08/11/08 — Should Wayne be modeling Durham?

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Should Wayne be modeling Durham?

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 11, 2008 1:41 PM

DURHAM -- Durham Public Schools has not lacked in challenges in recent years -- a school board fraught with conflict regularly splashed across the news, 47 percent free and reduced lunch for the district and only 17 percent of the schools making adequate yearly progress this year.

But the seventh largest school district in the state has tried to develop a relationship with the community unlike any it has seen in the past, officials there say.

The district is one that Wayne County Board of Education Chairman Thelma Smith has pointed to as an example this county's school district could follow -- not only as it relates to community relations, but new programming ideas as well. Wayne County's board invited some Durham officials here to discuss some of the district's efforts last month.

Durham officials say getting to this point has taken a lot of community cooperation.

"Our superintendent has established a business advisory council and we've joined hands with our business community. We have reached out to the agencies, parents and others in the community," said Kay Williams, who handles public affairs for the school system.

One of the district's most successful initiatives has been the kitchen table conversations -- public forums for the community to come together and to work toward solutions to problems in the schools.

Minnie Forte-Brown, Durham's school board chairwoman, said collaboration is key -- with the entire community working to improve student achievement.

"That's our main work, our only work, to raise student achievement," she said. "To think that we can do that by ourselves is ridiculous. ... If at the core level we can engage our community to be part of that work, to buy into it, it will have us all on the same page."

Understanding comes through providing information, Ms. Forte-Brown said.

"We will try to educate our community -- what AYP is, what the standards are," she said. "Once your population understands the criteria that's in place -- the measures that you have, that they understand how the bar keeps changing and they move it (and that) it's not that your students aren't capable, or that your teachers aren't trying."

Meeting people where they are, responding to the needs, is also important.

"The hardest time for a kid is middle school, when parents are afraid, when students are afraid," Ms. Forte-Brown said. "We need to have a conversation, talk about what it is that happens in middle school. That was just one topic that we came up with that was well received (in the kitchen table conversations). We took that information and gave it to the Middle Schools Reform Committee."

Such outcomes have been beneficial, the chairwoman said.

"That (way) people know that they're involved from the bottom up, and then they can see it bubble up into policy," she explained.

Comparatively, Durham and Wayne County are quite dissimilar. Durham is the seventh largest school district in the state, while Wayne is ranked 20th.

Durham has 32,749 students enrolled in its 50 schools. Wayne's enrollment hovers at 19,000 for its 33 schools.

In recent No Child Left Behind test scores, though, Wayne excelled for the region, ranking second, with 56.7 percent of its schools making Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. Durham had 17.4 percent making AYP.

And yet to hear the Durham officials talk, they will readily say they are "blessed" -- with good relationships with the county commission and a community that understands, Ms. Forte-Brown said, that "education is purpose one."

But why wouldn't they be optimistic? Last year's bond referendum, a facilities bond, brought $194.2 million, with another bond anticipated in 2009. Shifts to accommodate student needs have produced a spate of magnet school concepts that all have waiting lists to get in.

Instead of seeing the glass as half-empty when it comes to test scores and failing schools, Durham leaders recognize they are in the "business" of education. One need look no further than the district's annual "choice fair" to see that.

"I would liken it to the Duke-Carolina football game -- getting a chance to see these programs, talk to principals and key instructional leaders," Ms. Forte-Brown said.

"You have parents there with children in strollers. They have their clipboards, they're shopping for schools," Ms. Williams said. "What we have tried to get across to principals (is that) parents are customers."

Parents are encouraged to look at more factors than just test scores, she said. That means talking to other parents, visiting other schools, seeing which is the right match.

Choice schools there include year-round, magnet, small high schools that range from a City of Medicine Academy focusing on health and sciences, to a New Tech High School, School of Engineering, early and middle college concepts, even a school located in a shopping mall.

Each is accredited, and each boasts a waiting list, the officials said. But there are no plans to expand the smaller versions.

"Those schools will only have 400 max., that's the nature of it," Ms. Forte-Brown said.

To be successful, however, requires building partnerships to support the education system.

In Durham, officials say they are fortunate to have a positive relationship with their county commission.

"Our county commissioners are very supportive, and we don't go to them with outlandish requests," Ms. Wiliams said. "We work with them on the budget to reach an agreement."

"It has strengthened because we are looking at a superintendent who desires a sustainable budget," Ms. Forte-Brown added. "We aren't frivolous, we don't go in with these great lists. We talk to each other. We meet every month, the chairman of each board and county manager and city manager, to talk about what it is we need."

Involving parents in the schools is essential to achieving success, she said.

"They send us their children so they have to believe in what it is that we do," she said. "We all want our children to be successful, every parent wants their child to be successful.

"We all have that in common, that we have these children that we have to nurture to be successful. The school can't do it by themselves.

"Just as they say, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' the added paradigm is, it takes a community to close the gap."