Durham fires back at state over school takeover plan

Durham fires back at state over school takeover plan

- in Education, Top Story
Durham school board Chair Mike Lee told a gathering of parents Tuesday evening Durham was prepared to fight the charter takeover. (Photo by Billy Ball)

Two weeks, says Bryan Proffitt. That’s about how long he says Durham parents, educators and community leaders have to convince the head of North Carolina’s contentious charter takeover district that a takeover in Durham isn’t worth the fight.

“Can we beat one guy?” says Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators, an advocacy group for local teachers. “Yes, we can beat one guy.”

Clearly, the group’s efforts have already begun in earnest. The roughly 200 protesters, parents and neighborhood residents who turned out for a fired up community meeting at Durham’s Lakewood Elementary on Tuesday say they’ve racked up about 900 signatures on a petition for state leaders to keep the Innovative School District (ISD) out of the city’s schools.

Organizers say they’ve also dispatched nearly a thousand emails and phone calls to the office of ISD Superintendent Eric Hall.

“We will not allow this to define what our public schools are about,” said Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham Board of Education. “Get ready, because Durham is ready to fight.”

In the coming weeks, Hall is expected to put forth recommendations to the State Board of Education on at least two K-5 schools that will be absorbed in 2018-2019 by the state’s new charter takeover district, which aims to turn around student performance in some of North Carolina’s lowest-performing schools.

The district could turn over operations and staffing in lagging schools to for-profit charter management organizations, some of which lobbied for the controversial reform last year in the N.C. General Assembly. Charter management companies have yet to be selected, and would be chosen based on a history of academic performance, state leaders say.

At the time of Tuesday’s protest, two Durham schools, Lakewood and Glenn Elementary, were in consideration for the district, along with another four located in Northampton, Robeson and Nash counties.

However, Hall told state board members Wednesday that, because state law only allowed for one school per district to join the charter takeover model, Lakewood Elementary in Durham and R.B. Dean Elementary in Robeson County have both been dropped from consideration.

The remaining schools are: Glenn Elementary in Durham, Willis Hare Elementary in Northampton, Williford Elementary in Nash-Rocky Mount and Southside Ashpole Elementary in Robeson.

More than 100 packed Lakewood Elementary Tuesday night to oppose charter takeover. (Photo by Billy Ball)

While at least one Northampton official has indicated general support for the reform, some leaders in the Nash-Rocky Mount area say they might close a school before acceding to the takeover, the only option available to selected schools under state law if they do not wish to participate.

School closure was mentioned only in passing this week in Durham, with most gearing protests toward swarming state leaders in the coming days. Today, Proffitt compares the resistance efforts in Durham to “stepping on someone’s foot for two weeks straight.”

He says locals “aren’t buying” arguments from ISD supporters, including most Republican lawmakers and a handful of Democrats in the N.C. General Assembly, that they want to speed improvement in chronically lagging public schools situated in some of North Carolina’s poorest neighborhoods.

Indeed, at Lakewood and Glenn schools, approximately 99 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch last year, according to district data.

“The same people that did this drew (voting) maps that are racist and marginalize Black and brown communities,” Proffitt says.

Hall did not attend Tuesday’s meet, but the ISD superintendent told state board members Wednesday that “there’s a lot of confusion” in the state right now about the district.

Yet he argued the reform, which would also provide charter-like flexibility to struggling schools—something already offered in certain schools like Lakewood Elementary that participate in the state’s “Restart” model—would speed up new approaches to a longstanding problem.

“It has to be strategic,” Hall said. “It has to be intentional, and we have to constantly monitor to make sure that we’re driving better outcomes.”

Under state law, charter organizations would sign five-year contracts to run the schools, with yearly checkups on academic progress. Schools were chosen because they reported performance scores in the bottom five percent statewide and did not meet growth goals in at least one of the last three school years.

Hall said Wednesday that the remaining schools on his list reported “concerning” academic proficiency rates of about 20 percent or lower.

“We’re talking about one out of every four children being proficient,” he said. “That means we have three out of four who are not. If we have three out of four who are not proficient in reading at the third grade level, that’s going to create challenges over the long haul.”

Hall has also emphasized that he considers the district to be a “partnership” between state and local officials. Yet many who spoke this week in Durham scoffed at that notion, blasting the ISD as an unwanted “takeover” time after time.

“If our students and parents and kids don’t have a chance to weigh in, it’s a takeover,” said Proffitt.

Many questioned the accountability of the model, pointing out that parents can currently take their complaints about a local school to their board of education. But under the charter takeover, schools may be run by private, for-profit charter boards that do not answer to local voters.

And Durham locals pointed to middling results in other states such as Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan that have launched similar takeover models geared toward low-performing schools.

They also questioned whether it’s fair to choose schools based on the state’s controversial school performance grading system, often criticized for largely measuring raw scores over student growth.

“We’re not dumb,” one angry Durham parent said Tuesday. “We have different challenges.”

Meanwhile, Lee, with the Durham school board, said state lawmakers have badly under-funded public schools in the last decade, shortchanging local districts on classroom supplies, teaching assistants and teacher pay. The state’s per-pupil spending was projected to fall to 43rd in the U.S. this year, according to one national report.

David Vanié, the father of twins who attend Durham’s Glenn Elementary, complained that the charter takeover district will disproportionately impact minority students living in the state’s poorer communities.

“We’ve had enough of innovation and experimentation with Black and brown bodies in this nation,” said Vanié.

Despite the harsh criticism in places like Durham, state leaders have said they don’t expect local opposition to deter them from choosing any particular school for the takeover district.

And one of the reform’s primary backers, state Rep. Cecil Brockman, a High Point Democrat, told Policy Watch last week that his goal in supporting the ISD was to make a difference in minority-dominated schools.

Brockman says 66 percent of the state’s African American students are considered to be failing or not performing at grade level. “If that were the case for 66 percent of all of our students, we’d be talking about closing every school,” said Brockman. “It’s a crisis.”

Regardless of the controversy, Hall said he hopes the ISD debate will have a “ripple” effect in low-performing schools and districts across North Carolina, producing innovations and renewed focus on long-struggling areas.

“We’re finally having an intense conversation and we’re bringing forth a lot of passion about our kids,” said Hall. “To me, that’s a conversation worth having.”