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New parent effort seeks to share the positive buzz about Durham schools

Durham's image and reputation have been on the upswing in recent years, and the bad old days when co-workers and relatives would look at you askance if you mentioned a Bull City move have largely abated.

For most categories of new residents, that is. If you're a parent of school-age children and you run in certain crowds, you still can get the occasional questioning.

We've explored the reasons for this here plenty, and most of it boils down to the fact that Durham is a diverse community supporting everything from magnet and IB programs for the most academically-inclined to alternative and intensive school programs for those who haven't been advantaged by birth or family income. 

And as a community that's in many ways more diverse than its neighbors, those deceptive bottom-line numbers on sites like GreatSchools.net in our insta-feedback society give an impression that's too often wrong -- or at least different than what you'd get if you asked Actual Real Live DPS Parents what they think.

It's a problem that bothered Durham parent Elizabeth Tolman. And she's decided to do something about it.

Tolman and the Durham Allies for Responsive Education (the group springing out of this fall's "Concerned Parents" movement) are launching Strong Durham Schools, a project to get the word out about the positive experiences and outcomes within DPS.

As Tolman explained it when announcing the initiative:

I will recount a conversation I had with a friend just last week. My friend, who sends her child to a private school, told me, "I got a call from Maureen the other day. She and her husband are living in an apartment in Durham and are planning on buying a house. They'd love to stay in Durham but will probably move to Cary or Morrisville because she hears that the schools here are terrible." Such conversations both raise my blood pressure and fill me with sadness. Unfortunately they occur all too often.

If you're like me, you have a child attending a school in Durham and despite the recent flap over Reading Street, you've been happy with the education your child is receiving. You're tired of hearing all the negative comments and wish there were a way of broadcasting the true nature of your child's school without sounding like some kind of modern-day hippie. Now there is!

One of [DARE's first projects] is to create a Website for the parents of prospective DPS students filled with comments from parents and teachers from every school in DPS. What better way to find out about a school than to discover what parents' and teachers' actual experiences are? I would have loved to have had access to such a resource when I was first looking at the schools. It would have reassured me greatly to know that the schools I was considering for my child were filled with wonderful, caring teachers (as are your children's schools) and happy, successful students. 

To gather the stories, Strong Durham Schools has launched an online survey (http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Y6WDFNN) and is encouraging parents, teachers, and former and present students to fill out the form to share the positive stories they have of their children's educational experiences.

Those stories will be shared on the web site as it launches. 

Tolman promises a blitz to the public once the site goes up -- including both traditional and social media, but also outlets like preschools, day cares, real estate agents, and neighborhood associations.

Those 'on the ground' outlets are the places where prospective residents and new parents first get socialized about schools, and where all too often the water cooler buzz about schools becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. ("Well, I don't know about the Durham schools, but my co-worker's wife told me that her friend had heard....")

So, if you've got a story to share -- visit the web site and submit your thoughts.

Here's one sample submission, from a Durham parent:

When we started at Parkwood four years ago, it was in a period of leadership transition.  Since Dr. Rita Bongarten came to Parkwood about two years ago, the school's performance has improved dramatically, both in terms of scores and overall academic environment.  Our family has been extremely pleased with our experience there.  We have one child who receives EC services and another who receives AIG services, and we've been pleased with the teachers' abilities to individualize their instruction based on the varying needs of the children.  I have always felt that the teachers truly wanted to meet my children's needs and were willing to try new techniques to help them succeed, particularly my child who has an IEP. I like Parkwood's emphasis on rewarding good behavior, and I'm pleased when a teacher reports to me that my child has done something well, even if it's a small thing.

Comments

Jennifer Minnelli

Thank you for reporting on this! It's time to shine a little light on the wonderful aspects of DPS, even as we try to help support the system where it breaks down.
Jennifer Minnelli
proud DPS parent

Jill

Another proud DPS parent here- my child began Kindergarten this year and we couldn't be happier with her school and teacher. I have heard many people scoff at DPS without having any real information about the schools. I applaud this effort to get the word out about the great things going on in our Durham Public Schools.

Jim

As a Durham resident with no kids, I just wanted to say that my vague sense of something wrong with DPS comes mainly from the reports I hear about dysfunction in the school board more than anything specific about any schools. Hopefully, this initiative will help in that arena, too. Concern about DPS is one of the main things I hear when people complain about Durham (and when I defend Durham, I get the "but you have no kids" argument). I'm glad to see this effort in place.

Jeremy T

As a current non-parent, my perception has always been that the "regular" Durham schools tend to perform poorly, while the "special" (magnet/montessori) schools tend to be fairly good.

To be honest, Kevin, I'm not sure why I'd put much stock in the findings of "a project to get the word out about the positive experiences and outcomes within DPS." I'd be more interested in a project that had objectivity as a stated goal rather than advocacy.

Mary B.

I agree with Jeremy! The lack of objectivity is a major concern here.

Yikes! I understand that they have good intentions, but in all fairness, reading "results" of this survey would be like tuning in to an ad campaign. People are faced with a really difficult decision and unbiased accounts of DPS experiences would be much more valuable.

I am not interested in hearing great stories about Durham Public Schools, when it is clear that this survey is intending to censor the results!

Ashley Tannert

LOVE this post, I am a parent of a Durham Public kindergarten student. She is flourishing in school and has had a expectational year so far. I am more than pleased with the education that she is receiving at DPS. I love all of the different options that Durham has in regards to education. I also get the "looks" and "sighs" when I tell friends I live in Durham and have a child attending the public school system, it takes a village and I love Durham!

Elizabeth Tolman

Thanks for your comments! A clarification: this is not a survey. We are using Survey Monkey to gather stories, but there is no quantitative data attached to it. The Strong Durham Schools Website will be used to showcase stories from parents, teachers, and students involved in DPS. Prospective parents can choose to read the stories...or not.

Sabrina L.

I have two kids in a DPS magnet school, and one more will follow them in a couple of years. But we made our decision to send them there, or keep them within DPS, because we researched it, went to the DPS information fairs, and visited the school. What we learned and what we are experiencing made us very comfortable with staying within the public school system - in Durham. Resourceful parents who do the same kind of research will likely choose to stay in Durham, too. I don't think this new survey/Website is necessary, and it's credibility will always be questioned (and rightfully so). DPS already offers many opportunities for parents to learn about all the great experiences that await a child who is enrolled in the DPS school system - school fairs, open house, tours, etc. This Web site seems a little silly to me. What audience are they trying to snag that isn't already invited to the DPS events?

If people go to the extreme of moving to another city in the Triangle it's either because there are other reasons for them to move, or they wanted to anyway. If they choose to pay the equivalent of college tuition for enrolling in private school, that is their personal choice. It doesn't "bother" me, and I don't feel the need to try to change their minds.

When people criticize the DPS without any information, or facts to support their criticism, we should definitely correct them -cure them of their ignorance. But, please don't talk those people into going to MY kids' school. These parents who speak out of ignorance SHOULD go to Cary and have fun dealing with THAT school board; or pay twice as much to buy a house in Chapel Hill, and higher tax rates.

Me, I'll stay in Durham where there is a diverse environment to raise my kids, and interesting, resourceful parents and families in the public schools who enrich our lives each day.

Nate Goetz

Would love to hear Scott Jenning's input on this one!

tina

As someone who relocated to the area 2.5 years ago, I think the information this website generates would be very valuable. It's hard researching from thousands of miles away, not to mention virtually impossible to attend school choice fairs. Any additional first hand information would be helpful. And honestly in my Google searches I found many more negatives about DPS than positives. But in our case we had friends with children in DPS schools and many of the things Kevin had to say about Durham swayed us. If we did not have those resources we would have probably ended up like many other families... going with a "safe bet". Moving is stressful enough... people are looking for easy decisions. If this website sways more active, involved, families to DPS this only helps all students, adds to our tax base in Durham, and helps build morale about our community.

Samantha E.

As the parent of a child who will start kindergarten in Durham next year, I think it's great to have a way to get parents' stories out there, since that's one type of information that's hard to come by in any sort of organized fashion beyond the circle of people you happen to know personally. The DPS events are very helpful and informative, but they apply a different kind of filter than what I think this site is trying to accomplish. Let people decide for themselves the weight these stories will have for them, just as they would weigh information from any number of other sources.

Kevin Davis

I'm going to fall out with Tina and Samantha on this one, though I understand the opposite side argument.

I don't think Strong Durham Schools is planning at all to portray this as an objective source of data. In fact, the problem I was highlighting was with so-called "objective" sources: average test scores (not corrected for student population) and sites like GreatSchools.net (which essentially seem to give top stars only to wealthy area schools... fostering an ongoing cycle of self-selection in school attendance.)

From a marketing perspective, people go through lots of steps in trying to decide about a school system. And in the "water cooler" talk genre, there's a ton of negative press out there. Pop by the City-Data forum for Raleigh-Durham (Tina knows what I mean) and search for "Durham and schools."

What this site would serve to do I think is to be an anecdote to those assumptions about DPS that come largely from those with no direct connection. A parent can see this as alternative data to tell them that there are plenty of good experiences -- and can then at least decide to dig down further to find out more.

Natalie

I'm curious to see what is said about my nearby elementary school.

Justin B. Clark

I don't think the purpose of this is supposed to be "objective". The purpose is to provide a catalog of stories about DPS so that parents can see that there is another side to the story and that not all of the schools in Durham are half as bad as they've been made out to be by the media, arcane testing scores or selected incidents. As a recent graduate of a DPS school I applaud this effort.

Jill

"As a current non-parent, my perception has always been that the "regular" Durham schools tend to perform poorly, while the "special" (magnet/montessori) schools tend to be fairly good." Jeremy T.

Jeremy- I say this is exactly why the new project will be valuable. What is your perception above based on? Is it at all based on feedback from parents with children in their regular zoned schools or year-round school options? For parents thinking of moving to Durham or making choices for their children as they approach school age, they need to hear from parents with children in the schools that there is more to the story than all the negative press out there. As Kevin points out, popular sites like city-data are full of Durham-haters. Read/search the archives there sometime and pretend you nothing of Durham. I dare you not to come away from it thinking that Durham is a blighted, dangerous, gang infested dump with horrible schools. I believe this project will be a great outlet for getting out another side of the story, not based on perceptions and hearsay, but with real stories from parents who are experiencing the schools themselves.

Hannah Jung

This whole discussion is very interesting since I am a real estate agent and I run into the controversy of 'should I really buy a house in Durham' all the time. When I find a good property worth my clients' attention, its usally met with hesitance and objections. I am hoping to see more advocating for Durham in general to people outside of Durham. Durham certainly has its share in making the Triangle the great place to live, work and learn and thus should be able to share in the growth we see within Wake county.

Ann

I am a proponent of the "more is better" philosophy. There is a mountain of bad press about DPS. This website could offer a little balance.

I was intrigued by the posts about objectivity. It might be useful to include stories that are positive and those that are moderate. The school and DPS websites are all positive. Strong Durham Schools might increase it's credibility if teachers and parents sent in some stories with pros and cons.

Another intriguing possibility is whether or not this will encourage some school spirit.

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