Durham Public Schools Takes Small Steps Forward Where Giant Leaps Are Needed | Durham County | Indy Week
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Durham Public Schools Takes Small Steps Forward Where Giant Leaps Are Needed 

Durham schools are making small gains in student proficiency, according to data released last week by the Department of Public Instruction, but there's still much room for improvement, especially in already low-performing schools across the district.

In Durham County, 69 percent of schools met or exceeded performance targets set by the state, and the percentage of students at or above grade level at the end of the year—44.9 percent—increased by almost one percentage point. The percentage of students who are career and college ready—a higher level of achievement—rose as well, from 35 percent to 36.3 percent.

"It is progress," assistant superintendent Julie Spencer told the Board of Education last week. "[But] they are small steps, and we need giant leaps."

"We took some important steps forward last year in academic achievement," says Durham Public Schools Superintendent Bert L'Homme. "I'm proud of all of our teachers, principals, and staff who come into our schools every day committed to academic excellence for every child. But we will not be satisfied until we're making giant leaps ahead. Our question this school year is how we can not only maintain our progress, but accelerate it."

Third, fourth, and fifth graders all had gains in proficiency and college readiness, with the biggest jumps coming in math and science. Middle schoolers, meanwhile, saw mixed results, with sixth and eighth graders declining. Eighth graders, in particular, had a rough year, dropping in both reading and science. High school students improved in math and biology, though not in English. In 2016, of the 2,783 students tested in English, 46.4 percent were proficient, a decline of more than five percentage points from the previous year.

Durham continues to underperform compared to its neighbors. Nearly 68 percent of Wake County students, 62.2 percent of students in Orange County Schools, and 76.6 percent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools students test at or above grade-level proficiency. This has been an ongoing problem. Twenty-one of DPS's fifty-two schools were identified as low performing. Of those, twenty are "recurring low-performing schools."

That designation, school board member Natalie Beyer says, amounts to a scarlet letter that tells parents "nothing about the actual teaching and learning going on inside. ... The grades are nothing informative; they're just offensive. It's harmful to students, and it's harmful to [the effort to] try and recruit experienced educators into schools."

Indeed, DPS has persistent issues with teacher turnover. Between March 2015 and March 2016, 467 teachers left the school district, nearly one out of every five. That's actually a slight decrease from the previous year.

Many low-performing schools have a high percentage of their students—in some cases, 100 percent—on free and reduced lunch; many of their students are deemed "economically disadvantaged." A wealth of research has linked poverty to poor school performance, including a July 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics that found that, on average, children in low-income households have standardized test scores four to seven points lower than their peers.

DPS, obviously, can't control poverty. But the district is trying to address these poor-performing schools.

Most of what DPS is looking at is data-driven—using criteria like school climate, teacher turnover, attendance, dropout rates, and suspension rates to assess which schools are making progress; these reports will be released monthly starting in October. From there, the district will use "evidence-based practices" to create a "culture of high performance," according to the district's improvement plan. But the improvement-monitoring plan, which was released along with the test results last week, doesn't provide much in the way of details.

Over time, the district hopes to decrease suspension rates while improving student achievement and graduation numbers. This year, 82.1 percent of DPS seniors graduated, up from 80.7 percent last year; the statewide graduation rate in 2015 was 85.6 percent.

"We have an achievement gap in our schools that has been stubbornly persistent," says L'Homme. "Eliminating the gap will require a community-wide effort—our schools can't do it alone—but as a district we have to do more."

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