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Posts tagged as “Durham schools”

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  

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.

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