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Creekside reassignment: On schools being good by being well(-off)

School reassignment is a subject you don't hear much about in Durham; it typically disrupts our neighbor to the southeast instead, where lawsuits and (this year) protest marches aren't uncommon in discussions about the Wake County schools.

In Durham, on the other hand, the district you're in has usually been the district in which you stay. This year, however, DPS has given a heads-up that the very popular Creekside Elementary in South Durham may have its assignment zone parceled out differently come the new year.

As the N&O's coverage pointed out, don't expect parents to go quietly on this one. A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 7 at 6:30 pm at Creekside to discuss the school system's recommendation, which itself is on the agenda for the Jan. 31 meeting.


All of which, of course, leads to an important question: just what makes this issue so important to Creekside parents?

Before I hazard my guess, I'd like to encourage Creekside parents (and folks in the Creekside zone) to share their thoughts and concerns over redistricting on the comments here. As a married man without kids, my perspective on schools is very different in all likelihood from those with a direct stake in the game.

Still, even though I don't have a parent's perspective on the issue, and though I know enough to not trust fully the data that comes out of the flawed end-of-grade testing programs, there's no doubt that those numbers tell part of the story about what's working and what's not at local schools.

From that perspective, it's not hard to see why Creekside parents would want their kids to stay there. Note: Durham's districtwide end-of-grade average scores are 48% for 4th grade writing, 60.5% for 5th grade math, 85.8% for 5th grade reading.

  • Creekside: 57.4% 4th writing, 65.6% 5th math, 89.5% 5th reading; state ABC rating 75% (School of Progress)
  • Parkwood: 42.7% 4th writing, 46.7% 5th math, 88.5% 5th reading; state ABC rating 62% (no recognition)
  • Southwest: 53.6% 4th writing, 61.9% 5th math, 91.7% 5th reading; state ABC rating 67% (no recognition)
  • Forest View: 51% 4th writing, 79.2% 5th math, 93% 5th reading; state ABC rating 72% (School of Progress)
  • Hope Valley: 59.3% 4th writing, 67.2% 5th math, 87.6% 5th reading; state ABC rating 72% (no recognition)
  • Bethesda: 36.6% 4th writing, 56.6% 5th math, 76% 5th reading; state ABC rating 56% (Priority School)
  • Fayetteville St.: 34% 4th writing, 54.8% 5th math, 95.1% 5th reading; state ABC rating 58% (Priority School)

The data are stark. Bethesda and Fayetteville St. Lab elementaries are tagged "priority schools" -- meaning they're considered at risk of failing by the state. Most of the schools neighboring Creekside did not earn recognition in this year's ABC tests; in fact, as these schools have had to expand testing and to face the ever-rising N.C. standards, some are performing worse, by this scale, than they were a few years back.

What differences could explain why Creekside is succeeding in a way that other district schools aren't? I suspect it has quite a bit to do with socioeconomics:

  • Creekside: 867 students; 28.5% free & reduced lunch (F&R)
  • Parkwood: 698 students; 51.9% F&R
  • Southwest: 666 students; 36.5% F&R
  • Forest View: 642 students; 48.0% F&R
  • Hope Valley: 745 students; 44.6% F&R
  • Bethesda: 629 students; 70.4% F&R
  • Fayetteville St.: 284 students; 89.8% F&R

At the end of the day, after all, the correlation between socioeconomics and school performance is tremendously high. And we see here that the schools with the lowest percentage of students living at or near the poverty line seem to have the best quantitative performance on standardized testing.

This is by no means a phenomenon isolated to Durham. The situation is even more numbingly stark on the individual school level. Take Cary, where Davis Drive Elementary has been at the center of a firestorm over school reassignment. Is it a "high performing school?" The stats say yes -- its N.C. ABC rating last year was a whopping 96.3%.  Similarly, Wake County has Brier Creek Elementary -- 90% ABC, 6.4% F&R lunch. Morrisville Elementary -- 90.6% ABC, 15.9% F&R lunch. Cedar Fork Elementary -- 92.6% ABC, 14.8% F&R lunch.

On the other hand, Wake has Wilburn Elementary, with 64.8% on the ABC tests, and 60.9% F&R lunch, and Barwell Rd. Elementary, with a 65.0% ABC score and 59.3% F&R lunch rates.

At the end of the day, Wake County's better school performance and better reputation ultimately seems to reflect the fact that, per capita, it's a richer county. In fact, the average free and reduced lunch rate across the entire Wake County school district is just 28.2%... or about half Durham's elementary school F&R rate of 47.2%.

Small wonder, then, that a tempest erupted when Wake's public school system considered naming a new Western Wake elementary school after "Alston Avenue." Why, homebuilders and New Jerseyites might think there'd be poor kids going to school there! Who'd buy the McMansions?


Does this mean the parents whose kids attend Creekside are somehow socioeconomically biased, and don't want there kids going to school with children who aren't like them? No. Many Creekside parents will probably tell you they picked their home in order to go to that school because their kids could get a very good education as well as experience socioeconomic diversity.

And, heck, compared to parts of Cary that SoDur homeowners might otherwise have picked, by this math they're getting an education in a school that has five times the number of poverty-line families as a place like Davis Drive.

No, I believe strongly that Creekside parents just want to be able to send their kids to the best performing school they can. Which, in the American context, also generally happens to be the wealthiest.

Ultimately, this points yet again to the ways in which our local school challenges are just a broader reflection of the much wider segregation that exists throughout America. Social science researchers will tell you that the U.S. is far more racially integrated, but far less socioeconomically integrated, than it was a generation ago.

And to some extent, this has been the legacy of life after racial segregation. Over a generation, the black upper-middle class has moved out of Hayti, to Hope Valley and Treyburn and South Durham. (In fact, as we noted during last year's election, both Bill Bell and Thomas Stith live closer to Cary than downtown Durham.) Poorer blacks remained where they were, joined by less affluent newcomers like Latino immigrants as well as folks in-migrating from other parts of the U.S.

All of which, in our "neighborhood schools"-based DPS system, means that you have schools in impoverished, inner-city areas that are weighted down with 70% and 90% F&R lunch rates. Schools that offer students a mirror of the life they've seen so far in their life: hardscrabble, hungry, paycheck-to-paycheck. Or, as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam notes in a recent  interview--

Many social scientists believe this sudden rebirth of economic inequality is the biggest news of the last half-century. That fact has not been fully understood, however, because too often in our public discourse in America class is taken as code for talking about race. In fact, class isn't race....

Work we're doing now shows that, among white high school seniors, there's a growing class gap.... White working-class kids go to church a lot less than working-class kids used to; they are less involved in community activities; and their parents spend less time with them, partly because, unlike middle-class kids, they are likely to have only one parent in the home. They have lower self-esteem than working-class kids used to, less social trust, and lower academic aspirations.

...[T]he fundamental bargain, the core of America, has always been that we can live with big gaps between rich and poor as long as there is also equality of opportunity. If that is no longer true, then the core bargain is being violated.


At the end of the day, then, the real question isn't why parents wouldn't want to keep their young students at Creekside instead of seeing them reassigned. (Or for the Hope Valley or Forest View or Parkwood parents to worry about being nudged to Bethesda or Fayetteville St. so their schools can take in Creekside kids.)

No, the bigger question I have is -- why in hell do we tolerate a world in which there are schools with 70% and 90% free and reduced lunch rates? Why do we tolerate an educational system that segments out schools like Bethesda and Fayetteville St. -- or Glenn, or Burton, or Y.E. Smith -- to be warrens of the poor alone? To allow children to be sent to these schools knowing that they will likely lack for parental involvement, for community investment?

Of course, it'd be great to wave a magic wand, and do away with the concept of "neighborhood schools" altogether, and to implement the same kind of socioeconomic balancing that Wake's system does, to try to balance schools in ways to ensure an equal educational opportunity for all.

Sadly, it's pretty obvious what would happen then. Parents whose children moved to less successful schools, or who saw their schools' test scores decline, would pull their kids out of the public system for charter schools or private education -- the same "flight" trend that we've seen in the decade-plus since the merger of Durham's city and county schools.

And that's the damning problem behind the problem. Socioeconomical balancing of schools is the right thing for school systems to do, in the aggregate. Yet parents will make their decisions at the margins, and -- perfectly rationally -- will choose to exit the system instead of enrolling in schools that might be (actually, or in perception) less successful.

At the end of the day, the real solution to making schools more socioeconomically diverse -- and more successful -- lies not in jerryrigging school district lines, but in making neighborhoods themselves more economically integrated. Which means inclusionary zoning, and finding sites for social services facilities that are distributed throughout the city rather than crowded into particular "zones," and so forth.

That's the real battle that's needed over school redistricting.



As a parent of young grade-school kids (who used to go to Creekside... we've since moved out of SoDur), I have been mystified by the whole "good school" concept. What is so attractive about a school that is on its 3rd principal in 3 years & is at least 20% overcrowded and growing (with an addition to provide fewer new classrooms than needed now at least 2 years away)? As you imply, it seems test scores in elementary grades are much more a reflection of the school's population than the quality of education. But don't get me started on a system which already has my 1st-grader fretting about 3rd grade EOGs...

Frankly, its got a lot to do with parents. The parental support (via PTA and other activities) is very good at Creekside. Sadly, it tends to be mostly the white upper-middle-class folks who provide this support - in terms of fundraising & direct involvement in the classroom - even though the school is quite diverse. That gets back to your comments above - for example, in general, the Hispanic population of the school (which largely comes from the complex at Garrett Rd & 15/501) is struggling to keep their head above water and just doesn't have the resources (time, money, transportation) to get involved in their kid's school.

Elizabeth T.

This is such an emotional issue. I would love to see data that shows that graduates of our schools can perform better and lead happier and more (economically) successful lives as a result of all of these tests. What I've seen here in South Durham is that parents on the upper end of the economic spectrum are very nervous about sending their kids to the schools here. Scores aren't everything, but clearly it's not good that 30-40% of the kids at all of these schools are cannot read at grade level or calculate simple math problems. Yikes! Given the choice of the many excellent private schools, Wake County and Orange County nearby, myriad charter schools, and homeschooling, who wants to send their kids to a school where by the fifth grade will be surrounded by kids who can't even perform at grade level?! Unfortunately publishing the scores drives people who have means away, people who could be volunteering in the schools, linking their Harris Teeter VIC cards to their neighborhood school, etc. It's not altogether obvious that the testing helps those kids on the bottom, either.

Durham Public Schools has a lot going for it, and we've made the choice to stay here in the system for now (and are very happy with the choice despite the numerous problems facing the school our child attends), but it's been gut-wrenching. Sadly, the school board fiasco of a few years ago has not been totally forgotten, and I know of at least two or three families who won't even consider DPS because of it.

But on the plus side, most of the schools you mention have incredibly strong administrations, committed teachers, and vibrant PTAs. Their successes are not necessarily measured by test scores and the kids who attend the schools really get to experience racial, ethnic, religious, and economic diversity, something they would be unlikely to experience in any other school setting.

Durham Teacher

I teach in what is considered one of the better DPS schools. I have had conversations with my students about what makes one school "better" than another. If we took the entire student body from the best performing school and switched with the student body from the worst performing school, what would be the effect? Would the performances switch completely? What if we switched all of the teachers? What if we just switched the physical buildings?

I have been teaching for a while now, and I still don't really know what makes one school better than another, but I do know there there are certain schools I feel better about being a part of. I don't really know how to put it all into words, but some schools just feel "right" and some don't. For what it is worth, being at the school I am at now, and being a part of DPS feels "right".


Brilliant analysis, Kevin. Don't forget Durham's magnet schools. Many magnet schools have been placed in poorer neighborhoods, with walk zones for kids in those neighborhoods, and attractive programs--and competitive lotteries--for families across Durham, including upper middle class families. This is Durham's "busing" system.

Burton Geo-World F&R=80%
Club Blvd. F&R=48%
Morehead Montessori F&R=24%
RN Harris F&R=71%
Pearson G&T F&R=99% (this number is from greatschools, and seems high enough to be a miscalculation)

South Durham Resident

Thanks for the coverage of this issue. For my neighbors this is a hot topic. Reading the information in your post I see why many of my neighbors have left Durham once their children reached school age. We already had concerns about Creekside (principal changes, overcrowding), but with the potential redistricting we are more worried than ever and are considering the wisdom of remaining in Durham at all. It is sad that the Durham Public Schools can't seem to provide every child with a good education in a safe and nurturing environment -- regardless of their parent's financial situation. For many caring parents this leads them to move to a school district that can provide those things. Although a rational choice (and one we will make I am sure), this just robs the DPS of more good parents and good kids.

Kevin Davis

Thanks for the comments, all, especially those teachers and parents directly in the trenches or with friends/neighbors who are.

South Durham Resident, I just want to clarify your question about DPS' ability to "provide every child with a good education." I'm not sure that they can't -- and I'm not convinced this is a DPS failing.

Is there a school district anywhere in the country with Durham's socioeconomic mix where students are performing better academically? The research I've heard of (through secondary, not primary sources) suggests the correlation is strong between family circumstances and school performance.

Not that the schools can't impact that -- indeed, that's what they're there for -- but I really do wonder if any district has the "secret sauce" for this. I tend to doubt it, but if I'm wrong, let's mimic them.

I'm pretty sure you meant "safe and nurturing" as a combined phrase and not the amalgamation of its parts, but it's also worth pointing out for other readers that Durham's rate of safety/crime incidents on school campuses has in recent years been lower than Wake and the Orange Co. system, though higher than Chapel-Hill Carrboro.


The "secret sauce" is called busing. Raleigh wins accolades for their socioeconomic diversity, but the redistricting (made worse by rapid growth) is a nightmare.

Valerie has it right. What I foresee is a system similar to New York and Boston, where the local school is hit-or-miss depending on where you live, but there are also plenty of good magnet / exam schools to attract the mindshare of parents who appreciate diversity. And they're free!

If my kid doesn't get into Watts or EK Powe she'll have to go to Club, which is not bad but not great either. I believe in public schools (for the diversity), but like many other parents it'll be "one strike and you're out" to the private schools, Orange Co., etc.

[Obligatory disclaimer about how no good libertarian supports public schools -- if we had a private secular school with real economic diversity (like we had in Cambridge Mass.) we'd probably spend the money.]


"It is sad that the Durham Public Schools can't seem to provide every child with a good education in a safe and nurturing environment -- regardless of their parent's financial situation."

But if they try to do this, by attempting to populate schools so none of them have 70%+ students coming from low-income situations, people with your viewpoint will leave the district. Unless you can propose a way to overcome the test-score differential between students from lower-income and higher-income families, the "good" schools are always going to be those with a large percentage of students from higher-income backgrounds -- and as long as there are such schools, there will always be schools at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, and those will most likely be the "bad," "unsafe" schools. Kind of a catch, no?

I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, so please let me know if I'm way off base, but the end of your remark (the "financial siutation" part) implies to me that you think the schools, or the teachers, are somehow treating kids from low-income families differently than other kids, and thus failing them that way. I just don't see that as the case. If you look at, say, Neal Middle School, is the problem that teachers leave the kids in the lurch because they're poor? Or is it that when you have a high enough concentration of "rough" kids, such that a teacher has to call a police officer into his room 5x a day and occasionally has chairs thrown at him, it can be hard to accomplish a lot (or to get good teachers to stick around).

In the interest of full disclosure, I am married to a DPS teacher, and as such, I know quite a few more of them. All of these people have a passion for what they're doing, and those I've discussed it with have reasons for wanting to teach at schools that aren't predominantly full of rich, white kids. I know I'm generalizing here, but I have a bit more faith in their abilty and drive to teach everyone well than I do in those teachers I've known who really wanted to teach the "best" kids at the "best" schools.

South Durham Resident

To answer your question Kevin, I think that whenever a significant percentage of students at a school cannot read or do math at grade level then those children are not receiving a good education. Since it is DPS' primary job to make sure that all children have a good education, I look at the test scores and conclude that DPS cannot seem to provide every child with a good education. I just don't believe that those children are unteachable unless there is some obvious reason in play such as just learning the language or having a disability that makes it harder for them. (And even in those cases I think the school should usually be able to overcome that eventually.) I don't blame DPS particularly for that failing since I know it is a nationwide problem. I'm also not sure how DPS can provide every child a good education, but until they do better at it parents will continue to consider leaving DPS because they don't want their child to eventually be surrounded by kids that are not performing at grade level (see Elizabeth T.'s post) and teachers that are losing the battle to reverse that.

As for "safe and nurturing", I don't mean just physical safety (DPS does ok on this). I mean the larger issue of whether children are in an environment that allows them to reach their own unique potential beyond just reading and math. The emotional and social component in elementary school can be huge -- does the child have the opportunity to fit in and find friends, do the teachers have the time and interest for a relationship with each child, does the administration respond to parental concerns and a child's special needs, etc. Parents find this out by talking to other parents.

I don't mean to slam DPS. I just point out that sending a child to a given school when you have choices is a carefully weighed decision for parents. Visiting schools, talking to neighbors and friends, and looking at school report cards and using this to make a choice is just part of being your young child's champion in life. For many of us it is nothing more sinister than that.


The issue here is that when you move to a school with higher test scores, those scores say much, much more about the population attending the school than about the teachers and administrators. You're not finding teachers who have learned some tactic to get low-performing students to pass tests; you're finding a school that has a very small population of those low-performing students to begin with.

Your other arguments (that a "better" school will provide a better emotional/social experience, or that being around the largest percentage of passing students is best) are more subjective, so I'll just note that I'm glad not everyone feels that way.

I don't, personally, think your motives are sinister; however, I think your opinion of what test scores indicate about a school and its teachers is very much off-base.

Kevin Davis

A nice thing about being home from work today is getting to read more of the N&O than I usually do. Good timing -- this interesting op-ed in the N&O is worth a read.

"Over the past three years, we have seen a rise in our school's free and reduced-price lunch population. In the 2004-2005 school year, our F&R population was at 38.8 percent, the school's performance composite test score was at 93 percent and I believed that York was a very healthy school.

In 2006-2007, our F&R population was at 47.7 percent, and the performance composite test score was at 75 percent.

As I read about parents who think that the Wake County Public School System is just about the "numbers," I know that these numbers affect schools. This year our F&R is at 50 percent, and this was the first year I attended a school open house at which there were only five parents in attendance in a classroom of 22-plus students.

This is also the first year that 10 classrooms were without room parents. These numbers are greatly affecting PTA participation and fundraising, and I cannot imagine how they are stressing the faculty and staff.

As a Christian I am called to give a voice to the voiceless. For whatever reason, this F&R population is unable to support the school, i.e., single parents, parents working night shifts or two jobs, or parents without transportation to school events. These "numbers" are children, families and the future of Wake County."


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