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Shades of Gray 

The recent debate over the leadership of Hillside High has sidestepped the real issues facing the Durham school

Durham resident Cecil Sharrock is proud of his son's school. Students there win scholarships for their science prowess, travel to Japan to put on plays and get accepted to great colleges. Alumni are involved in school activities and occupy prominent positions in the local community. Many students, teachers, graduates and parents respect their school and consider it successful.

But you won't find those facts listed under the state report card for Hillside High School, where Sharrock is the incoming PTA president. End-of-course test scores, SAT averages, and many other broad-brush statistics might lead to the conclusion that Hillside is a place for failure.

Hillside's negative image means students have to leave Durham to feel good about their school, Sharrock told the school board recently.

"When we travel, they love and respect us," he said. "But when we come back home to Durham, we are looked at as trouble."

Hillside supporters acknowledge there are some real problems at Durham's historically black high school, which has been operating for more than 100 years. They know their school isn't perfect. But it's theirs.

At least, they thought so, until Durham Public Schools Superintendent Ann Denlinger announced plans to transfer Principal Richard Hicks out of the office he has occupied for 15 years.

Denlinger declines to comment on the situation. But she's said previously that Hicks is being transferred because an internal investigation revealed he had changed the grades of three students at the request of their parents, and allowed 259 others to receive credit for courses in which they missed more than 15 classes.

Hicks, who has retained an attorney, chooses not to talk about his job status. But his supporters accuse Denlinger of using the investigation to justify removing him because he challenges her authority. Hicks' backers say grade changing is routine at other Durham public schools, and that Hicks has a track record of standing up for students regardless of official policies.

Although Denlinger does not need board approval for the transfer, the superintendent, who is white, has the backing of the school board's four white members--at least one of whom has criticized Hillside as "under-achieving" during Hicks' tenure. Hicks, who is black, draws his support from the board's three black members, many of Durham's black residents and several vocal white parents.

The controversy swirling around Hicks' removal has been painted as black and white: superintendent vs. principal; a choice between low test scores or a new leader. But taken in the context of Hillside's history, broken promises by school and business officials, and policies that enable white flight, the portrait takes on many shades of gray.

Coleman Moore, who chairs Hillside's site-based decision-making committee--which opted not to participate in a search for a new principal after Denlinger's announcement--says the key issue is community control.

"Here was a man the parents had always looked to to provide strength to their children," he says. "All of a sudden, he was going to be replaced and the reasons for replacing him were murky. They were shocked to discover they didn't have a voice."

Lost in the public power struggle between Hicks and Denlinger is recognition of Hillside's long and highly visible place in Durham's African-American community. Through desegregation and the merger of the mostly-black city and mostly-white county school systems in 1992, Hillside has remained a touchstone for many black city residents.

Many of Durham's prominent black leaders attended Hillside--as did their parents and as do their children--and supporters are proud of the school that was once considered one of the finest black high schools in the state.

"Any time there's a threat to smear that legacy, you can expect a large, vocal reaction," says Deborah Giles, a former county commissioner who graduated from Hillside in 1964. "It was all we had, and we used it to its full advantage, and we're not going to tolerate it being spoken about in a negative way."

Many current students feel the same.

"My whole family went to Hillside," says junior Laila Muhammad, who has participated in protest and lobbying efforts to retain Hicks. "It is heritage to me."

There's another side to that heritage--one that hasn't gotten much attention in recent media coverage of Hicks' ouster. Since the school merger, supporters say, Hillside has experienced a series of broken promises and policy changes that have kept enrollment and resources low.

With 941 students as of March, Hillside's state-of-the-art, $26 million building is only 60 percent occupied, while other Durham schools overflow. But hundreds of parents who live within Hillside's district routinely transfer their children to other high schools. Under school district policy, parents can choose other schools by enrolling their children in a "center of specialization" such as health sciences or international studies.

Parents can also request special permission to transfer, and a proposal now under consideration by the school board would make that process even easier. Several current school board members were elected on campaign promises of greater parental choice. But Hillside supporters note that policy drains the population of affluent white students who live in their school's district--most of whom transfer to nearby Jordan High.

In addition to students transferring out, dozens of other families whose children complete the middle-school component of the International Baccalaureate magnet program at Shepard Middle School--the feeder program for Hillside's IB program--opt not to transfer in. Only a handful of Shepard eighth-graders go on to take advantage of the IB program at Hillside, which was part of the overall "model school" program planned as part of the 1992 school merger.

The Triangle J Council of Governments spearheaded the model school project, pledging up to $6 million for technology, teacher training and other academic support at Hillside. But while the school opened in the fall of 1995 with some high-tech infrastructure such as computer wiring in the classrooms, very few special programs or support systems were in place.

After Triangle J's Chairman Herb Stout, who'd championed the project, died suddenly in 1992, the new leadership dropped it, says Jane Litton, whose job as the educational coordinator for Triangle J was eliminated in 1996. "With Herb gone, the money and the impetus to do it no longer flowed," she says.

For Hillside students and supporters, the message was clear.

"That was a promise not delivered," says Giles, whose daughter graduated with Hillside's Class of 1990. "If that plan had been implemented as it was designed back then, I don't think we'd be having this conversation, because the programs would be in place and more parents would be sending their children there, and supporting the school."

The system's lack of commitment to Hillside bears on discussions of school standards.

During her four-year tenure as head of the Durham school system, Denlinger has focused on raising academic standards for all students. "We believe the best way to eliminate a gap in achievement levels is not simply to close it, but indeed to 'raise the floor' for everyone," she wrote in a "superintendent's message to the community" last fall.

But Hillside supporters say her focus overlooks past funding inequities and the current needs of their school's students.

"Support for the school does not mean support for lower academic standards," says Giles. "Some of these kids are living with horrific home situations, and not showing sensitivity to that is not being realistic."

Michael Page, one of the district's three black school board members, agrees.

"Meeting the needs of these kids means responding to concerns from the community," he says. "Mr. Hicks is dealing with a population of kids who need special attention. Can we fault him for that?"

Hillside supporters say Hicks' higher-ups misuse statistics to indict him--and the school. They argue that any data, taken outside Hillside's unique context, paint only a very small corner of the picture.

For example, Hillside's average SAT score for 1999-2000 was 883. The state's "ABCs of Public Education" report includes only one SAT score, the schoolwide average, which in Hillside's case ranks it at the bottom of Durham's six high schools and 111 points below the district average.

But more detailed examination shows that Hillside's black students outperform black students at three other Durham high schools, with an average score of 868 points--seven points higher than the district average for all black students.

Hillside supporters point out that standardized tests generally favor affluent white students, so a predominantly middle- or high-income white school will score higher than a predominantly low-income black school--and national research backs them up.

One such study, compiled by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, promotes measuring school success by tracking progress within a school from year to year, rather than making comparisons across schools.

When that measure is used, a different picture of Hillside emerges. For example, the state ranked Hillside as "meeting expectations" in 1999-2000 and as "exemplary growth" the previous year. Even though fewer than 50 percent of its students met state standards in seven of 10 subject areas in 1999-2000, they were still found to be improving from year to year.

"None of us, black or white, disagree with being better," notes Sharrock, whose son is a sophomore. "We just disagree with the idea that we aren't already very good."

Since Denlinger's February decision to transfer Hicks, his supporters have lobbied the school board, picketed, threatened to derail a $52 million school-bond issue this fall, cried for justice and just plain cried. But they haven't changed the superintendent's mind.

Last week, Hicks presided over what will likely be his last Hillside graduation. Surrounded by parents and blue-and-white-clad graduates showering him with hugs and flowers, he praised his students. He called for more resources for his school and lamented critics who tout the school's negatives and ignore its successes.

"If the state ABCs program is how you measure success and we've done it, what else can you ask for?" Hicks asked.

Over the next year, a committee will study what's next for Hillside. In the meantime, parents, teachers, students and alumni say they will continue to celebrate the many hues of their school and keep their focus on the issue of community control.

"We are a family united," Anne Slifkin, a white parent of a freshman in Hillside's IB program, told school board members recently. "We are a family that cares for all of its members. This is not a racial issue." EndBlock

  • Some key issues have been overlooked in the swirling debate over the leadership of Durham's Hillside High School.

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