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With Wellness Wednesdays, Durham schools tune into student health

Days of monotony inside, constant Zoom links and screens, all the while worrying about your and your family’s health. This is the reality of this school year – one unfathomably different than any other.

For faculty at Burton Magnet Elementary School, bolstering the mental health of their students has always been a priority. Since returning to online classes almost two months ago, they’ve had to innovate new ways to get that done.

“Seeing teachers on Canvas or on Zoom is not the same as somebody touching your shoulder and saying you can do it, telling you that you did a good job,” Principal Kimberly Ferrell said. “We can’t provide the same support we could when face to face.”

Anticipating this struggle districtwide, Durham Public Schools developed new tools to promote social and emotional learning and mental health. Wellness Wednesdays is one initiative: one day of the week when students and staff are urged to focus on holistic wellness.

Wellness Wednesdays look different depending on a student’s grade and school, but DPS and each school provide activities focused on personal growth.

There are both live Zoom sessions to learn about aspects of social emotional learning, as well as documents stuffed with ideas offline, independent activities that students and families can tackle for their mental and physical health. 

A few Burton Elementary faculty members lead a session on Wellness Wednesday focused on physical health. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

For October, many schools scheduled anti-bullying programming in tandem with Bullying Prevention Month.

Emotional learning has been a part of priority four of DPS’s five-year strategic plan, focusing on “strengthening school, family, and community engagement,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, DPS’s senior executive director of student support services.

The transition to virtual learning this fall presented an opportunity, Mattocks-Perry said, to focus more intentionally on social emotional learning and holistic wellness of students. 

“Everything that we’ve been reading from practitioners tells us that all of the things going on – the economic factors related to COVID-19, civil unrest, abrupt adaptations in how we operate daily as a school – that has been classified as a traumatic childhood experience,” said Mattocks-Perry.

Matthew Hickson, director of online learning, and others reached out to local mental health agencies and conntected with community groups around Durham to work up programming.

On Wednesdays, the district uploads a new document for students, teachers, and parents to look at on the district’s new social and emotional learning hub: EMBRACE.

For example, DPS partnered with Growga to hold weekly yoga classes for students, accessible on the EMBRACE website. They partnered with Triangle United Soccer for a weekly soccer lesson and with other organizations for outdoors activities and cooking tips.

“We really want Wednesdays to be a time for our students to really take a step back. You know, they’re in this intense environment, and so we want all of them to take these days and use them as a time to reflect,” Hickson said.

Elementary schools often have much more structured Wednesdays to ensure heightened support, Hickson said. Burton Magnet Elementary School, located in East Durham off South Alston Avenue is an example.

Burton teachers and administrators continue to bring material support to their students, despite school remaining online. Distributing free books from nonprofit Book Harvest is one example. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Burton is a magnet school where a majority of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, many of whom were displaced by the crisis at McDougald Terrace last spring. Mental health support there doesn’t stop on the internet.

Using both DPS’s guidelines and their own creativity, Burton Elementary’s leadership spent about eight weeks before school resumed training on the new mental health virtual resources.

“We can’t provide the type of support that we normally give as part of the process. So we came up with a list of activities that we found ways to connect with his students online,” said Tameko Piggee, a Burton social worker.

Burton designed a check-in system that lets students alert teachers about how their minds and bodies feel. They place themselves in color zones in Google Docs: blue for boredom, exhaustion, sadness; green for positive emotions, feeling ready for the day ahead; yellow for feeling out of control and in need of some support; and red to signal extreme emotions, anger and aggression included.

After students pick their spots, school social worker and counselors can identify students in need of aid and reach out.

Teachers are constantly looking out for students who are struggling but aren’t necessarily speaking up about it, said school counselor Ponsella Brown. 

“There are times when we will get messages from teachers. So, we go into the classrooms, virtual through the breakouts and work with students who are dealing not only with COVID-19,” she said. Housing crises can crop up, so can illness and death in families.

School staff still try to help with students’ more physical needs, despite the pandemic. Many students began quarantine without desks, sitting on floors or couches to do work. So, with the service organization Triangle Park Chapter of Links, they provided 80 desks for Burton students.

After the Durham Board of Education decided on Sept. 24 to keep schools remote the rest of the semester, Ferrell said they are ready to keep using Wellness Wednesdays and their own tools to educate and take care of their students online indefinitely.

“The nuance of this new environment for some of our families, was scary,” Ferrell said. “But, we know we’ll always have a relationship with our community. And they trust us.”

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Students can view dancing and other activities during a break from virutal classroom lessons on Wednesdays. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

With help, Durham schools prepare to start the school year online

While working as a technology specialist in Durham Public Schools, Laura Fogle learned about a student whose phone screen was so cracked, glass shards cut her fingers when she typed. Yet she tried to compose an essay on it. Unlike other classmates, she did not have a computer at home.

With the school year set to start online on Monday, the local school district has been working for months to collapse such digital divides among students. 

A high-profile step was the purchase of over 20,000 Chromebooks for grades kindergarten through 12. Students lacking internet access are getting hotspot devices too, to ensure they can connect. 

And even with this process, there have been bumps. At some schools, like Parkwood Elementary, Chromebook shipments have been delayed. 

Achieving an equitable experience for almost 33,000 students is a far greater job than merely giving each a device and internet access, however. Teachers have to redesign courses, students need to master their devices, and when the technology fails or things break, money must be available for repairs and replacements. 

The library at Riverside High School was converted into a staging area for for digital-equipment hand outs this week. Staff wrapped devices for students. Photo by Henry Haggart

With the support of community members and Durham Public Schools Foundation, schools like Lakewood Elementary are hustling to figure out what an effective online school and school community looks like.

Without the school bus picking students up each morning and the energy of students at recess vibrating through the neighborhood, Principal James Hopkins has to find a new way to connect his Lakewood community. 

To do so, he is breaking down school-opening preparations into action items. His first task: calling all Lakewood families.  

Families received a call by Tuesday from Lakewood to check in about the upcoming year, understand any concerns or extraneous needs they have, and inform them of their time slot to pick up Chromebooks from the school.  

Open house did not feature the typical classroom tours or teacher meet and greet. Instead families used their student’s device to log onto Zoom. 

The next action steps are the most complicated – navigating online teaching. 

Lakewood teachers have had to adapt to Canvas, the learning management platform DPS is using across all schools, Hopkins said. Canvas will serve as a home base, where teachers can create lesson plans, grade books, online quizzes and other materials for their students to access. 

Next, Hopkins says teachers must mentally prepare themselves to connect from afar. 

Rather than pulling students aside to sound out tricky words, teachers will now have to improvise. Maybe they call students one-on-one, or maybe they slow the lesson plan down from the beginning.  

“It’s something we were never trained to do, something that in our wildest dreams, we may not have believed that we would be doing. And so, that’s much easier said than done,” he said. 

To help district schools, the Durham Public Schools Foundation has launched a $1.5 million fundraising campaign called “Accelerating Digital Equity.” 

The campaign has four main focuses. They include training teachers, raising money for ongoing technology needs, supporting students, especially those with additional needs such as bilingual technology support in a district where over 5,000 students enrolled as English language learners in 2018-2019.

Providing community spaces for students to learn from if they are unable to do so at home is the last goal. The learning centers, announced this week, will be a supervised, socially-distant environment for students who need it. 

These four components are needed to build a learning ecosystem, the setting in which students are able to learn successfully, said Katie Wright, the foundation’s development and communications specialist. 

“If you have the device but you don’t have these other supports in place, it’s not going to be quality, remote learning experience, and that’s what students need to not fall behind,” she said. 

In 2018, the US Census Bureau estimated over 12,000 people in Durham county had no internet access, and over 11,000 people relied on their smartphone as their only device. This alone diminishes all ability to learn virtually from home. 

“In Durham because of our geography and the concentration of population that we have, the issue is much more about affordability for people connecting to the internet — whether or not it’s available, is much less of an issue,” said Fogle, who now works with Digital Durham, which promotes digital inclusion. 

To spread word of the campaign to keep students online, the foundation has identified  “accelerators,” volunteers who are willing to spread word of the effort with friends, family and community groups. 

Getting Chromebooks into the hands of students and families needing them is only one step to delivering meaningful online instruction. Photo by Henry Haggart

The foundation also created the Durham HOPE Network, a database of free community resources available now to DPS schools and families. This includes anything from free tutoring sessions to information on event spaces available for small, socially distant gatherings.

To put all the puzzle pieces together, teachers will need to lean on each other, said Hopkins. Each year he shares a theme with the Lakewood community. This year it is one word: Together.

“It’s like going down a road that no one’s ever traveled down. There are going to be six boulders, all sorts of things in our path that we must be able to move and create together,” he said.

All this effort in the midst of a pandemic may bring lasting improvements to Durham even when this coronavirus outbreak is a memory. 

“We have an opportunity to create an equitable situation where all of our students are getting digital literacy and their families are able to have careers that require that,” Wright said.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: Riverside High School Principal Tonya Williams Leathers helped hand out Chromebooks to students this week. Photo by Henry Haggart

Much more needed to make classrooms safe for everyone, Durham teachers say

Rather than creating lesson plans and classroom decorations this summer, Durham teacher Millie Rosen drafted her will.

On Jul. 14 when Gov. Roy Cooper recommended schools return for modified in-person learning, she prepared to enter a battle with no armor. 

Durham Public Schools has since announced the first nine weeks of the school year, which starts Aug. 17, will be online. 

Although online learning will spare trips to school for now, that is a temporary solution. And teachers across the country are voicing concerns about safety. Educators demonstrated outside Boston City Hall against schools reopening in person this week. 

Many Durham public school teachers say deciding whether to return to classrooms during the pandemic is now a choice between keeping their jobs or protecting their health. They worry it would be only a matter of time before they or their students contract the virus.

Rosen has one main criterion for returning in person, whether that be in October or next year: strong evidence that she, her colleagues and her students will be kept safe.  

“It would be about the chances of me, my co-workers and my kids dying,” said Rosen, who teaches seventh-grade math at Durham School of the Arts.  

Hesitation to return 

Nearly 47% of Durham’s public school teachers who responded to a survey conducted through June said that they would prefer online teaching, according to the Durham Association of Educators, an affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators.  

Prior to the district’s announcement of its school reopening plan, the DAE held a Zoom town hall on July 15 with the DPS administration, asking district staff to answer over 400 questions from employees. 

“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote about the decision to start the school year online. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.”

Many teachers are concerned that come October, when the district is expected to reevaluate, they still won’t have nearly enough funding and resources to safely teach in classrooms.  

Durham public schools have seen a continuous decline in state funding for years, district officials say. The district has received $19 million less from the state each year than they did in 2009 when dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation, according to the proposed school budget for 2020-2021

Due to COVID-19 budget cuts, the county gave DPS just over $5 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

As a result, they rely heavily on local fundraising, such as money raised by the DPS Foundation, which was founded in 2018.

At Riverside High School, 2019 DPS Teacher of the Year Mika Twietmeyer draws the line when a lack of resources could cost herself or her students their lives.

“Teachers are always asked to do more with less, and we will because we understand that we have to,” said Twietmeyer, who teaches science. “But when there’s risks that people are going to die… it’s really highlighting some of these concerns and highlighting how unfunded the public schools are.”

Teaching from afar 

In addition to their concerns about whether classroom teaching will be safe, teachers say executing online learning will not be an easy feat. Especially with students’ unequal access to reliable internet or adequate space at home. 

Twietmeyer is now faced with the challenge of converting her science classroom to an online format. Students learn by doing in her classroom, she said, with labs an integral part of her lesson plan. This semester they will have to watch these experiments on Chromebook screens. 

“We’ve talked about filming ourselves doing the activities and creating modules,” Twietmeyer said. “But all of those take time and training that we really haven’t had or have available to us.” 

Twietmeyer wonders how her partner, a photography teacher at Riverside, will teach lessons normally given in a darkroom, online. Together, they will navigate both teaching online under the same roof. 

Durham public school teachers have little experience teaching online. When the district closed schools in March, all required instruction ended.

For middle school, Rosen said integrating social skills and other learning beyond her curriculum will be a challenge from a distance. 

“With kids because there’s so much there’s so much learning that you do in middle school in terms of learning more subtle things about being in relation to other people,” she said. 

Teachers will still be required to follow the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction state standards for the learning students must complete during a course, despite the unprecedented circumstances. 

Twietmeyer said she wants to wait before rushing into her lesson plans. Instead she wants to make sure her students are comfortable navigating online learning and build relationships  before she starts with her content. 

“The really challenging part, of course, starting virtually is building those relationships through a screen,” she said. “It takes away from the craft and the art of the teaching profession, which we all love.”

Organizing for a safe return 

There’s no way to know what the COVID-19 rates will look like nine weeks after the school year begins. However cases continue to rise in Durham with 5,514 cases as of Sunday, according to Durham County Department of Public Health.  

Regardless of the case count, Michelle Burton, the president of DAE and a library media specialist at Spring Valley Elementary, is looking to state legislators to ensure that schools have adequate funding to follow the 31 Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for a safe re-opening.

The first step for her is ensuring state legislators expand COVID-19 relief funding for schools. 

“We need to put pressure on [state legislators] to put something forward to give us the funding that we need during COVID and keep people safe,” she said. “The resources that they have allocated or voted on is not enough.”

In 2019, North Carolina was one of the two states with the lowest union membership rates, according to the US Department of Labor. And public school teachers in North Carolina are not allowed to have a collective bargaining agreement to negotiate employment contracts.

The NCAE does advocate for teachers here, however. This month members are petitioning the General Assembly, asking members to maintain the same level of funding and staffing from the 2019-2020 school year for the upcoming year. 

NCAE also wants legislators to fund all state Department of Health and Human Services requirements for reopening schools. These include creating six-foot markings on floors for social distancing  and frequently disinfecting all surfaces, on busses too.

They also want decision makers to meet with public school employees to allow for their input in reopening discussions.

The petition, which NCAE is still circulating for signatures, has over 16,000 so far. 

Some needs are non-negotiable items for Burton, she said. They include a nurse in every school building, funding for plexiglass for high contact areas, like reception desks, masks, and cleaning supplies. 

But funding for more nurses is beyond Durham Public School’s budget for next year, Mubenga said during the town hall meeting. Nurses will be available via telehealth services for schools without, according to Nakia Hardy, the district’s deputy superintendent of academic services. 

Following state and federal guidelines still may not be enough to reopen schools safely, many school officials fear. In Arizona, three teachers taught summer school online from the same classroom, following all public health recommendations. All three fell ill with COVID-19 and one died. 

Despite their many fears, some educators say ongoing discussions and debates are showing the power their public pressure can have on decision-making.

 “We have to unite and organize to win the schools and communities that we all deserve,” DAE vice president Turquoise LeJeune Parker said during the town hall.

The more voices in this conversation the better, including student voices, said Twietmeyer.

“We hear a lot of the argument of going back to school because it’s for the students behalf. But we want to make sure that if we’re doing things on their behalf, that they’re a part of some of those decisions,” she said.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: With school reopening decisions happening across the nation, Jordan High School educators shared a clear message: “Our safety, our say”. Photo courtesy of Carlos Pérez

Durham schools will be online only until October

When Durham Public School students resume school on Aug. 17, there will be no bus rides or hallway chats about summer. Instead, over 32,000 students will open Chromebooks and tune into online learning at home. 

The first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year school will be online, Board of Education members voted unanimously on Thursday.

Schools statewide are free to open with a combination of online and in-person learning, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday. However, after teachers voiced concerns about the safety of returning to school during the pandemic, Durham will wait to bring students and over 5,000 staff to school buildings. 

“My conversations with our teachers and hearing their concerns tipped the scale,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga wrote in an online statement announcing reopening plans. “They assured me that they were up to the challenge of remote instruction, and I know they will deliver.

Although online instruction is the safest option, the district will face two major hurdles in teaching children at home: ensuring online access for all students and providing food. In the Durham school district, 64% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. 

To address the digital divide, Board of Education members purchased over 20,000 Chromebooks for students in May. Next, they must find ways to ensure all students and teachers have internet access through the distribution of hotspots.

School reopening plans have been evolving since fears about spreading COVID-19 illness abruptly shut Durham school building doors on March 13. All mandatory studies ended then too. 

Cooper had asked school districts to develop three separate plans for re-entry following varying guidelines. Plan A allowed schools to reopen at regular capacity with minimal social distancing enforced. Plan B called for a limited reopening, where schools could operate at 50% capacity to enforce social distancing. Under Plan C, all instruction is online. 

Durham’s Spark Reopening Task Force, a group of administrators and teachers working on plans to reopen schools, had recommended a very specific Plan B. If selected, it should include in-person instruction for kindergarten through eighth grade students, but online instructions for high school students, members said.

To ensure the space needed for social distancing, high schools would house some K-8 classes because they are bigger than elementary and middle schools. If students did not feel safe coming to school, they would have the option to stay home and enroll in Ignite Online Academy, the district’s new online school platform.

 School board members approved this option unanimously on June 25. 

Teachers were not given the same flexibility as students. Although some teachers would teach online at Ignite, not all could. 

A survey the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) conducted through May and June drew responses from 34% of teachers. Among that group, 46.8% indicated that they would prefer to teach online. 

The DAE, an educators’ advocacy organization, published a statement on July 13 asking for more funding to make in-person instruction safer so that educators would not have to choose between their health and their jobs. 

“So far, the state and federal governments have not provided public schools with the human or capital resources we would need to ensure a safe and equitable return,” the statement says. “We are not prepared to bury our students or colleagues.”

DAE also hosted a virtual town hall discussion with Mubenga on Wednesday. Over 100 educators joined the Zoom meeting, with over 400 questions submitted ahead of time. 

In the meeting, Mubenga’s message was clear. He and his staff were trying their best to meet teachers’ requests for a safe, in-person reopening. However, the district does not have the money it needs to properly do so, he said.

Although the district could provide sanitizer for each room, for example, there is not enough funding to hire additional nurses. Instead, schools would call nurses via a telehealth service if someone in the building needed medical attention.  

During the town hall Arsai Adkins, assistant superintendent for human resources, announced 3,822 students had enrolled for Ignite, the online program. Adkins also reported that 331 teachers submitted accommodations requests, with 232 of those requests relating to personal or family underlying health conditions. 

If schools reopen for in-person learning in October, students will have the ability to continue learning online if they choose. The date that could happen is not yet clear.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: Durham public schools teachers, staff and students will remain apart at the start of the school year, just like they did last spring. File photo by Henry Haggart 

Student pushed to change policing in Durham schools before street protests swelled

Aissa Dearing remembers a talk on gang violence prevention in her seventh-grade health class.

This is how gangs recruit students, school security and police officers told her and classmates at Lucas Middle School in northern Durham County. This is how long you will spend in jail if you sell Drug X, they said. Drug Y brings a longer sentence.

Dearing, a recent graduate of JD Clement Early College, wonders why the encounter wasn’t designed to inspire rather than promote fear. Say if a member of Project BUILD, a gang intervention program, talked to students. Or if her class was brought to a career fair to help motivate them at school. 

“Wouldn’t that be more substantive than police officers talking to you about crime?” Dearing asked during an interview. 

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, national conversations about police aggression, funding and training are everywhere. Yet, these are not new concerns for Dearing. 

The 18-year-old has been pushing Durham Public Schools to rethink the need to employ law enforcement officers in public schools. It started when she and other students published a list of proposed improvements in 2019. With petitions and protest, recently she has promoted a complete abolition of school resource officers (SROs).

Working for change

During her junior year at her magnet high school, Dearing joined the Youth Justice Project. That’s a Southern Coalition for Social Justice initiative that promotes equity for young people in education and the criminal justice system. 

Through the Youth Justice Project, she and others invited students, administrators and SROs to a town hall forum on the topic of school safety in April 2019 at the W.G. Pearson Center. They named the forum with the acronym SRO, but instead it stood for “Students Reaching Out.”

The risk of over-aggressive policing is not an abstract issue for Dearing. SROs were not assigned to her high school, which is located on the campus of North Carolina Central University. But Dearing recalls watching some of these officers break up fights between students during football games at Hillside and Riverside high schools. Altercations sometimes ended with students escorted to the back of a patrol car or handcuffed at the scene, she said. 

In Durham, 27 sheriff deputies work in middle and high schools in the district. The county spent $2.7 million dollars to fund 30 officers, three of which are not assigned to specific schools in the 2019-2020 budget, with the same amount recommended for 2020-2021

The officers, who are armed, are there to enforce the law, provide delinquency prevention resources, and offer law-related guidance and counseling to students, according to Durham Public Schools.

After the town hall forum, the Youth Justice Project published a list of recommendations for school board members to consider. Items included increased transparency through a public data report about what SROs respond to, a student-friendly complaint process to report any concerns regarding SROs, and a redefined outline of what types of incidents a SRO should be involved in. 

 After seeing little change, Dearing has a new request. 

“A year later, now we’re asking for just a complete defunding and end of relationship with the sheriff’s department,” she said. 

From reform to abolition

Elijah King, a recent Riverside High School graduate, is Dearing’s  partner-in-action and biggest advocate. The pair met while working with Made in Durham, a non-profit that helps students enter the workforce after school.

In their collaborations, Dearing is Steve Jobs with big-picture ideas, while he is Steve Wozniak, fine tuning the details for operation, King says. 

Aissa Dearing holds an umbrella over the head of fellow student activist Elijah King at a press conference they staged at last week. 9th Street Journal Photo by Henry Haggart

One big-picture action Dearing took recently was circulating a petition addressed to Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee on Instagram. It asked Durham residents to sign in support of removing SROs from all schools and attracted over 2,000 likes and 3,000 comments from people ranging from Duke University students to Durham Public School parents. 

“She’s a leader. She’s a great speaker. She knows all about how teamwork makes the dream work. She is ambitious. And that’s why I like working with her,” King said.

To promote her Instagram request, Dearing and others solicited comments supporting removing SROs ahead of the Board of Education work session on June 10. That generated 256 pages of written comments.  

In response to all of this, Durham Public Schools published a statement on its website endorsing its SRO program and agreeing to conduct the impact assessment of the program by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, as the Youth Justice Project had requested last year.

“We would be happy to participate in a community forum to learn from our stakeholders and develop solutions to ensure the safety and security of our students,” the statement reads.

As the statement did not clarify who are stakeholders, Dearing, King, and others organized a  “March for Black Students” on June 13 to show them. 

Organizing a march in a pandemic is not an easy feat. Aside from the tasks of contacting de-escalators, people assigned to diffuse any conflict, and medics to attend, she and co-organizers ensured people wore masks and used hand sanitizer.  

Dearing led marchers half a mile from DPS headquarters to the sheriff’s department in a yellow shirt that read “free Black mamas” with a patterned fabric mask on. When holding the microphone to speak to the crowd, she, and other speakers wore a blue plastic glove as a cautionary measure.

Dearing is not letting adults dominate conversation about school policy. Instead, she is putting student voices at the center of her actions, said Katherine Shor, a former youth engagement coordinator at Made in Durham and a mentor to Dearing.  

“To have youth be the leaders, the voices and the stakeholders of what happens in their schools that is a policy planning, organizing 101,” Shor said.

Lee said he hears Dearing’s requests. However, he said, he needs to better understand alternatives for SROs before he is willing to remove them from schools. 

Although SROs mainly interact with students, they also handle external threats to the school, Lee stressed. That can range from disruptions related to parents’ custody battles over students or trespassers on school campuses. 

Lee emphasized SROs protect not only 33,526 students in all Durham public schools but also 5,003 employees on school campuses. He fears if he cut SROs, he may have employees who will quit, he said.

“I need solutions to help assure the security of those 38,000 people in our buildings every day before I can make any kind of a decision,” he said. 

Dearing and King are working on suggestions for SRO alternatives, which will include having people at schools trained in conflict resolution responses such as de-escalation and restorative justice. Next steps will include a youth summit to collect more student ideas. After that they will present a proposal to the county, the sheriff’s department and school board that King has been compiling. 

The pair will keep working to build as much support as they can around their proposal before they both head separate ways in the fall. Dearing will enroll at Howard University; King will enter the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

“I can speak as a former student, but now I kind of have to take a step back and pass the baton,” she said.

9th Street Journal reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

Photo at top: Aissa Dearing and Elijah King led a “March for Black Students” on June 13. Photo courtesy of Abraham Gonzalez

Schools spend $7.8 million to gear up for digital learning

When the school day ended on March 13, Durham teachers and staff packed their bags, turned off lights and locked doors as if it was any other weekend.

Instead, it was an unplanned last day of school for students, one without celebrations or yearbook handouts. Efforts to control the spread of coronavirus shut down Durham’s public schools for the rest of the year.

Although schools mailed or handed out supplemental learning packets to students, none of the work within was required. Final grades were awarded based on the coursework finished before March 13.

Uncertain what the start of the new school year will look like, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga knows one thing for sure: Every student will participate in online learning. The district has purchased 20,016 new Chromebooks to make this goal possible. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that we have to aggressively attack the digital divide in our community,” Mubenga said in a press release

Finding ways to expand access to digital learning is not a new conversation in the district. Durham has lagged slightly behind the average performance of North Carolina public schools on its supply of digital devices.

A 2018-2019 state report card counted one digital device per 1.1 students in Durham schools, compared to a state average of one device per 0.9 students. The district’s five-year strategic plan calls for 100 percent of all “teachers, leaders, and staff” to use technology to advance student learning by 2023.  

When schools closed due to coronavirus, that expedited the conversation to find a way to make sure every student in grades K-12 had access to a school computer. 

The price tag to purchase the Chromebooks and charging carts is $7,848,357. Board of Education members authorized these purchases unanimously at an emergency meeting on May 28. 

Staff handed out learning packets and food at Easley Elementary School not long after Durham schools abruptly shut down in March. Photo by Corey Pilson

The first step was buying the devices. The second challenge will be ensuring that all students can connect to the internet at school and at home. The scale of the digital divide in Durham is significant, and one that the school district hopes to not tackle alone.

Board members will look to the county for assistance in what they estimate will be an additional $3 million project.

DPS will also be looking to the public to help cover some costs. The DPS Foundation will announce a campaign shortly to raise money for implementing a curriculum with the devices.

Without instruction for parents and students, devices serve no purpose, said Magan Gonzales-Smith, executive director of the foundation, a nonprofit that supports DPS. 

“Realizing digital equity for students goes beyond providing everyone with a device and internet, we must think about the holistic picture,” she said.

That includes training teachers, providing tech support to students and families, and reinforcing learning conditions in homes, Gonzales-Smith said. Another factor to consider is support for non-English speaking students. 

The Chromebook order needed to be placed before June 1 to ensure they arrive before the start of the 2020-21 school year, which is so far scheduled for August 3. Reserve funds were used to make the purchase. 

The district will receive $11.8 million from the federal CARES Act, according to Mubenga’s comments in the May 28 meeting, to partially fund the project. When DPS receives the CARES funding, it will replenish the reserves spent. 

The number of Chromebooks needed at schools varies, Benjamin Brown, executive director of IT for DPS, said at the meeting. The School for Creative Studies, a magnet school in northeast Durham, and the City of Medicine Academy, a magnet school near Duke Regional Hospital, have indicated they will not need any new purchases.

Six schools, however, will need over 1,000 new Chromebooks each. That includes C.E. Jordan High School, Durham School of the Arts, Hillside High School, Northern High School, Riverside High School and Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.  

The district purchased all Chromebooks from Lenovo Solutions for $360.75 each and 566 laptop charging carts from CDWG for $1,128 per cart. 

The Chromebooks are portable laptops with a touch screen. While kindergarten students might be learning to write their names on touchscreens, seniors might be typing lab reports on keyboards. 

In addition to discussing broadband access, board members expect to discuss implementing systems for teaching online later this month.

At top: After Durham schools closed in March, teachers and staff reached out to students they were suddenly separated from where they could. Photo by Henry Haggart  

Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic

On April 16, the Durham Public Schools Foundation, Food Insight Group, and the Durham Hotel began providing breakfast and lunch to local students in a new partnership called Durham FEAST. 

The announcement came after Durham Public Schools struggled to maintain a safe food distribution program.

Durham Public Schools had been offering free meals to students since March 23. But after learning that an employee at Bethesda Elementary School had contracted the coronavirus, the school system discontinued the program in early April.

Local families didn’t know where their next meal would come from. So several organizations stepped up. 

The DPS Foundation, a community-led nonprofit that supports the school system, took on the bulk of student food distribution. It ramped up its weekly food delivery program to deliver meals to 1,500 families, and then joined the Durham FEAST initiative.

A Riverside High School senior Elijah King also offered his own solution, partnering with local businesses to start the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative. They set up shop in front of Geer Street Garden and distribute sandwiches. 

And Catholic Charities and Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina continue their food pantries.

They don’t know how long school cafeterias and local restaurants will be closed, but these distribution services anticipate working for the long haul. 

“In any instance when something like the coronavirus is happening in Durham, the community comes together,” said King. “It’s like New York, but on a very small scale.”

A community FEAST

As Durham FEAST launched its partnership on Thursday, thousands of Durham families flocked to DPS schools — while staying six feet apart — to pick up free breakfast and lunch from Durham restaurants. The provisions are meant to serve all children under 18 years old for several days. 

The Restaurant at The Durham, Monuts, Spicy Green, Southern Harvest Catering, and Beyu Caffe were first to offer meals. Kids may have a buckle streusel, a banana muffin, or overnight oats for breakfast. Lunch options included quinoa chicken or vegetarian spinach alfredo pasta. Family-style casseroles and shelf ingredients were also available. 

Depending on the location, pick-ups are on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. Some locations open at 11 a.m. and others at 12 p.m. Volunteers drive meals to families that are unable to pick up food.

“The main thing that we need right now is even more volunteers, especially with the new announcement,” said Katie Spencer Wright, communications manager for the DPS Foundation.

Over 900 volunteers pitched in during the DPS Foundation’s previous program, including Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull and Durham City Council members Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

“Everyone is happy to be out of the house and enjoying working together on this, which is what we need to do,” said Spencer Wright. “We need to have each other’s backs.” 

Community donations are also essential to support the ongoing program. Funds go toward meals and paying restaurant employees’ wages.

Over 1,100 Durham community members have donated funds to the meal program. Mayor Steve Schewel announced he’d match all donations up to $10,000 to the previous initiative. Durham songwriter and DPS dad Hiss Golden Messenger pledged all proceeds from his new record to the meal effort. (Spencer Wright says it’s “great quarantine music.”)

Federal school meal funding and Durham County also back the initiative.

A student-run initiative

As the coronavirus escalated in Durham, King, a Riverside High School senior, became concerned about small businesses. He wondered how he could support local restaurants while addressing community food shortages.

He presented a couple ideas to friends and businesses: An ad campaign? Business partnerships?

“Everyone shot them down,” he said.

Then, he thought of Grant Ruhlman, the owner of Homebucha Kombucha. Ruhlman had heard King speak at a climate strike and told King to reach out if he ever needed help.

Together, Ruhlman and King decided to work with local businesses to provide free lunches. Homebucha Kombucha, Lil Farm, and Geer Street Garden joined in the effort, which they named Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative.

Every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they set up outside Geer Street Garden and distribute about 100 meals. Community members wait for food, standing in distanced lines and listening to amplified music. 

Lunch selections vary day-by-day, including pimento cheese, turkey, or BLT sandwiches. Sides may be yogurt, bread, fresh fruit, or veggies.

The initiative runs on monetary donations to provide food from the farm and restaurants. 

Within a week of announcing the initiative, their GoFundMe campaign burgeoned, reaching nearly $35,000 in donations. That would cover sandwiches, masks, water bottles, and four employees’ wages for a couple weeks. 

“But as soon as we pay all of the bills this week, that money is going to be gone,” King said. 

He needs to raise more money to keep the initiative running until May 15. If he runs into trouble, he’ll consider decreasing the production cost of meals.

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages. That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making,” King said.

Other resources

Local food banks continue offering meals and accepting donations during the pandemic.

The Durham Community Food Pantry reopened April 10 after issuing new guidelines to protect volunteers and clients from the virus. The pantry, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, operates from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

As of April 9, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina had distributed 11,132 boxes of 20 meals each during the coronavirus outbreak. They operate in a 34-county region and work with local nutritionists to determine needs.

At top: Volunteers distribute meals at Glenn Elementary School as part of a new DPS Foundation initiative to address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Corey Pilson, The 9th Street Journal

Durham public schools to start student lunch delivery

Starting Monday, yellow school buses will once again stream to all corners of Durham County. This time they won’t be carrying children, they’ll be delivering needed food. 

Durham Public Schools is launching a meal delivery and pick-up program that will provide lunch and a snack to schoolchildren every weekday until at least March 30.

Meals will be made available at “Grab and Go” sites at 17 schools and 50 “mobile sites,” mostly apartment complexes and recreation centers. 

In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, all North Carolina public schools are closed until at least March 30.

The unplanned closures leave gaps in more than lessons and test-taking. Approximately two-thirds of Durham Public School (DPS) students qualify for free and reduced school lunches, compared to the state average of 57% in 2018 .

Durham school leaders want to continue the meal programming until schools are reopened, but whether that happens depends on if they get funding, said Board of Education member Natalie Beyer. If the federal government does not come through, the public schools will have to look for local funding to continue, she said.

Beyer said school board members hope to have answers on funding by Thursday. 

Durham is not alone in mobilizing food delivery while public schools are closed. Many surrounding counties have similar plans, according to a News & Observer report.

Organizers identified low-income neighborhoods and housing complexes and designed the plan to serve “our most in-need and vulnerable students,” Chip Sudderth, the school system’s chief communications officer explained in an email.

The locations of displaced McDougald Terrace families, who left their public housing apartments for hotels across the city in January, were also taken into account when strategizing the site locations, Beyer said.

This past weekend, the Durham Public School Foundation and other nonprofits delivered meals to families that needed them immediately. DPS needed 34 volunteers and they got over 600, according to a tweet from Durham County Public Schools.

The foundation shared photographs of volunteers wiping down steering wheels and car interiors.

In the midst of this coronavirus outbreak, social distancing will be a mandatory ingredient at meal pick ups. Sudderth said the district is advising people visiting the mobile sites to not gather in groups larger than 10.

“Crowds and lines will not help this situation, and DPS staff will wait to serve until students are organized,” he wrote.

Along with the food, students will receive school work packets. The contents aren’t intended to teach new material and do not require access to the internet or technology. 

This meals program is not completely unprecedented. The school district has summer meal programs, Beyer said. The USDA-funded summer meals program ensures students still receive breakfast, lunch, and snacks even when school is not in session. 

The impromptu program won’t fill all the gaps that opened after schools closed. DPS has universal free breakfast which students will not receive this week, said Beyer. Surrounding counties such as Wake and Johnston counties are including breakfast in their programs, however.

At top: A screenshot of a portion of the sites where Durham Public Schools are making food available for students. The entire list is here.

He won with People’s Alliance support, then lost without it

Early this month, the local People’s Alliance political action committee once again displayed its influence on Durham elections.

By a wide margin, voters selected first-time candidate Alexandra Valladares, who was endorsed by the political action committee, to win an at-large seat on Durham’s Board of Education on March 3. 

Valladares beat incumbent Steven Unruhe, who Mayor Steve Schewel, former Mayor Bill Bell, fellow school board members and the Durham Association of Educators all endorsed. The left-leaning People’s Alliance supported him in 2016 but not this year, despite wide appreciation for his contributions to the school board.

“He is among the finest teachers in the memory of Durham’s public school system. And he was an excellent school board member,” said Tom Miller, a coordinator for People’s Alliance.

Valladares, an educator and high-profile volunteer leader in the schools, was the better candidate partly because the school board lacked a Latinx member, Miller said. Durham Public Schools identifies more than 32% of its students as “Hispanic/Latino.”

“It is a reasonable expectation, where an excellent candidate is available, to have the school board reflect, at least in one member, that makeup of the constituency,” he said.

Valladares, a Durham Public Schools graduate and a DPS parent, has worked with BOOST, a Duke University program that encourages middle school students to pursue training in science and medicine. She has led multiple district projects as a volunteer, including convening a Superintendent-Parent Forum series for Latinx families.

A former resident of McDougald Terrace, a musician, and a Human Relations Commission member, Valladares emphasized the need for Latinx leadership during her campaign for the seat.

“Ya es Hora!,” was one of her campaign slogans. In English that means “It is time!

Unruhe, a national-award winning educator, taught at Northern and Riverside high schools over 29 years. During four years on the board, he helped revise the budget to increase funding for the construction of new two schools, among other accomplishments.  

Both competed for the People’s Alliance endorsement, one of many decided during the PAC’s Jan. 14 meeting, where over 600 members were present.

This year, the decision about who to endorse for the at-large school board seat was difficult for PAC members, Miller said. 

Steven Unruhe logged many high-profile endorsements during his re-election campaign, but the People’s Alliance backed Alexandra Alladares this time.

Valladares did not comment for this article, despite multiple requests for an interview. But Unruhe was frank in his disappointment in the close nominating vote he lost. “I have serious reservations about this process because the vote in endorsing was 51% to 49%. That somehow translated in the minds of People’s Alliance organization into a 100% endorsement of my opponent,” Unruhe said. 

Disagreement over who should win on March 3 bloomed on social media after the endorsement vote. 

On Jan. 27, a letter posted on a Facebook account named Miel Etant Possum asked alliance members to support Unruhe, despite him losing PA’s endorsement. 

While it is rare for many of us to support a candidate outside of the PA endorsements, we feel in this case that Steve is a much stronger candidate,” the letter said. “We believe Steve represents the values that are at the heart of the PA and a progressive Durham.”

The letter, no longer public, was signed by 110 people. 

On Feb. 1 Ronda Taylor Bullock, a scholar who works to reduce racism in schools, published a letter on Facebook promoting Valladares. She argued that there was a clear racial dimension to the school board race and that voting for Unruhe would support white supremacy in Durham. 

“I’m arguing that from a critical whiteness lens, this is indeed an act of upholding white supremacy,” the former Hillside High School teacher wrote. “There are currently zero Latinx board members and by supporting a white male, folks are saying this is OK for a district that’s 33% Latinx.

Her letter was signed by 167 people.

Unruhe said what he perceived as “the nastiness” of the campaign solidified his decision to not run for elected office again.

Miller acknowledged the divisiveness of the endorsement process and election in this school board race. The political landscape in Durham has shifted, he said. 

“Years and years ago, we chose progressive candidates to run against candidates being promoted by conservative organizations,” he said. 

The school board race, however, highlights how multiple progressive and qualified candidates are now running against each other which makes the People’s Alliance endorsement more challenging.

“To make it more difficult for our members to choose from among progressive candidates who are longstanding and effective and loved members of our own organization,” he said. 

However, Miller said he envisions that unity is ahead.  

“As difficult as this decision about this school board contest has been, moving forward, it’s going to be one People’s Alliance committed together to support progressive change,” he predicted.

School assignment shifts, more changes ahead for Durham public schools

At 10 am at Creekside Elementary School cafeteria, one class begins to eat lunch as other students finish up their breakfast. 

At a school that is 200 students over capacity, the Creekside cafeteria cannot fit all students at once. So the lunch cycle starts early and continues in waves until the last sit-down at 12:40 pm.

To alleviate crowded hallways and trailer park classrooms, Durham Public Schools is redrawing the student boundary maps for Creekside and Githens Middle School to reduce how many children can enroll at each.

Lots of changes are brewing for Durham Public Schools this year and next. The district is addressing several core issues beyond overcrowding, including retaining more children in district schools, expanding access to programming and resources, and reducing class sizes.

Even though Durham County is growing — by an estimated  23,221 people from 2015 to 2020 —enrollment in district schools dropped by 698 students during that period. For one, families have more choices than ever. Parents can consider district, charter and private schools, among other options.

Along with student retention, district officials want to expand equity. In 2017 the Durham Public Schools Office of Equity Affairs opened with the mission to provide equal opportunity and experiences for all students. 

The Barbershop Talk Series program, where students, administrators and parents share observations about discrimination, is one way the district is bringing disparities to the forefront.

The wider goal is to balance school demographics to ensure that students of all races and income levels share the best of school resources, from lower teacher to student ratios to the length of school bus rides and classroom supplies.

Overcrowding at Creekside impacts all corners, from the cafeteria to art classrooms. Due to the large class sizes, students are no longer able to take two year-long art and music classes. Instead, the subjects are taught in one course, said Rhonda Woodell, the Creekside PTA president. 

In the parking lot, two fourth-grade classes and all fifth-grade classes meet in trailer park classrooms. Creekside also faces a challenge each year to balance the student-to-teacher ratio per grade. Some years, four first-grade teachers are needed, while other years it could be six. 

“It’s been a chess game every year for administration,” said Woodellt. 

Source: Durham Public Schools

Boundary reassignment sounds like a simple solution, but it is a puzzle with complex pieces. Multiple factors get considered in all this planning: student enrollment, age and capacity of schools, driving distance to school, and the overarching emphasis on equity, Palmer said. 

“It’s an operation research riddle,”  he said. 

Palmer, alongside Julius Monk, chief operating officer for the district, presented their boundary change proposal for Creekside and Githens to the Durham School Board in October. Board members approved boundary shifts with a 4-3 vote in November.  

To reduce enrollment at Creekside, the change will be pretty straightforward. The Parkwood Elementary School boundary will expand to accommodate more students. Families who live east of the intersection of Scott King and Herndon Road will now send their children to Parkwood instead of Creekside, which will save driving time for some. 

Change at Githens requires increasing the student enrollment boundary for Brogden Middle School, which is more complex than it sounds. Six elementary schools feed into Githens and the district is considering three possible adjustments.

Ultimately the number of elementary schools that feed into Brogden will increase from three to five. The number of elementary schools that feed into Githens will decrease from six to four. 

State mandates regarding class sizes in North Carolina schools makes school boundary changes more urgent.  A law passed in March 2018 has begun to reduce the average size and maximum capacity of K-3 classrooms over four years.  

For the 2020-2021 school year, the average class size should be 18 students per teacher, with classrooms capped at 21 students. 

That further complicates the planning process, Palmer said. “It becomes what we call a tri-level optimization. So we have to first fit the kids in the classroom, then we have to fit the classroom in the school,” he said. 

Throughout the fall, DPS invited parents to Board of Education meetings and solicited feedback via surveys regarding the coming changes. Not all parents agreed with the shifts, but many recognized the complex challenges. 

With plans for the construction of a new elementary school within the next few years, some parents have voiced concerns that their children could be reassigned multiple times while in elementary school. 

At a public hearing in November, parent Jessica Simo asked why her children may have to switch from Creekside to Parkwood to a new school set to open within the next few years. 

“This proposed plan to redistrict around 50 families seems like putting a Band-aid on an open wound for overcrowding,” she said, adding that it “might not accomplish that much other than upsetting a group of families.”

The reassignment project is a small piece in a larger puzzle and the district is doing its best to meet everyone’s needs, Palmer said.

“If you’re looking at Mount Everest, you have to have base camps as you work your way up the mountain,” he said. 

At top: Pascal Mubenga, Durham schools superintendent, has met with staff, teachers and community members  to discuss overcrowding, student assignments and school boundaries. One event occurred at Lakewood Elementary School last fall. Photo by Durham Public Schools