'Defend Durham Schools' meeting planned Tuesday to discuss potential charter takeover

Parents, teachers and local elected officials plan to gather Tuesday evening for a meeting to "Defend Durham Schools." They plan to discuss ways to prevent the state from possibly taking one of Durham's lowest-performing schools and handing it over to a charter school operator.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe
DURHAM, N.C. — Parents, teachers and local elected officials plan to gather Tuesday evening for a meeting to "Defend Durham Schools." They plan to discuss ways to prevent the state from possibly taking one of Durham's lowest-performing schools and handing it over to a charter school operator.

The meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Lakewood Elementary School, one of the county's two schools being considered for the state's new Innovative School District. Glenn Elementary is the other school being considered. Organizers plan to hold a news conference at 5:30 p.m. and will open the meeting to the media. They previously planned to keep it closed. 

As of Sunday evening, about 70 people had signed up to attend the meeting and another 170 people expressed interest in attending, according to the group's Facebook page. The group also has a petition, which had garnered about 780 signatures as of Saturday evening, according to organizers.

Lakewood and Glenn are two of six schools in North Carolina being considered for the state's Innovative School District. The ISD will take five struggling schools from across the state and hand them over to charter school operators, who will manage and run them in an effort to improve their academic performance. The State Board of Education will choose two schools this year, likely in December, and three next year.

The schools being considered this year are:

  • Durham Public Schools – Glenn Elementary
  • Durham Public Schools – Lakewood Elementary
  • Nash-Rocky Mount Schools – Williford Elementary
  • Northampton County Schools – Willis Hare Elementary
  • Robeson County Schools – R B Dean Elementary
  • Robeson County Schools – Southside Ashpole Elementary

They are being considered because their performance scores are among the lowest 5 percent in the state.

Last week, Durham Public Schools' leaders said they are prepared to "fight" if the state tries to take control of any of their schools. But just because a district doesn't want to participate doesn't mean it will be removed from consideration. If a school is chosen and declines to participate, by law it must close its doors and shut down.

At their meeting last Thursday, Durham Board of Education members did not say whether they would shut down a school if it is chosen, but they promised to fight back.

"We’re going to fight it with every option that we have," said board Chairman Mike Lee. "If those in Raleigh are not familiar with Durham, get ready, because Durham is different. Durham is different from what you guys might be experiencing in other areas, and we’re going to prove that."

State education leaders say they don't want a battle, they want to partner with the schools and communities that are chosen.

"For me, this is not about a fight," said ISD Superintendent Eric Hall. "This is about really an opportunity to inform and educate our families and our communities across the state about the needs of our schools."

Hall met with Durham school officials last week and said they had some "great dialogue."

"I’ve really enjoyed engaging with the two schools in Durham ... enjoyed really the thoughtful conversations that I think took place with school leaders, the district leaders and with the local board chair," Hall said. "I think we’ve engaged in some good dialogue up to this point in trying to really understand the needs of the schools (and) some of the things that may have been contributing to some of the challenges."

Schools chosen for the ISD will be turned over to charter school operators, which means their local school boards will no longer have a say in the staffing, instruction or other educational matters at those schools. However, the school boards will still be responsible for maintaining the buildings, making sure they have the appropriate furniture and equipment and continuing to provide transportation for the students.

In a recent letter to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Durham Public Schools' leaders said they are already working "to design and pursue innovative strategies" to improve their low-performing schools and asked that they not be included in the ISD.

But Hall says the task he has "to stick to and stay focused on is, in the end, what do we need to do to ensure the success of the students and the schools. For me that’s going to be front and center," he said. "In a perfect world, it would be great of course if everybody was willing to participate."

Durham Public Schools' reaction to being considered for the ISD is not surprising. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest predicted the pushback last year, saying he expected "some turf wars" between the ISD and local school systems but said the "calculated risk" was necessary to help low-performing schools.

Hall, who became ISD superintendent in May, is hoping to avoid those turf wars and said he wants to work in partnership with local communities to help choose charter operators to take control of the schools.

"We will have a process to ensure that community voice and community representation is involved in that matching," he said. "My goal is not for us to just pick somebody from sitting here at the office based on an application. Our task is how do we look at what we know the school needs and what the values of that school community really are and match an operator that’s going to match those values."


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