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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

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

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.


Bull City Classrooms ushers volunteers to Durham elementary schools

A Bull City Classrooms volunteer paints a stairwell at E.K Powe Elementary School. Photo by Arturo Pérez.

When Lakewood Elementary School Principal James Hopkins unlocked his school over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, he greeted adults, not children.

In another flip, Hopkins asked the group of 33 volunteers to teach him. He wanted their thoughts on what they liked or did not like when they wandered down halls and into classrooms.

State rankings may describe Lakewood as low-performing, but Hopkins stressed that the school has many strengths and is only getting stronger. “Your feedback is going to prove invaluable,” Hopkins told the volunteers.

Bull City Classrooms regularly organizes such volunteer blitz sessions for people eager to help Durham public schools. Every other Saturday, the nonprofit tries to dispatch at least 20 helpers to an elementary school.

At the schools, volunteers tackle whatever those who work there say needs to get done: cleaning closets, picking up trash, painting stairwells or brainstorming.

“We don’t have an agenda,” said Anish Simhal, a Duke University graduate student who founded the project nearly a year ago. “We are just here to help with whatever teachers and principals need. There’s nothing else to it.”

Something new

Simhal, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at Duke, started volunteering in 2016 to help support kids as a little league baseball coach for Durham’s Boys & Girls Club.

With Bull City Classrooms, he is using an “economy-style” approach to help others help kids in short bursts, just two hours at a time.

Duke University graduate student Anish Simhal founded Bull City Classrooms to get more volunteers helping Durham elementary schools. Photo by Katie Nelson

Simhal jumped into this because he considers supporting education a pressing community need and wanted to help address it. His group’s website explains it this way: “We believe education is one of the most important facets of a growing community and that our teachers are overworked and underpaid. We can’t solve the latter of the two, but we can help with the first.”

Simhal came up with Bull City Classrooms after noticing barriers to volunteering in Durham Public Schools, such as registering for time-consuming background checks when working directly with students and the difficulty many people have committing their time during the work day.

“It’s hard for someone who is new to the Durham community to volunteer in a public school because you can’t just show up and knock on an elementary school and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to help’,” Simhal said.

Simhal manages recruitment and sign up online with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Local businesses such as Loaf and Monuts sponsor the work sessions, providing coffee and snacks for volunteers.

At Lakewood, principal Hopkins described the volunteer session last Saturday as “a bit unconventional.” First, he asked volunteers to be his “free focus group” for an hour.

“What I want you to do is to just walk the school and just observe things,” Hopkins instructed. “Look as if it’s a museum.”

The group of mostly Duke physician assistant students studied hallway posters questioning the ethics of zoos and describing the arrival of the Mayflower. They saw uplifting notes from teachers on classroom whiteboards encouraging students to behave for substitutes. They examined signs promising students a visit to the Sky Zone, a Durham trampoline park, for passing a test.

Cut-out construction paper letters in one hallway spelled out an inspirational quote often attributed to Albert Einstein. “Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

When the volunteers reconvened in the library to discuss the school, Hopkins directed them to use their Smartphones to fill out a Google Forms questionnaire. “What would you say we value and/or prioritize?” it asked. “What stood out to you?” “What do you believe distinguishes a good school from a great school?”

Discussing their responses, volunteers recalled experiences from their childhood that Lakewood Elementary School might incorporate. The privilege of eating lunch with their principal was one. Having teachers who accommodated different learning styles and becoming friends with cafeteria and custodial staff were others.

Brains and brawn

When volunteers wrapped up their brainstorming, Simhal handed out blue nitrile gloves and transparent trash bags so volunteers could clean up litter around the school.

Outside they collected trash, including packaging from Cheddar Jalapeños Crunchy Cheetos and Dannon Danimals Yogurts, litter that hadn’t made it to trash cans.

Duke mechanical engineering doctoral student Hadiya Harrigan was a repeat helper, signing up for the Lakewood session after enjoying a session at another school where she and others painted stairwells. “I think that it is really important to give back the the schools,” she said.

Getting repeat volunteers like Harrigan will help Simhal. Bull City Classrooms has held 12 events so far at schools including Eastway, E.K. Powe, and Merrick-Moore elementary schools. One day, he wants to organize that many in one week.

“The point of this program is to bridge the wonderful Durham community with the wonderful Durham public schools,” Simhal said.

Interest was high enough the weekend before Martin Luther King Day, when many people seek out community service, that Simhal could have held three different events.

Hopkins, the Lakewood principal, said he appreciates the program and would recommend it to his fellow Durham Public Schools principals.

“We are in Anish’s debt. He reached out and said, ‘Hey, can I come with some people to help?’ Hopkins said. “A fool would say ‘no’.”

Bull City Classrooms has three volunteer opportunities planned for coming weeks. More information is available here.

How ‘Ms. Xenia’ keeps the community together at Forest View Elementary

In a back hallway at Forest View Elementary School, a small boy sits at a desk outside the assistant principal’s office, his shoulders slumped under a gray hoodie and his feet dangling above the floor.

Xenia Carcamo, a school custodian, stops and whispers something in his ear. He smiles.

This is part of her magic, a sign of how she connects with the students at Forest View. She says this spot is where teachers send students who are having difficulty in class.

“Some students have behavior problems, and I always try to go closer to them,” she says. “Maybe in their family, they don’t have attention, or they don’t have love. And maybe they want to find that in the school, so I don’t have a problem giving it to them.”

In her 13 years at Forest View, Carcamo has become a vital part of the community, playing a role much larger than her title might suggest. She knows almost all of the students by name, and they refer to her affectionately as “Ms. Xenia.”

By state standards, Forest View is an average school, having received a “C” for performance in 2017-18. But the grades don’t tell the full story.

There are 40 different countries represented among the school’s more than 750 students. The student body is 36 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 21 percent black and 7 percent Asian.

Forest View is a melting pot of cultures. Now the school’s lead custodian, Carcamo knits the diverse community together as a translator, as an inspiration, and as a friend to everyone.

Carcamo is tall, with a round face and a big smile that makes her eyes squint. She says she came to the United States from El Salvador in 1997 and worked at a sunglasses company in New York for nine years.

Her move was complicated by some unexpected twists, which she recalls with tears in her eyes. First she separated from her husband. Then her daughter, 6 years old at the time, developed brain cancer. She died seven years later.

Looking for a fresh start, Carcamo moved her two other children once more, this time to North Carolina. She says she hoped to get a job with the state government, but her difficulty speaking English got in the way. Instead, she sent a job-seeking note to Forest View with her son, who was a student. Later that same day, she went in for her first interview.

Since her hiring, Carcamo has bounced between full-time and part-time jobs as a custodian and also as a member of the cafeteria staff. She says she takes pride in her work, and that she feels protective of the school’s students, especially after losing a child of her own.

“If they need something, I’m always there,” she says.

She says the children — especially the native Spanish speakers — go to her when they’re sad or distressed. Teachers do the same when they need help getting through to their students.

“Sometimes the teachers come to me and say, ‘Xenia, can you help with this? Can you ask him why he’s sad or why he’s crying?” she says.

On one occasion, she says a boy named Justin asked her for a second breakfast during her shift in the cafeteria. Speaking in Spanish, she asked why he needed a second helping. He said his mother hadn’t been feeding him properly at home.

“I’m always keeping my eyes on them,” Carcamo says of students like Justin. “In some countries, you can see or you have to live with what I call the hungry face. If you never see the hungry face, you can’t understand how these kids feel.”

Her workday starts at 10 a.m., but she says she regularly arrives at 8:30 a.m. and stays late into the evening.

“My goal is to have everything ready so they can come into a safe place, a clean place,” she says. “So if I have to work extra hours, I don’t care nothing about it.”

Carcamo and Ronnie Winston, assistant principal of Forest View Elementary School. (Photo: Katie Nelson).

Forest View’s students, teachers and administrators love her dedication. “She always puts the students first and she takes pride in her work,” says assistant principal Ronnie Winston, who has known and supported her since her move to North Carolina.

Carcamo says she has a special place in her heart for children, which makes it easier for her to go the extra mile. But just as she supports Forest View’s students, she’s also become a go-to resource for Hispanic candidates applying for custodial positions in Durham.

She says she’s recruited several people to positions in Durham public schools, including multiple members of Forest View’s six-person custodial staff. “The first thing that I always say is, if you can help somebody go to the next step, why not?” she says.

Winston says Carcamo’s recruiting has been helpful, and that he knows any candidate she’s recommended will work hard to keep the school clean.

“If Xenia says so, I don’t question it,” he says. “I know they’re going to do a good job.”

Durham’s custodial jobs have been more attractive since the district recently switched from an outside contractor to an in-house model, Carcamo says. Now that custodians work directly for the district, they get better benefits, such as insurance and the ability to take more sick days.

That’s important, she says, because it’s easy for custodians to find themselves being taken for granted.

“Sometimes, some people make you feel like, ‘Oh, she’s custodian, I can throw away this one here and they get paid to clean,’” she says. “Some people, they are like that. But people are people and you need to respect everybody.”

Students at Forest View expressed their gratitude for the custodians on staff with a key-shaped poster. (Photo: Katie Nelson).

But at Forest View, Carcamo feels like she’s earned everybody’s respect. She adores her role, and she says she’s never considered leaving, even as other opportunities have popped up.

“I always say this is my family,” she says.

Lakewood and Mangum: Comparing Durham’s worst and best performing schools

Lakewood Elementary School, nestled in a neighborhood adjacent to Duke Forest, has a relatively new principal. James Hopkins has been principal for a little more than a year.

So does Mangum Elementary, the northernmost K-5 school in the county. Gwendolyn Dorman took over in April.

But the two schools are miles apart, not just geographically, but also in test scores.

By state standards, Mangum is the highest-performing elementary school in Durham County. In 2017-18, it exceeded growth status and received an “A” for school performance. But Lakewood is one of the district’s lowest performers, having received an “F” last year.

Related story: How reliable are the state’s performance grades?

In 2017, Lakewood was one of the final six schools considered for state takeover by the North Carolina Innovative School District, an intervention program for low-performing schools.

It was ultimately dropped from the state’s final list. Now, with a year under his belt, Hopkins said his school could be trending up. He’s hired five new teachers and is excited for the future.

Meanwhile, Dorman hopes to keep Mangum at the top. But the pressure she feels is different.

“The lower-performing schools have a lot of stress coming down from the top, where any stress that we have in our building is created by us ourselves,” she said.

Lakewood Elementary

Lakewood has about 470 students and is tucked in a neighborhood of homes and apartment complexes near Duke Forest. But many wealthy families in that area have sent their children to private schools.

Lakewood Elementary School received an “F” for school performance in 2017-18. (Photo: Bill McCarthy)

According to data compiled by ProPublica in 2017, the student body is about 54 percent Hispanic and 37 percent are black, with 100 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. That makes it one of the state’s poorest and most diverse schools.

The school has long been among the district’s lowest performers, having also received an “F” in 2016-17. In 2017, it was one of two Durham public schools assigned to the state’s Restart program, an experimental effort which gives struggling schools charter-like flexibilities.

That means Hopkins has freedom to use the school’s money however he sees fit. While other principals are hamstrung by specific teaching allotments, Lakewood gets more of a lump sum.

“It has been a huge blessing,” Hopkins said.

One benefit has been the ability to control class sizes. If not for the Restart program, Lakewood would have had to put teachers in trailers to keep class sizes below the state cap, Hopkins said.

“All of my teachers are in the building this year because we don’t have to subscribe to the class size limits,” he said.

The flexibility has also helped Hopkins make accommodations for Lakewood’s large Hispanic population. He’s been working to purchase translation headphones so he can communicate more easily with Spanish-speaking parents.

“I’m a rhythm speaker,” he said. “I hate having to stop and give you the microphone to interpret to Spanish. So we would not have been able to do that if we were not a Restart school.”

Since taking over, Hopkins and his staff have set their sights on bumping proficiency to 50 percent, up from the 37 percent that earned an “F” score in 2017-18. In addition the five new teachers, Hopkins said he hired a specially-trained teacher to work with struggling students.

“This year, with the team that I brought on board and the support that the district has provided us, there is no doubt that we are going to meet growth and we stand a very, very good chance of exceeding growth,” Hopkins said. “But there’s also no doubt in my mind, and I can almost guarantee this, that we will not be an ‘F’ school next year. We’ll be ‘D’ or a ‘C.’”

Hopkins said he’s optimistic that others in the area will notice the changes he’s put in place.

“Parents are coming back to Lakewood from charter schools and from private schools,” he said. “My goal is for Lakewood to reflect the demographics of its community, and right now it doesn’t. The goal is obviously to make sure that our school looks like our community, but we’re on our way there.”

Mangum Elementary

Mangum Elementary School received an “A” for school performance in 2017-18. (Photo: Katie Nelson)

Mangum is the northernmost elementary school in Durham County, with about 320 students from the community of Bahama and the surrounding area. The campus is rural, its main entrance tucked behind a giant oak tree and its water flowing from a well out back.

The school’s student body is about 82 percent white, according to ProPublica, and only 23 percent get free or reduced-priced lunches. It’s not a magnet school, but it does have several students transfer in from neighboring communities each year, Dorman said.

Mangum is also one of few Durham public schools that doesn’t receive Title I funding — money given to schools with high numbers of children from low-income families — so Dorman said it leans on community partnerships and its parent-teacher organization for support.

Parent volunteers are always willing to help, she explained. Some parents like to come in before school to make copies of worksheets so teachers don’t have to. Others build stage decorations for the school play.

Dorman said the teachers are just as invested, as well.

Gwendolyn Dorman took over as principal of Mangum Elementary School in April. (Photo: Katie Nelson)

“We’re a community-based school,” she said. “Our teachers who teach here went to school here. They live in Bahama. Their children went here.”

The music teacher runs a music club for fifth grade students, for example, and the physical education teacher puts on a run-walk club on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for students and community members.

“Parents, grandparents, all kinds of people are out there on the track in the morning,” Dorman said.

“One thing the teachers do really well here is they provide students with a wide range of opportunities and they build background knowledge in a lot of different areas that they might not experience outside of school,” added assistant principal Tyler Steketee.

Inside the classroom, teachers balance preparation for the state’s year-end exams with engaging lesson plans. Dorman said Mangum’s is distinct from other elementary schools because it treats the fourth and fifth grades like middle school.

“We departmentalize our fourth and fifth grades,” Dorman said. “So if you’re a fourth-grade teacher, your job might be to teach math. You have three different classes that come to you for fourth-grade math.”

Other teachers specialize in English language acquisition and STEM, she said.

Dorman said departmentalization — a practice the school first tried out four years ago — lets teachers specialize in the subjects they’re most passionate about. It also gives them the chance to share the tactics and teaching styles that work for specific students.

For students, the practice limits the chance of having to spend all day with a teacher they don’t like.

“You get to go and you have to focus for an hour and a half, and then you get to change classes and go on to your next subject, Dorman said. “It very much prepares you for middle school.”

How reliable are the state’s performance grades?

North Carolina has been rating school performance on an A-through-F scale since 2013-14, when the Republican-led state legislature started the letter-grading system.

Schools are assessed on a 100-point scale, with 80 percent of the grade coming from the percent of students who pass exams and the other 20 percent factoring in year-to-year growth.

Supporters of the system say letter grades provide a simple way for parents, educators and community members to assess how various schools are doing. But critics say that the system tends to stigmatize schools in high poverty areas.

Lakewood Elementary Principal James Hopkins said the state standards are a valuable guide for assessing teachers, but the grading formula is “backwards” because it “can undermine efforts made in areas in North Carolina that have historically struggled to achieve proficiency, but have not struggled to meet growth.”

I think that the current model, the formula, does not help reflect what schools are doing,” he said. “I understand why the state wants to have grades, but I think the formula is flawed and it gives a very negative perception for schools like Lakewood.”

Related story: Lakewood and Mangum: Comparing Durham’s worst and best performing schools

Even as Lakewood received an “F” grade for 2017-18, it met its growth expectation, and Hopkins said a model that gives more weight to a school’s growth status would better reflect the learning happening in more disadvantaged classrooms.

“The way that its reflected in the paper is that Lakewood is a failing school,” he said. “To say that we are an F school I think deflates any additional efforts that we have made in trying to address some of our learning gaps with our students.”

Gwendolyn Dorman, principal of Mangum Elementary School,  agreed that test scores can be misleading, but said Magnum would score well even if the formula were flipped. “We’re definitely getting the growth that we need,” she said.

For better or worse, schools have to work with the system they’re handed, she said.

“There’s lots of research on whether tests are culturally biased,” she said. “And whether they are or aren’t, unfortunately we have to teach (students) for the test.”

At Forest View Elementary, a teacher who has seen it all but isn’t ready to retire

She’s still asking her question when the first hand shoots up. Within seconds, every student at the table has a hand in the air.

Sylvia Perry, 59, is used to this excitement from her students. She raises her eyebrows and nods to a girl in pink. The girl starts to reply, her voice a soft murmur. Then, questioning herself, she pauses.

Perry leans into the table, stretches her arm across it and gently pokes the girl’s forehead with a pencil. “I know you know this in that smart, pretty head of yours,” she says.

Speaking up this time, the girl says she lives with her parents and one sister, which is different from the many Pilgrims who formed larger families during the colonial period. Perry flashes a smile and tells her that’s a good answer.

The assignment this Monday morning is simple. The handful of students still in the classroom — those who haven’t been pulled for English as a Second Language tutoring or another related program — are instructed to read an original colonial text and look for ways the Pilgrims’ lives were like or unlike their own.

Perry, who’s been teaching for 38 years, says colonial lessons are always a favorite for the fifth-graders at Forest View Elementary School, a K-5 school south of Duke Forest on Mount Sinai Road. Many of them don’t know how the United States got started.

The student body is 36 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 21 percent black and 7 percent Asian, according to school statistics. Perry says her classroom last year represented 18 different countries.

“We are a very diverse school,” says Linda Foreman, an administrative specialist. “There is no racial or ethnic majority.”

By state standards, Forest View is an average school. In 2017-18, it met growth status and received a “C” for school performance. But the grades don’t tell the full story. The school is a melting pot of cultures with a distinctly large refugee population. It’s a unique spot with a young teaching staff.

Perry, who came out of retirement to join the staff six years ago, is the elder of the group — the veteran social studies teacher who has seen it all.


Perry speaks in a gentle tone and a southern accent that gives away her Memphis, Tennessee, upbringing. She’s petite, with glasses and blonde hair cut just short of her shoulders, but even the tallest children in her classroom seem to look up to her.

There’s 42 of them in total — two groups of 21 — and Perry says she knows them well by now. On a board on the wall, there’s a class contract she’s had her students create every year. It says teachers and students are expected to treat each other maturely, lovingly and patiently.

Perry was born into education, her mother an American history teacher and her father a professor of philosophy, but she found her own way into the profession when a college work study placed her in a teaching role for the first time.

By the time she arrived in Durham, she had earned a degree in special education and a masters in elementary education and spent 32 years teaching the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth grades in Tennessee. “I’ve taught in almost every concept,” she says.

Over the years, she has learned what works in the classroom. As her students return to her room after lunch, she greets each of them with a fist-bump-turned-peace-sign, a years-old move she calls the “Perry pound.” Even some of her first students, who have stayed in touch through Facebook, have told her they remember this move.

For the most part, she sticks to the basics. “My whole thing is kind,” she says. “I tell [my students] when they show up everyday that it’s a great day to be kind.”

She doesn’t fight the small battles, either. When students forget to return a pencil, she doesn’t mind. When a child gets upset with her, she connects that child to a counselor so he or she can air frustrations in private. But even that doesn’t happen often, she says.

“As long as you don’t lie to me and as long as you’re not mean-spirited, we’re going to get along fine,” she says.

Since coming to Forest View, Perry has taught exclusively fifth-graders. “This is kind of the year of organization before they go off and switch classes,” she says. Middle school is a big leap for some children, so she focuses on building good reading and working habits.

At one point during an individual reading assignment, a small boy in a thick Navy sweatshirt and jean shorts looks up from his reading. His hands tucked into his sleeves and his body slouched, he is evidently distracted.

Perry leans over his shoulder, her hands crossed behind her back. “I think a good strategy would be to go chapter by chapter and try to take two minutes for each one,” she says.

Later, another student raises his hand. “Do I have to read this part?” he asks, pointing to a line in his book.

“Yes, you always want to read the captions because that’s an important text feature.”

Perry worries that reading is becoming “a dying art,” so she reads out loud to her students at least once each day. In a typical year, her curriculum covers American history from the colonial period through the Civil Rights movement.

“I always do a huge Civil Rights unit,” she says.


Perry can remember exactly where she was in Memphis when, as a fifth-grader, she learned that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

“Civil rights was always a part of my life,” she says. “My father was one of the people who headed up the Sanitation Strike in Memphis. There were people in our basement making signs, and our house got egged all the time.”

That historical footing is important, she says, because so many of her students, including many African-American children, are getting their first exposure to American history from her.

“So many kids who, if they don’t have that heritage, or if the heritage is painful and they don’t talk about it — it amazes me how little is known about that struggle, when for people like me, that’s a huge part of my life,” she says. “I think sometimes they don’t realize their strong heritage and what was overcome, and the fact that it really wasn’t that long ago.”

“If they don’t know their history, it might repeat, and I don’t want that because I tend to believe that each generation should make it better.”

Perry doesn’t soften the horrors of slavery, either. Every year, she assigns readings from slave diaries and takes her students to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro. “I learned the whitewashed history,” she says, but her students get the full picture.

“Now we study the American revolution, but we read a book that talks about how the Patriots weren’t so nice to their Tory neighbors,” she says. “‘Nothing is all good and all bad,’ I tell them. Nobody is all right or all wrong, and there all some sadder things about our country.”

Sometimes, this history is hard to make sense of, especially for her refugee students who are still new to the country. But she tries to learn about their home cultures too so she can compare and contrast. The fact that some students may struggle is no reason to lower the bar, she says.

“I hold the bar high even for the kids that come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she says. “When we lower the bar, what we’re telling them is, ‘You can’t get there.’ I always tell them that I’ll scaffold, I’ll build, I’ll put in supports and we’ll get you there, but we won’t lower the bar.”


Others at Forest View have taken a liking to Perry’s progressive lesson plans and age-old tactics. Administrators don’t shy away from giving her tough assignments. “She’s a veteran who can roll with the punches,” says Forest View Principal Neil Clay.

“The diversity of this building is a unique experience for almost everyone, and of course what she brings … is experience,” adds Foreman, the school’s administrative specialist. “She’s just seen so much and been through so much. She’s a really good role model for younger teachers.”

Perry knows this. She says it’s part of what made her jump back into education in the first place.

“I’m kind of like a mother to the teachers,” she says. “I really kind of want to use all my expertise now, because I see so many young teachers who seem overwhelmed when they come in.”

“Clearly I could retire, and I don’t, because I like it.”

Durham public schools to close Thursday for Hurricane Michael

Durham public schools will close Thursday in anticipation of heavy rains from Hurricane Michael, school officials announced today.

“Due to the probability of travel conditions becoming unsafe during the school day due to Hurricane Michael, Durham Public Schools will be CLOSED to students and staff on Thursday, Oct. 11,” the district said in a statement.

All athletic events and extracurricular activities scheduled for Thursday have also been canceled.

The decision follows Superintendent Pascal Mubenga’s apology to the community for holding classes during Hurricane Florence, when torrential rains and a tornado warning turned a Monday morning commute into mayhem for parents, teachers and staff.

New foundation asks Durham residents to raise money for public schools

The state isn’t providing enough money for schools, so business and community leaders say it’s time for the community to pitch in.

They have started a foundation to raise money to support the public schools.

The new Durham Public Schools Foundation, which launched during August’s convocation, lets residents send tax-deductible donations to support the school system. Foundation leaders say the money could help schools pay for expenses the state’s funds cannot cover, such as student field trips or professional development for teachers.

The concept may seem strange, but the foundation puts Durham in line with other urban districts in the state that have set up similar nonprofits, including Wake, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Greensboro. Steve Unruhe, vice chair of the Durham board of education and one of the foundation’s first donors, said Durham used to have a foundation but got rid of it a decade ago after it “went south.”

Since then, the idea has regained popularity among district residents. “There’s been a lot of interest in supporting the school system and a lot of groups that support the school system in various ways,” Unruhe said. “But we’ve been really lacking a systematic approach to that and that’s what the foundation can give us.”

In its first month, the new foundation raised approximately $125,000 from more than 90 donors, said board member Magan Gonzales-Smith. Most contributions have been individual donations of less than $1,000, with the largest total to date coming from the Durham public schools system, according to the foundation’s “Supporters” page.

Gonzales-Smith explained that the school system made a one-time contribution of $70,000 in “early start-up funds” to help launch the foundation and that the group pledged to eventually invest more than $70,000 back into the school system.

“It is not uncommon that school districts provide funds at times to their local education foundation but ultimately the foundation contributes far more back to district schools,” she said.

She said foundation leaders are in conversation with several corporate donors who plan to give even more than the school system did. “We feel like it’s been very successful and we’re in a really good starting point,” she said.

But while the money is already rolling in, ideas on how to spend it are not quite as developed.

“It’s all going to depend on what we hear back from our communities,” Gonzales-Smith said. “It’s going to take us time to really get out there and hear what kinds of work is going to be most supportive to them. We just can’t say exactly what it is yet.”

Broadly speaking, the foundation is meant to boost enrollment and improve the education for students already there. As a result, much of the money will likely go toward developing Durham’s teachers, Unruhe said.

“There’s the simple and very concrete efforts to help teachers, so ways to have grants that teachers can apply for, support for teachers to design their own professional development, special projects, that kind of thing,” he said.

“One of the projects will certainly be to support teachers with their creative classroom ideas,” added Mayor Steve Schewel, an adviser to the foundation.

The money will also help pay for new student experiences, Gonzales-Smith said. “If a middle school in Durham wants to take their eighth-grade class to D.C. to see the Smithsonian and African-American History Museum, we would fund trips like that.”

Parents can expect to benefit from the money, as well. According to a fundraising solicitation, small donations between $25 and $1,000 could help provide translators or other language assistance for parents visiting their child’s school.

A foundation fundraising card outlines donor levels and says what each donation could fund (Courtesy: Magan Gonzales-Smith)

But the foundation’s biggest impact may be helping the school system tell its story, Unruhe said. “It’s very difficult to get the story of what’s happening in schools out to the community. We badly need our communities to know what the public schools are doing.”

“The role of the foundation is to help accelerate the great work that’s already happening,” Gonzales-Smith added.

The foundation will not overlap with service-oriented education nonprofits already in Durham, however, and it will not use its money to purchase school supplies or offer tutoring services. “That’s the job of the taxpayers directly,” Unruhe said. “This is a broader scale.”

Local education foundations have been around since the 1980s, explained Robin Callahan, executive director of the National School Foundation Association. Approximately 4,000 of the nation’s 12,000 public school districts now have foundations, she said.

“Education foundations are the fastest-growing nonprofit sector,” Callahan said. “Every week almost, I talk to a new community that is working on starting a new education foundation.”

The Durham group will be led by a 20-person board of directors comprised of parents, educators, government officials and business leaders, and receive guidance from a circle of six advisors, including Schewel, Durham superintendent Mubenga, former Mayor Bill Bell and state Rep. Marcia Morey.

The board will also be hiring a full-time executive director soon and putting together a list of “very specific measurable targets,” Gonzales-Smith said.

Information on how to contribute can be found at