Local News

Ask Anything: 10 questions with Durham schools Superintendent Carl Harris

Posted July 22, 2008
Updated October 28, 2009

1

What do you see in the future for Durham Public Schools? Would you wish to have more qualified teachers, more schools built, better teacher raises? – Cheryl Harrington, Durham

Durham Public Schools has a very bright future, thanks to the most supportive community around!

Last November, Durham voters overwhelmingly approved nearly $200 million to support the building of new schools and renovations and expansions to many existing schools. We are doing our very best to keep up with our community’s growth, and so far we are doing a good job of it. We are opening two new schools this year, and we have several more planned. Visit dpsnc.net/construction to learn more.

DPS is committed to having the best teachers we can possibly find – and supporting their work! We recruit not only from our own schools of education here in North Carolina, but from many states across the country. We have a greatly successful teacher mentor program that serves as a national model, and we offer hundreds of professional development opportunities for our teachers every year. We all know that our teachers deserve much more than they earn, but North Carolina has made great progress in raising teacher salaries over the years. We support this with a competitive local supplement.

2

Dr. Harris, what can be done to improve the image of DPS? We have three in the system that had been in private school before. We are absolutely thrilled with the education they are receiving. I know there are some challenges for DPS, but the opportunity is there for every student to excel. Why then, are people stunned when I tell them my kids go to DPS and I am proud of it? – Diana, Durham

It is always thrilling to hear from a satisfied parent, Diana, and I assure you I hear more and more stories like yours each and every day. Durham Public Schools has made tremendous progress over the last decade, and more and more people are talking about it. We are often, however, compared with our neighbors in Wake County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Being an urban district as we are, we face the same types of challenges as other urban school systems, and when compared to them, we are very favorable.

That said, we have significantly bolstered our communications efforts with parents and the community.

We have an award-winning Web site and a 24-hour cable TV channel. We have electronic newsletters to communicate with our parents, staff and community partners. We use a computerized phone system to regularly communicate with our parents. But most importantly, if parents like you keep spreading the good news about Durham Public Schools, others will see the quality of education we provide our students.

3

With all the money being generated by the "school lottery," why are parents still being asked by teachers to purchase supplies that less fortunate students cannot afford? – Kenneth Pittman, Durham

While we are grateful to receive some funding from the Education Lottery, it is earmarked for construction and K-3 teacher salaries, with no discretionary funds for supplies. State funds are inadequate in funding instructional supplies. DPS only receives $59.04 per student per year for this, and allotments have not kept pace with inflation. State technology funds are only $6.77 per student and textbooks are funded at $67.85 per student. Instructional supply funds, therefore, must be used to offset these and other deficit areas.

We are very fortunate to have generous community partners who often come to the aid of our less fortunate students by donating school supplies, backpacks and other needs. Two years ago, students from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill partnered to open the Crayons2Calculators teacher warehouse in downtown Durham. This is a wonderful collaboration that has provided tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of classroom needs for teachers at no cost.

4

With the large amount of ESL (English as a Second Language) students, how do you plan on keeping from "dumbing down" the rest of the students? I have grandchildren in three of the area's school systems and it seems that the level of studies that our 4th grade Durham student gets is considerably lower that the others. (Granville and Person counties). – Ken Foreman, Durham

We have found that our ESL students have mostly served to enhance the educational opportunities of their English-speaking counterparts. By the time they graduate, many of our students are bilingual whereas they might not otherwise have been. This will aid them in life and in their careers. Our students also have the opportunity to learn about other cultures. Durham’s diversity is one of its richest resources, and we celebrate that. We have a rigorous curriculum that challenges all students.

5

What is the purpose of the DPS television channel and couldn't those funds be put to better use equalizing facilities in each directional Durham Public Schools claims; especially when Durham already owns another propaganda channel? – Jason S., Durham

Surveys that we have conducted show us that the community wants Channel 4 and finds it to be very useful. It is a very important communications tool that features information on upcoming school events and activities, as well as showcases the many different educational, artistic and sports activities that make Durham Public Schools a great school system. It also serves a significant number of parents who do not have Internet access at home.

Many school systems have cable channels and they have found that their parents support their existence. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Gaston County, Guilford County, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth school systems all operate their own TV channels. Wayne County will add one this fall.

6

Hillside High School (like Durham's reputation) tends to get more publicity on anything negative and a lot of the positive things are not getting the same exposure. What do you plan to do to help change the perception of Hillside and bring more exposure to the great academic programs and achievements of its students? Hopefully that can help integrate the attendees. I am sure more students could benefit from the IB Program, but parents are not taking the time to get the facts because of negative rumors and gossip. Also, is there a plan to phase out Hillside High and make it just the New Tech School, similar to what happened with Durham High becoming DSA? – Tamika Perry, Durham

Under the leadership of Principal Earl Pappy, along with a supportive staff and community, Hillside High School has made great strides over the last few years. In fact, Class of 2008 graduates received scholarships to many outstanding universities, including Harvard, Duke, North Carolina Central University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.

You are right about the excellent International Baccalaureate program. We are working hard to spread the good news about that and the many great things going on at Hillside. In 2008 a record number of Hillside students completed the necessary courses and scored high enough on their exams to receive the highly regarded IB Diploma. We have the largest number ever of rising ninth-graders enrolled in this program for the 2008-09 school year.

The New Tech High School is its own school operating on the Hillside campus. There is no plan to “phase out” Hillside High. In fact, the growth at both Hillside High and New Tech High will require that New Tech eventually relocate to its own freestanding site.

7

I recently retired from the military and am very interested in becoming a school teacher. The problem is that I don't know where to begin. What recruitment resources could you point me to in order to get the ball rolling? – C. L. Brown, Raleigh

Durham Public Schools welcomes the invaluable experience gained from those who have had careers outside the classroom and now want to build on it by becoming teachers! Many of our lateral-entry teachers have found it to be a highly rewarding experience, and of course, countless students have benefited from the expertise they bring from their previous jobs and experiences.

If you have a bachelor’s degree you can become a teacher while working on your certification. Please contact Fred Williams, DPS executive director of Teacher Recruitment and Retention, 919-560-2298, for more information.

8

Dr. Harris, Everyone knows that southwest Durham has experienced rapid growth over the past few years. This has led to considerable crowding at our schools. What supports and programs are you considering to help deal with this at our schools. My main concerns are with retaining good quality teachers and ensuring that our children have a positive and enriching educational experience. When is it likely that a new elementary and middle school will be built in this part of Durham? Thanks for your consideration and attention to this matter. A concerned parent – Melanie Dubs, Durham

You are right, Melanie. The development in southwest Durham has really taken off, but the truth is all of Durham County is growing at a rapid rate. The recently passed bond referendum to which I referred in Question 1 will help to alleviate some overcrowding. The 2007 referendum will add space at several schools in the area, including Creekside Elementary. A new high school being planned will relieve overcrowding at Jordan and Riverside High Schools. Please take a moment to look at our Construction Web site to read about these and other plans.

9

Why aren't there textbooks available for all students within Durham Public Schools? My child is a student at Northern High School. During the past school year, two of her core classes were unable to provide the students with textbooks. There was a set of textbooks for use in the classroom only. Students were unable to take a book out of the classroom to work with or to study by. I quite frankly find this an unacceptable situation. As the new school is fast approaching, what can Durham Public Schools do to better serve our students? I await your comments. – Debbie Endsley, Durham

Every approved course in Durham Public Schools has criteria that determine the textbooks and other materials to be used, along with the number needed for each classroom. In addition to books assigned to students, some core classes have a classroom set on hand to allow the student to leave the book at home for studying, so as to avoid having to transport books.

Some non-core courses/electives require only a classroom set. If the teacher assigns homework that requires the use of a textbook or the student would like to take the book home for further review, the student may check out the book to take home for the evening. If a textbook is required for a course, then every student in that course should be provided one.

Every school has a Textbook Contact, usually an Assistant Principal who will be able to answer your questions. We encourage parents to contact this person at their child’s school with any questions regarding textbooks during the school year.

10

Before I get to my question, I should state that I am a graduate of Durham Public Schools and currently have three family members that are active DPS elementary teachers. I am aware of the successes, and have compassion for the challenges that your administration faces daily. That being said, my child is two years from entering Kindergarten in a Durham Elementary School district where the two closest schools each post greatschools.net ratings of 2 out of 10. What is your administration doing in these low performing communities to encourage parents and help these teachers? What is your administration doing to try and break the cycle of parents choosing alternative schools (Charter, Church, etc.) over DPS? It pains me to say that if my child were starting in the Fall, I would need a lot of encouragement. – RA, Durham

I think a better question is what aren’t we doing! One of the top priorities of my administration is to significantly increase parental involvement in our schools. We have created a Parent Involvement Coordinator position and we have introduced a litany of programs and activities to ensure that more parents take a strong interest in their children’s education. This is critical for schools with challenges to improve, and we are already seeing positive results.

We have teams of Central Services professionals who work very closely with the teachers in these schools to ensure that they identify students who need extra help and get them that help. As stated in Question 1, we are committed to finding the best teachers possible, and we provide them with mentors and professional development support.

Durham Public Schools is very fortunate to have a strong and supportive Board of Education. They have spent the last year intensively studying board reform, and as a result they have crafted reform policies defining Core Beliefs and Commitments for our district, and a new and detailed Vision Statement. Please visit dpsnc.net and click on Board of Education to review them.

We are using the Board’s renewed commitment to providing all students with the best possible education as the blueprint for our work. You will find the same level of passion among the principals, teachers and staff members in all of our schools. With this kind of dedication to serving our students, we are looking forward to our best school year yet!

ask anything - dmi

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10 Comments

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  • mramorak Jul 23, 2008

    Epiw,they wouldn't post those same questions i asked!

  • Epiw Jul 23, 2008

    Unfortunately, I was unaware of the opportunity to pose questions to Dr. Harris. However, I am surprised to see no questions directly addressing gangs, discipline, high turn-over rates and the gross achievement disparity among schools.

  • IdoNOTliveinDurham Jul 22, 2008

    "I was born and raised in Durham, too. It is definitely not the same in the last 10 or so years."

    Geeze what area in the triangle is the same it was 10 years ago.

  • Space Mountain Jul 22, 2008

    I'd love to ask him what happened to Durham around 1996 that caused the schools and most of the county itself to fall apart. Yes, there are good parts of Durham on the outskirts, but most of it has gown downhill since around 96. I was born and raised in Durham, too. It is definitely not the same in the last 10 or so years.

  • nodoginthisfight Jul 22, 2008

    His answers to the core textbook question is nothing new,but unfortunately this is happening statewide. His response to #4 well Durham has the largest influx of Latinos, illegal or not in the state. After all we are a very welcoming nation, we should learn their language and customs first and forsake ours. As for Hillside and their IB programme I know first hand a instructor who left there for another school in fear of his life, due to the gang problems in that school. We need to remember that Mayor Bell tells all that will listen Durham has no crime problem, yet per capita it hasthe same crime rate as Detroit

  • housemanagercary Jul 22, 2008

    I love the non-answer to question 4. Your kids may not learn math, science, history, or English, but at least they'll be able to speak Spanish! Nice spin.

    oh and don't forget learn about another culture...

  • seankelly15 Jul 22, 2008

    Darius - While I agree that the answers are canned - and after hearing Harris talk on numerous occassions, doubt seriously that he said any of this or wrote any of this - your comments about Durham as a crime-riden cesspool are out of line. I live in Durham and I have done so since 1988 - I like Durham. I don't see the 'crime-ridden cesspool' that you do. Are you a realtor that works in Raleigh? Out-of-towners seem to fuel such outlandish comments about Durham and the Durham Public Schools.

  • Tom Servo Jul 22, 2008

    I love the non-answer to question 4. Your kids may not learn math, science, history, or English, but at least they'll be able to speak Spanish! Nice spin.

  • sodo Jul 22, 2008

    "viewed from any angle, Durham is a crime-ridden cesspool". Seriously? I suggest that you get back on your meds. I grew up in Raleigh, went to school in Chapel Hill, and after being recruited back to NC my family and I chose to live in Durham and I LOVE it.

    There are great schools in SW Durham and in the Northern part of the county, and the suburban parents send their kids to them just like they do in Raleigh or Chapel Hill. There are absolutely schools to which I would not send my child, but the flip side is that if you live in one of these areas, Durham has the strongest network of private and charter schools in the Triangle. DA, Trinity School, Immaculata are all top notch.

    There is certainly some boosterism and politically-positive happy-talk in Dr. Harris's comments, but your characterization is unfair. He has a right to be upbeat given how fast things are evolving - it is a different place than it was 10 years ago.

  • Bon Viveur Jul 22, 2008

    This is a joke. These canned answers don't do anything to counteract the fact that you are more likely to wind up being cut by another student in Durham than anywhere else in the state. What sane parent would want to put their child in this flawed school system in this dangerous town? I'm sorry, but viewed from any angle, Durham, NC is a crime ridden cesspool.