Education

Durham schools seek to improve student performance

Posted April 27, 2010 5:21 p.m. EDT
Updated April 27, 2010 7:11 p.m. EDT

— The Durham County Board of Education passed a resolution Monday to implement a plan to help improve student achievement in the district's schools.

The reform would group schools into three categories of performance, and low-performing schools could face closure if they don't improve within three years. In some cases, staff in those schools would also have to reapply for their jobs.

"This is not about getting rid of staff. It is really about accelerating the achievement," said Stacey Wilson-Norman, Durham Public Schools' assistant superintendent of elementary curriculum and instruction.

The plan, which will be based on input from school system staff, teachers and principals, is still being drafted, and schools haven't yet been categorized.

Last month, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has long overseen academic performance in the state's public schools, ordered school officials in Durham, Guilford and Forsyth counties to report to him what steps they are taking to ensure all students are receiving quality classroom instruction.

According to his order, data from the state Department of Public Instruction shows that 15 of Durham's 29 regular elementary schools had reading proficiency scores below 50 percent in kindergarten through the second grade. More than 60 percent of third-graders in those schools were not proficient on end-of-grade tests.

Four out of nine regular middle schools in the school system also had reading proficiency scores below 50 percent.

The schools' failure to prepare children for reading and math by third grade is linked to the school's failure to properly use and implement assessment scores appropriately, Manning wrote.

Wilson-Norman said the school system had been working on a plan prior to Manning's order, but that having to go before him made school officials reflect even more.

"We would have to say that this has been a piece in helping us look even more critically," she said.

Its purpose is to provide strategies for schools in each performance category to raise levels of achievement.

In low-performing schools, officials will provide direct oversight and support, assisting with hiring and professional development. The plan will also affect district office staff.

"Really, in this process, it's not blaming anyone," Wilson-Norman said. "We all have a role in the performance of our schools, and we all have a role in making sure our schools get better."

Hillside High School's new principal, Hans Lassiter, likes the idea of having consequences.

"This sort of ultimatum, this sort of absolute statement – 'succeed or else' – may be the catalyst for positive change," Lassiter said.

Hillside is one school Manning has previously threatened to close because of low test scores.

The school has made some steady progress toward academic proficiency but continues to struggle. Lassiter expects the school to be placed in the low-performing category of the system's plan.

He thinks students and parents also need to be held accountable.

"I like it," Lassiter said. "It will give our community, our student body, our staff the sense of urgency that we need to pool our resources and focus in one area."