By most measures, Durham Public Schools are on the rise. The graduation rate went up 3.1% last year, up to 77%. Forty-five schools showed increased proficiency on state tests, up from 26 schools the year before, and test scores are up pretty much across the district. And there were no schools in the district deemed "low-performing" by the state.
But much is left to be done. While DPS gets a bad rap unfairly in some cases - its graduation rate is only a few percentage points behind Wake County's, for example - many Durham students continue to struggle. Fewer than 60% of 3rd-8th graders were proficient in reading last year, for instance, well below the state average.
Superintendent Eric Becoats sat down with Durham Magazine Editor Matt Dees to discuss the improvements and the problems, and what the district has done and plans to do to keep the positive trend going.
DM: I'm sure you hear the apprehension some parents have about public schools in Durham. What would you say to parents who are considering DPS but may have some misgivings?
EB: I think first you have to understand who your child is and what you want for your child. If you know that your child has special gifts and abilities in a certain area, there may be programs that we have that could best suit your child. (Click HERE for a wealth of information on Durham magnet schools.) For example, at the elementary level we have arts programs. We also have an International Baccalaureate program on the elementary level, which then feeds to an IB middle and high school. The other thing I always tell parents is everyone’s experience. Matt may tell Eric about his experience, that doesn’t necessarily mean that will be Eric’s experience. So Eric needs to go and take his child to investigate the school for himself. There are some people who have not been in the schools, so they’re basing their statements off of old information. I always encourage parents to visit the school, meet the principal, see how the school is run. We do have lots of choices for families. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You may have some families who may want a year-round school, families who want their child to be in a Montessori program. The great thing about that is Montessori can start at the pre-K level. Some other districts will charge you to enroll in a pre-K Montessori program. We do not. You have a school like R.N. Harris, which is integrated arts and core knowledge. So I think we have a variety of program offerings for people to explore and see which is best. There are many parents who will look at all that and say, 'I just want my child to be close to home at the elementary level. Maybe at the middle school level we can look again at magnet programs.' At the high school level, we have significant magnet options. We have Pathway programs.
DM: Which are?
EB: Most of them are career education. At Jordan, for instance, you have Plant, Animal and Natural Resources. That’s a pathway, or theme. Hillside has the Business and Finance Academy. Riverside has a program that focuses on engineering and technology. You also have your smaller high schools, like Hillside New Tech, Early College at North Carolina Central, the Middle College at Durham Tech, which starts in the 11th grade. The thinking is when you go and finish the program, you’ll have enough credits for an associates degree. As a parent you may be saving two years worth of college expenses. You talk about options. We are trying to do more in terms of getting the word out, making families aware of the options they have. The Board of Education just recently approved some additional magnet programs that will be starting in the 2013-14 school year. We will be opening a Creative Studies academy for grades 6-12. So, again, if you want your child to be in an environment that’s small, nurturing, that’s an option as a parent. You can say, ‘OK, my child will be going into this school in grade 6 and will be there until they graduate.’ For some families, that’s satisfying. We’re opening up a year-round language academy at Holt.
DM: Students will be learning multiple foreign languages there?
EB: Yes, at least two. And then you have Neal, which has been designated as a magnet school with a STEM focus – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. And now Southern will be called the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.
DM: So let me ask how that works. If you’re in the Southern district this year, but say you don’t want to get on that track, do you have to go somewhere else?
EB: What’s happening is we’re phasing that in. For incoming 9th and 10th graders, you will choose a strand underneath that umbrella of energy, sustainability and/or engineering, and that will be your strand for four years. We’re still providing the option to attend the school if they live in that area, as well as those who want to participate in that content area or focus.
There are some magnets that have a priority area or walk zone.
DM: How do you respond to criticism that magnets may divert resources away from traditional schools?
EB: I don’t particularly believe that they do divert resources. One of the things we’ve done since I’ve been here is make sure there comparable offerings in the arts [at every school]. We’ve tried to be very specific with the support and financial resources provided to each school. Montessori costs more, for example, because of some of the furniture and equipment you have to purchase. That’s part of the program. Students spend more time exploring on their own, and there are different manipulatives in a Montessori school, particularly in the early grades, that are a part of that. So, while that costs a little bit more, it’s more driven by the program. Another example is the engineering program, where there’s certain equipment that you’re going to need to get the basics of the program. Does that pull resources away from another school? I would say no, because that school’s focus is engineering, and you have to have certain things in order to provide the benefit of that experience. I do think you will have in different situations different cost-per-student figures based upon the program. What we try to do is look at the need and provide resources based upon the need. I think that’s a fair thing to do if you’re trying to run a school system of this size.
DM: Do you think you’re succeeding in that, that everyone’s getting exactly what they need?
EB: I think we are with the resources that we have. Yes, we could use more resources. We find lots of our students who come to us have needs that have not been met. So in some instances you have children who are entering kindergarten who have never picked up a book, they’ve never had a book, they’ve never been in an educational environment. So, on Day 1, those students are already behind. So now it’s our responsibility to get that student to where we think they should be, plus more. We’re taking the child where the child is and trying to move the child ahead with the right supports.
DM: You recently got good news on the test score front. To what do you attribute those successes?
EB: In 2010 when I came to the district we spent time with the community asking the questions: What do you want Durham Public Schools to be? What do you expect? What should we stop doing? What should we keep doing? Thus, we developed the strategic plan, One Vision. One Durham. We’ve been working toward meeting targets and goals in that plan. We’ve also done things that support the academic piece of that plan. Once you lay out a vision that’s been done in conjunction with your community, you can then bring people around that common vision and move toward meeting it. I’m not only talking about your teachers, your parents, your students, I’m also talking about the business community, elected officials, the Chamber of Commerce, the faith community, all of them have a role in the success of your school district. That’s what I attribute the success to. One of the things I’ve said since I’ve been here, and I’ll always say it, is that you cannot effectively move forward public education unless you have the community involved in the solution.
DM: What's an example of a group that's helped?
EB: Look at the East Durham Children’s Initiative. They have really wrapped their arms around families who live in a particular zone, which happens to benefit Y.E. Smith Elementary. You have parent advocates in place. You have people like Michael Goodmon at Capitol Broadcasting who provide support at Neal Middle School.
DM: What else besides community involvement has driven the improvements?
EB: We’ve paid focus. We know who the students are who we need to continue to move. We know who the students are who we need to continue to challenge. My goal is that if you’re in school for one year, you should be growing at least one year, at a minimum. Our focus is on growing our students, and there are two ways in which the state assesses where you are. You look at how students are growing compared to last year, then you look at whether your students are proficient. (Ed. Note: Gonna paraphrase a bit here. There are four levels of proficiency, called achievement level. A Level I student is deemed to not have “sufficient mastery of knowledge and skills in this subject area to be successful at the next grade level.” Level II means a student demonstrates “inconsistent mastery of the subject. Level III students demonstrate consistent mastery and are ready for the next grade level. Level IV students demonstrate “superior mastery.” Obviously, the goal is to get more kids at Levels III and IV.)
The state determines based upon the students you have in your school what you need to do to meet growth and then what you need to do to meet high growth. You can grow students within Level I and II, but you still are not proficient. By the same token you can have every single student at Level III and Level IV, but they don’t improve their scores, you won’t show growth, you’re not moving them along the spectrum.
DM: How do you respond to the charge that all this focus on scores just leads to "teaching to the test"?
EB: I don’t look at that being any different as taking a driver’s license exam. When I go to do that, there are certain things that I need to know in order to be prepared for that, what do I do? I study the things I need to know. It doesn’t mean I don’t learn other things, but I do need to know this at a minimum. What I would like to see is teachers who are being creative, and I think Common Core will allow for that. It will allow students to be more, if you will, thinkers. I know people have said that students are memorizers but can’t think critically about the why or the how. I think Common Core’s [Ed Note: Read on for more on Common Core.] going to move us more toward that. But the test or the exam is a focus because you know it’s coming. It does not mean as a teacher you can’t go above and beyond that.
I do think that there is a heavy focus on a test or an assessment. I think that’s because there have been groups of students who have not, for whatever reason, fared well on various exams. So you move to this, 'OK, let’s make sure we’re assessing and testing all of our students.' And I think in some instances that has become the test, the test, the test, the test, the test. I understand that that’s there. I want to make sure we’re producing students who are capable of going out into the world and be effective citizens. So while I may be proficient on an exam, I still need to learn how to work with, get along with, cooperate with, collaborate with a Matthew Dees. That is what you learn, I think, in a diverse environment, in a public school. I think those things are taught throughout the school day, though they may never be assessed. They get assessed when you become a grown adult and see how you’re functioning.
Truth be told, no one likes a bad score, and there are a lot of parents who use test scores as a barometer to make determinations about a school. On the other hand you hear people say, 'Well, there’s too much focus on the test.' Well, which one do you want?
DM: I wanted to get to that. I just sat there and looked at all the scores of all the elementary schools. And I thought, what is this really telling me? What do you think of using test scores as a barometer?
EB: I don’t think you can use a test score as the sole source of determining how a school is performing. I think it’s one measure. I think it measures what students did on a particular day at a particular point in time on a particular exam. There are other factors that can be considered in terms of a student’s progress.
DM: What’s an example of that?
Well, if you’re an artist, how do I determine if you’re a great artist? Now we’re moving toward measures of student learning. You have your non-core subjects in which we will be determining and/or assessing how you’re doing in those subjects, things like the arts. I think we all want to know what determines whether a school is good. That’s when you have to go and examine it for yourself.
DM: Tell me more about Common Core and the impact you think it will have.
It’s really dealing with English/Language Arts and Math, instead of being so wide and trying to cover everything, I think the focus is more on going deep and providing more rigor for students. It’s not just the memorization of facts. How do you take this information and apply it to real life. You have $30 and are going to the amusement park. The games cost X amount, food costs X amount, how do you spend that money to do what you want to do? You have to use your thinking skills still utilizing math concepts but critically thinking. It will allow our students to be able to compete a little bit better in the marketplace. It is a shift, because students guide more of their learning. It’s the project-based learning approach. The teacher is more of a facilitator of your learning.
DM: When will this be implemented?
This is the year of transition. We’ve been training our teachers.