcement officers,” he said. 

Friends of Durham cited Meier’s understanding of crime in Durham, where he has lived for 17 years, when endorsing him. The business-oriented political action coalition noted Meier’s  commitment to furthering ties between police and residents of Durham as essential. 

“No one else on the Council or running for a Council seat can speak to the public safety and community engagement aspects of the law enforcement community like Daniel can,” the endorsement reads. 

Also endorsed by the Durham Fraternal Order of Police, Meier acknowledged racial discrimination and bias in local law enforcement and the judicial system during his 2018 run for district attorney. He recognizes the necessity to rebuild trust between community members skeptical about the police’s role in Durham.

“Right now in society there is an awful lot of us versus them, but we really are all in this together. The community members want law enforcement, law enforcement wants safe communities,” he said. 

Long-term solutions to many problems are embedded in the economic and social development of Durham, he said. These efforts also go hand-in-hand with crime reduction. “If you have a stable job, if you have stable housing, you are less likely to engage in criminal activity,” he said.

In addition to three at-large city council seats, a five-year $95 million dollar affordable housing bond is on the ballot Nov. 5. The bond proposes construction of 1,600 new affordable housing units as well as the preservation of 800 affordable rental units.

Proposed construction projects are intended to benefit the homeless and homeowners, as well. A main component of Mayor Steve Schewel’s affordable housing platform, the bond is strongly supported by the three incumbents

Meier opposes the bond, which Schewel introduced in February, not on principle but in its current form, he said. He recognizes that fast-growing and gentrifying Durham has an affordable housing shortage. But he said he found planning for the bond too rushed.

“I don’t like high-pressure sales, it sounds kind of like I am trying to buy a used car and they are saying do it now, do it now, do it now,” he said. “It might be something that is really needed, but I don’t know why we can’t wait six months on it, I don’t know why we can’t wait a year on it and make sure it is right,” he said.   

In 2018 Santana Deberry beat Meier and incumbent Roger Echols to become district attorney.
After his 2018 loss, Meier said a voter turnout of 15% made him realize the importance of voter engagement. “One of the things I still regret is an inability to communicate with the 85 to 90% of people who don’t vote,” he said. 

Meier hopes support for his ideas motivates more people to vote this time.

Daniel Meier at the Kid Voters Candidate Forum at Riverside High School Thursday evening. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Like challengers Joshua Gunn and Jackie Wagstaff, Meier is not afraid to take aim at incumbent council members running for three at-large council seats.

“In my mind, it has become increasingly clear on certain things like public safety and some of the economic developments, the current city council is out of touch. They are focused on national issues and a national agenda rather than Durham,” he said. 

That said, he is willing to find a common ground with council members if elected through open and frank discussions, he said. By nature his job is argumentative; by training he has learned to negotiate. Both skills holding equal value when enacting policies the city needs, he said. 

“I work with people I disagree with every day. That is my job,” he said. “You can be adversarial  without being disagreeable.” 

At top: Daniel Meier at Riverside High School. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

At Lakewood Elementary School, Spanish and English speakers learn together

After kindergarteners take their seats at a small octagonal table at Lakewood Elementary School, their teacher tells them in Spanish to pick up a blue crayon and fill in worksheets. 

One student dives into coloring an octopus. Hesitantly, the remaining four begin to understand what is expected and follow his lead. 

“Thumbs up if you understand,” instructor Heidi Miles says, after seeing the blank expressions. “Entender a los instructors,” she quickly adds.

No child in class comprehends both sentences. Not yet. This kindergarten classroom is Lakewood’s first dual-language immersion class. Half the students are fluent in English, half in Spanish. Upon leaving Lakewood after fifth grade, all are expected to read, speak and write proficiently in both.

Kindergarten students gather on the carpet to review Spanish vocabulary. Photo by Cameron Beach

In kindergarten, 90% of the material is taught in Spanish, and the remaining 10% in English. As the students become more proficient in both languages, the ratio of Spanish to English will become more even by fifth grade. 

The Durham School Board approved the dual-language classroom at Lakewood in April, alongside the expansion of an existing program at Southwest Elementary School and another new program at Bethesda Elementary School. 

Two Durham school student parents, Rocio Evans and Linda Stone, as well as district staff advocated for dual-immersion classrooms at a school board meeting in March. Kimberly Marion, director of academic and magnet programs, briefed board members on the benefits of having children who speak different languages learn together in the same space. 

Such programs promote academic achievement, biliteracy,  strengthens brain development, improves overall school performance and more, according to a slideshow Marion presented at the meeting.  

Marion also cited a 2012 study by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier of George Mason University, which concluded that dual-language education is the most effective way for students to acquire a second language. Students engage with a new language in all subjects, including math and science. After classroom observation and research,  Thomas and Collier concluded that the earlier students begin this type of language study, the more effective it is.

“This program is a game changer on so many levels,” said James Hopkins, principal of Lakewood, a school that jumped 18 points on the grading scale of the North Carolina school report card over the past year.

Twenty-three kids are in the new class. Admission was decided through a lottery that was partly random but also had specific diversity targets, according to the lottery application.

This Lakewood Elementary School second-grade classroom is typical of the school’s diverse student body; 88 percent of students last year identified as Hispanic or black. Photo by Cameron Beach.

The 35 initial applicants were divided into native Spanish speakers and native English speakers, with the intended goal of splitting the classroom 50/50 according to the lottery application. Racial diversity was also considered when selecting students, as district leaders wanted a class that is  representative of Lakewood’s demographics, which during the last school year was 53.2% Hispanic, 35% black and 7.7% white.  

Durham Public Schools partnered with Participate Learning, to launch the programs. The educational consulting company has helped launch similar classes elsewhere in North Carolina. 

Participate helped Lakewood hire Fátima Martínez, the new dual-immersion teacher who is from Spain. It also briefed parents on the programs’ structures and goals. 

Participate helps manage parental expectations about their children’s progress, Hopkins said. Despite initial struggles, parents were told that they would see significant development in language comprehension around November and December. 

“The transformation is an amazing thing to witness because the first day of school, the kids know zero. And then at the end of the year in May the kids are not only able to understand, but they can now take the language and communicate with each other,” said Carlos Ramirez, director of educational programs for Participate, during an interview at Lakewood this month.

Miles, the program’s coordinator, is in the classroom each day, and particularly helps those, like her, who are not native Spanish speakers. From the first day of school, she has watched kids who never spoke Spanish previously absorb vocabulary to follow Martínez’s instructions. 

Miles is already seeing bonds grow between children who likely would have had more trouble communicating just weeks ago too. “You see that friendship and that bond of kids saying ‘that’s not what she meant’ or kids who can speak a little bit of English and Spanish, they can support each other,” she said. 

To strengthen such links, Miles is working with parents to establish a buddy program to pair the families of students in class. The hope is that parents will develop relationships and help each other in navigating the ups and downs of a class that will remain together through 5th grade. 

For Hopkins, offering  a six-year dual-immersion program is an additional way to ignite interest in his neighborhood school. “I was very adamant that Lakewood remain a neighborhood for 1,001 reasons. This program is for my families,” he said. 

Hopkins predicts increased enrollment for next year’s class, which will be one metric he will use to assess the program’s progress. 

Participate will assess the program each year to ensure that students are meeting comprehension benchmarks. After kindergarten and first grade, Participate will test on site words – common words such as the, as, and is – before moving onto oral and reading assessments beginning in second grade.

“By the time they are in fifth grade they are bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural,” Ramirez said. 

After the students finish coloring, Martínez starts singing the class clean up song. Students clap along, but only some join in with Spanish.

Together, though, they rise from their seats, finding their assigned spots in a line marked by stickers on the floor. As they wait to go outside for recess, a Spanish flag hangs next to the door, and their clean up song comes to an end.

At top, kindergarten teacher Fátima Martínez reviews vocabulary with her students who are learning both Spanish and English in a new dual immersion classroom at Lakewood Elementary School. Photo by Cameron Beach.

Corrections: This article originally misstated by how much Lakewood Elementary School improved on the grading scale of the North Carolina school report card in the past year. Lakewood’s score rose by 18 points. The article also misstated Carlos Ramirez’s title at Participate Learning. He is director of educational programs.