"She is doing what is right for the children, and if you come along with her or not, well, that's up to you," says the Rev. Michael Page, the black school board member who organized the Saturday session to engage African-American ministers in helping the schools close the achievement gap. "She's been looking for people to get behind her."
Black support has been elusive--and the lack of it divisive--since Denlinger was appointed on a split vote of the school board in January 1997. The four white board members chose the former Wilson superintendent, who is white, over a high-profile black candidate from Ohio who received the support of the three black members and Durham's two prominent black groups, the NAACP and the Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Those two groups erupted in protest at Denlinger's appointment and have punished her ever since. Racially charged controversies such as the ever-changing leadership of Hillside High School and rising suspension rates for black students have fueled their criticisms. Meanwhile, the white business community's stalwart defense of Denlinger has contributed to the two black group's complaints of disenfranchisement.
But last month, in a carefully orchestrated public relations coup, a group of black ministers led by the Rev. Carl Kenney and the Rev. Jimmy Hawkins stood side-by-side with the superintendent to praise her plan to close the gap between white and minority students' performance by 2007. They gave more than lip service; a group of pastors have agreed to get directly involved by launching church-based tutoring, mentoring, after-school programs and other projects that will enlist the help of their congregations, starting with the training session this week.
"You have the beginning of the identification of a different black voice in Durham," says Kenney, a longtime critic of the black establishment leadership, including NAACP President Curtis Gatewood and Durham Committee Chairwoman Lavonia Allison, Denlinger's harshest detractors. "There are people who want to move forward with solutions to the problems, rather than recycling all this old song and dance."
The particular problem that generated Denlinger's 132-page "Closing the Achievement Gap" plan earlier this year stems from the long-standing discrepancy in test scores between white and black students. Ninety-three percent of Durham's white third-graders could read at or above grade level last year; only 65 percent of black third-graders could. Math statistics carry a similar pattern, with 93 percent of white third-graders scoring at or above grade level last year, while only six out of 10 of their black peers did.
Denlinger's plan calls for initiatives aimed at key areas: improving middle school academics; helping all students prepare for college, not just top achievers; restructuring Hillside High School; and beefing up the English as a Second Language program.
Her proposed strategies to accomplish those goals include a variety of opportunities for community involvement, such as a tutoring/mentoring plan for black students patterned after an Atlanta program called "100 Black Men." That program enlists adult role models to slow the funneling of black male students into "special education" programs because of poor academic performance and behavior problems.
Community-based programs, as well as the call for parents to get more involved in their children's education, are areas where the leadership of Durham's black churches plan to step up to help close the gap.
The new partnership between the superintendent and the ministers--brought on by effort on both sides--signifies a long-overdue change in Durham's education politics, organizers say.
For her part, Denlinger has been more willing to ask the black community for help. "She's more open and willing to meet in the middle," Page says.
For their part, the ministers marshaled a large group at a September press conference to announce their participation, and have withstood a scathing backlash from leaders like Gatewood, who castigated the group for "hypocritically grandstanding." "People are trying to find another place to serve, to be heard and to be involved," says Kenney. "We're beginning to have a groundswell and a shifting political landscape."