Durham Public Schools will close early Thursday and remain shut down through the weekend due to Hurricane Florence, school officials announced Tuesday.
Students will be released three hours early on Thursday. After-school activities have also been canceled Thursday through Sunday, and plans are in the works to open shelters at select Durham schools for residents that need them.
And how likely is it that the closures will extend beyond the weekend? It’s too early to know the strength and impact of the storm, but many Durham residents tracking Florence have noted its similarity to Hurricane Fran, a Category 3 storm that brought 79 mph winds to the Raleigh-Durham area in September 1996.
Durham public schools closed for six days following Fran, according to archived reports from The News & Observer. School officials later adjusted that year’s calendar to add five and a half make-up days in November and January, including a few days during winter break.
Durham officials are encouraging families and staff to prepare emergency kits and monitor the district’s website and social media for further updates and announcements. Durham residents can sign up to receive personal emergency notifications at alertdurham.com.
Students in Durham improved their performance on state exams last year, continuing an upward trend that had school officials celebrating this past week.
The improvement represents the district’s highest year-to-year bump in grade level proficiency in the last five years, Durham Public Schools announced in a press release.
The district’s accountability report said 48.3 percent of Durham students passed their exams, up from 46.4 percent in 2016-17, according to annual data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
There were still 15 Durham schools ratedas low-performing — but the number was down from 18 last year and 21 the previous year.
School officials said teachers and school staff deserved credit for the improvement. “The constant last year was our excellent teachers and staff,” Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, who started November 2017, said in a statement. “What changed was that we had the opportunity to fill a number of vacancies among principals and central administrators, enabling us to set a tone at the top.”
“These results reflect years of hard work by our teachers and staff,” added Mike Lee, chair of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. “It’s clear that our new administration’s focus on data, equity, and student achievement is paying off.”
Schools are assessed on a 100-point scale, with 80 percent of the grade coming from the percentage of students who pass exams and the other 20 percent factoring in year-to-year growth.
Schools in Durham that received an A included City of Medicine Academy, Durham School of the Arts, J.D. Clement Early College, Magnum Elementary and Middle College High.
Durham schools that were handed the low-performing grades included C.C. Spaulding Elementary, Eastway Elementary, Eno Valley Elementary, Fayetteville St. Elementary, Glenn Elementary, Lakewood Elementary, Brogden Middle, Lowe’s Grove Middle, Lucas Middle and Shepard Middle.
The district’s progress is not entirely reflective of trends across the state, however. Overall, fewer North Carolina public school students passed the exams this year.
But in Durham, five of 52 schools received the state’s top letter grade for performance.
Durham schools also saw a small jump in the number of schools meeting or exceeding growth expectations, meaning the school’s students made a year’s worth of academic progress during the year.
Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer for Durham Public Schools, said the Durham schools that received an F this year could be reasonably expected to earn a higher grade in the upcoming year.
“They are so close to leaving that F territory that with hard work and focus we think every one of them could,” he said.
Sudderth also noted that Durham saw a decline in performance on high school math and English, a trend he said was mirrored across the state. “That is an area of concern and we will be looking at that,” he said.
North Carolina has been rating school performance on an A through F scale since the 2013-14 academic year, when the Republican-led state legislature implemented the letter-grading system.
Supporters of the system argue that letter grades provide a simple way for parents, educators and community members to assess how various schools are performing. But critics say that the A through F scale tends to stigmatize schools in areas of high poverty.
More specific data detailing school performance by subgroups such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status is set to be released in October.
Tired of braving the elements to wait for the school bus?
Durham Public Schools is encouraging parents to download “Here Comes the Bus,” a free app that allows them to avoid long waits at the bus stop.
The app uses GPS tracking to estimate bus arrival times and send alerts to parents when their student’s bus is getting close. Parents who sign up using their student’s ID number can receive text or email notifications when the bus enters a certain radius from the bus stop or school. That makes it easier to avoid long waits, particularly in bad weather.
The Durham school system, which has been using the app since 2015, is encouraging parents who have not downloaded the app to give it a try now that schools are back in session.
Joe Harris Jr., assistant director of Transportation for Durham Public Schools, said the app provides flexibility to Durham parents with busy work schedules who cannot wait at the bus stop for extended periods of time.
“It helps with our parents that have to leave and go to work earlier than the bus arrives or before the bus drops off in the afternoons,” Harris said. “It can give them a sense of comfort.”
Although the app requires a valid student ID number to access the maps, Harris said it does not track individual students’ locations for security purposes. So while parents receive alerts when the bus is coming or arriving, the app cannot indicate when their child gets on or off the bus.
The school system does not keep records of the number of students and parents who have downloaded the app. But parents have said they like the convenience.
Jen Meldrum, treasurer of the parent-teacher association at Forest View Elementary School and a parent to students in the first, fifth and eighth grades, said she has been using the app since it was first introduced in Durham.
“It’s just a great way to see real time where the bus is,” she said. “It takes away a lot of the guesswork.”
Meldrum said many other parents have reported using the app and that Forest View Elementary School’s parent-teacher association mentioned it in a recent newsletter to parents.
“It’s been very helpful I think for parents, she said. “It used to be that you could be waiting at the bus stop wondering why it was late, and you might have to call the school or the central office in Durham.”
Durham Public Schools previously contracted Synovia Solutions in 2013 to monitor its buses’ routes for efficiency. According to a 2013 resolution of Durham Board of County Commissioners, the county is slated to pay Synovia Solutions more than $75,000 this year for its services.
Several nearby school districts have also started offering the app this year, including Wake, Harnett and Granville counties.
The app is free on the App Store and Google Play for computers, smartphones and tablets.