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BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for May 4, 2009

Durham CAN pushes DPS leaders on education -- but over what issues?

IMG_0199 This is Part I of a two-part series. In this part: a look at the back-and-forth at Sunday's Durham CAN assembly on education. Tomorrow: how were these issues chosen; do they matter for education; and what's next for CAN and DPS?

Sunday marked the latest in a series of delegate assemblies for Durham CAN -- Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, a community organizing non-profit that's emerged in recent years as a significant force in Durham political and civic life.

Durham CAN's method, modeled on the approach of Saul Alinsky and his Chicago-area IAF, is to get thousands of residents to discuss problems facing the Bull City in house meetings, then to empower volunteers to enumerate selected pressure-points for discussion, advocacy -- and, if all goes well, change.

And change was certainly a message in the air in a meeting that often took on the tenor and emotion of a church revival-cum-political rally, with bursts of applause and cheers mixed with cries of "Yes we can!" (and occasionally, "¡Sí, se puede!") from the crows squeezed into the Pearsontown Elementary gymnasium.

The delegate meeting focused on education, the problem selected for this round of activism from Durham CAN.

But the five district-wide priorities chosen by CAN -- notably decentralized, comfortable heating and air conditioning, pre-school programs gaining optional certification by the state, centralized equity in allocating technology resources, and a task force to discuss the needs of students with learning disabilities, or in modern parlance "exceptional students" -- drew a modicum of backlash from several Durham school board members, at least one of whom asked whether these are really the most pressing issues facing Durham's public schools.

"I would love for the people of Durham, and especially the people of Durham CAN, to start emailing me about our reading scores," a passionate and seemingly agitated Kristen Kainz said from the podium. "To start emailing me because they're a little bit more concerned that our children might grow up to be illiterate, or partially illiterate, than they are about the starting and stopping time of the school day."

Kainz noted that the ancient Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest collections of knowledge assembled by man -- "I bet it got hot... and I bet it got wet," she said pointedly, in response to the concerns over school ventilation and cooling -- before expressing her concern that some Durham children graduate public schools unable to read the works stored in that Egyptian collection.

"I would be very sad if we focused on the non-essentials at the expense of the essentials, and so I ask you to think about it," Kainz said. "Get online and look at our math scores, get online and take a look at our reading scores." 

Yet to the speakers at Sunday's convocation, these five issues were critical, significant, and pressing -- and they asked school board members and assistant superintendent Hugh Osteen to commit to solving them.

"Our shared experiences [among volunteer teams] made us acutely aware of the vast differences in Durham Public Schools facilities," said Bob Kruhm, of Watts St. Baptist Church and CAN, noting that the temperatures inside Pearsontown's gym had been hotter than those outside it as late as last week, before air conditioning updates were made.

"We will continue to pay attention to the quality of school facilities for the education and safety of our students," he added.

McDougald Terrace mother and organizer Wisdom Pharaoh noted that her three children faced "uncontrolled temperatures" in local schools, leading in summers to "six hours in the refrigerated classrooms, then back outside in the stifling North Carolina summer heat" -- and onward to colds and sickness.

She joined Kruhm in calling for temperature controls to be returned to local schools from downtown's central office, asking DPS administrators "to have an a-ha moment" at the afternoon's activity and to free the thermostats from "the unseen hands of the central office."

Other CAN members focused on the remaining compaints chosen as focal areas by CAN leaders.

Bobbi Gallagher of Holy Infant Catholic Church praised the dedication and leadership of principals, but wondered why DPS had chosen not to have its preschool programs certified through a state program required for private-sector facilities but optional for public schools.

Meanwhile, Kim Fuqua described her own mixed experiences with an autistic son in a DPS school, which she felt lacked "specific training for teachers who work with students with autism and other disabilities," and which she argued should be providing one-on-one instruction for such students. She noted CAN's call for a task force to look at whether exceptional children's needs were being met in the current system.

And Poorav Rohatgi from Duke Organizing called for equality in technology allocations, after finding that some schools seem well-equipped with laptops and computers while others haven't made the same investments. (Principals maintain a significant level of control over such decisions under the model of site-based control.)

He called for a model quite different from the desired outcome on HVAC systems, asking for more central control and allocation of resources instead of the current decentralized model. "School books are becoming outdated ever so fast," Rohatgi said. "Google is becoming more useful than old-fashioned encyclopedias."

IMG_0207 In Durham CAN style, after these testimonies, school administrators board members were called before the microphones to give their reply -- and, in the case of school board members, to answer -- "yes" or "no" -- whether they would commit to supporting CAN's position on these issues.

Assistant superintendent Hugh Osteen, whose portfolio includes facilities and operations, thanked CAN members for their and other Durhamites' "landslide" support for three school bonds this decades, which he noted helped provide funds to improve school facilities, though only to a point.

Pointing out that DPS manages 5 million square feet of school space, Osteen said that "not all our buildings are going to be perfect but we're going to work to make sure they're as good as they can be."

School board members, for their parts, generally gave "yes" answers to the requests of Durham CAN -- but they were also quick to add the caveats that Kainz did about relative priorities in education.

Omega Curtis-Parker, for instance, gave a yes to the CAN request that DPS do everything it can to acquire federal stimulus dollars, but added that there are "many regulations and restrictions for their use."

And she echoed Kainz's comments, though in a more restrained fashion. "Our top priority will always be the core instructional program, and DPS will be especially focused on federal stimuus aid for teaching and learning," Curtis-Parker said.

Leigh Bordley, for her part, noted it was "ironic" to hear calls for decentralized temperature controls, given her own experience working for a non-profit in a City of Durham-owned building, where she is "really frustrated by the fluctuations of the temperatures in that building" and would rather see centralized City control of that building.

Bill Hart from Union Baptist Church thanked the school board members for their answers, recognizing that they'd differ at times on the right answers to the organization's questions.

"We realize that the issues they face are very difficult issues," Hart said. "You have a lot of competing interests that you have to balance."

Still, he said, "our job is to push them. Their job is to respond to our pushes in ways they think appropriate."

And Hart saved his sharpest words for Frederick Davis, one of two board members not to attend.

While board member Steve Martin couldn't make it, Hart noted he was in alignment with CAN on these matters. Yet Hart expressed his concern that CAN "had some correspondence with [Davis] that we don't find altogether satisfactory."

According to Hart's retelling of Davis' emails, Davis criticized CAN members for directing these concerns at DPS while simultaneously trusting the school system with their children -- and questioning how some CAN members with children in private charter schools could "demand something for public schools."

"Apparently, school board member Davis does not know what Durham CAN is," Hart said. "We have tens of thousands of our children in our public schools. We think board member Davis needs to know who Durham CAN is."

Tomorrow: A look at why and how Durham CAN chose these educational issues to focus on -- and why, in a key organizer's words, they're just getting started on the issue.

Comments

Todd Patton

I have to say that I think Kainz has her priorities in the right place.

As a result, here's my question for the school board about reading and math scores. EOG tests for 3rd-4th-5th grades are scheduled for May 11-15. The last day of school is June 5 for year round and June 10 for traditional calendar schools.

The last 3-4 weeks of school after the tests are filled with parties (not officially called that), assemblies, field days, and field trips. By essentailly writing off the last 10% of the school year, are we not guaranteeing lower test scores?

Why are the EOG tests not given closer to the actual end of the grade?

YesThey Can

Why do we obsess over the test scores instead of actual skills is my question? (Rhetorical question, I know why we have to, but it's still bad policy. Teaching to the tests leaves out so much of a true education and, in the end, we are doing our children a disservice.

It doesn't matter what five specific priorities CAN is choosing to highlight -- unlike other local organizations which purport to represent the interests of ordinary Durhamites, CAN is actually teaching advocacy skills and doing something besides simply backing candidates. The advocacy skills and activism they are awakening by going to where people live will inspire a few new voices that will stay vocal, and those activism skills will transfer to any number of other issues. Good for CAN! It's way past time for a re-awakening of this kind of citizen activism. They are teaching people to speak for themselves and that is always good for our community.

tina

Todd, it is my understanding that the EOGs are scheduled in May to give the schools enough time to offer remediation and retesting for the students who do not pass. The tests are bubble tests (like the SATs), which can be difficult to navigate regardless of knowledge. Some of the questions are not well written at all and some of them are very tricky. So the retest also helps those kids who are A students but just had a bad day or don't test well.

My kids have been lucky and have teachers who continue to teach after EOGs. They usually give an introduction to what the students will learn the next year in school.

I also have to add Dr. Kainz has her priorities correct. Early elementary reading is her area of research, so every day she sees the importance of reading as a fundamental skill to suceed in this world. I'm not a huge fan of tracking scores. But as a parent volunteer I see some of those kids who have gotten to third grade and are still really struggling with reading. Dr. Kainz deeply cares about these kids and wants them all to suceed and be readers to enrich their lives.

GreenLantern

The published test scores from the Durham Public Schools are a joke! No reasonably intelligent person could believe that, for example, one year 5th grade math scores could be over 90%, and the next year drop below 30%, or rise back to 75% when those same students attend 6th grade. Something is very wrong. Either tests are being re-taken multiple times, or as someone mentioned, they are just teaching to the test. Are there trends that can be believed, or does the data lie (garbage in, garbage out)?

I've often looked at those scores when I try to explain to everyone considering a move to Durham to try to debunk claims that our students perform any less than students in other counties. They have considerable impact on real estate values since most transplants to the area look them up first thing before deciding where to buy.

Frank Hyman

FWIW

The folks who organize for Durham CAN were trained by some of the same folks who trained Barack Obama in his days as an organizer in Chicago. New County Commissioner Brenda Howerton worked for a year as an organizer for CAN and went through the same training.

CAN has sister organizations across the country. The ones in NC are Orange County Organizing Committee, next door in guess-which-county. And Helping Empower Local People in Charlotte and CHANGE in Winston Salem.

You can find out more at www.durhamCAN.org and at www.industrialareasfoundation.org, which is the group that trains the organizers in using Saul Alinsky's ideas.

Frank Hyman

Francisca

Board member Kainz is absolutely right. There are additional important problems confronting schools!

CAN proposals are also very relevant and well researched. They come directly from the community.

Paying attention to the needs and requests of hundreds of students and parents is always good policy.

For the good of our children I hope we are not put on a position to have to chose among these important proposals.

Francisca

tina

Greenlantern, the test scores mystify me as well. However, if a child fails the EOG the first time and retakes the test and passes, the child continues on to the next grade but the school does not receive credit for the child passing the test. Students must pass the first time in order for schools to get credit. This is a state mandate. Also in terms of variations between 5th and 6th grade scores, middle school is a time when kids are pulled from a wider range of areas thus middle school usually has a greater socio-economic variance than some elementary schools. Personally I put more stock by a school's site plan than test scores. The site plan will show the issues the school needs to work on and the strengths the school has.

Michael Bacon

I was very frustrated with Kainz's comments, and grouched about this in the CAN meeting evaluation.

Yes, of course the test scores are important. They are indicative of problems in student learning and performance. It didn't seem like the board members understood that they were agreeing to some pretty substantive changes, such as an INDEPENDENT task force for exceptional children. But the reason Durham CAN went into the schools, met with principals and teachers, and came up with an insanely detailed list of problems was because these are issues that affect student performance, and the school district hasn't been fixing them.

It's all fine and good for Kainz to lecture CAN about student performance, but I don't care what they're trying to do, if they can't take care of basic maintenance and exceptional children are not being attended to, the school system (and hence the board) is failing at its job.

Frank Hyman

Well said, Michael.

Frank Hyman

Rob Lamme

Well, I too deeply appreciate what CAN did - taking the time to go into the schools and then focusing the community's attention on improving them. I must say, however, that as a parent of two kids, both raised in the DPS system, I was surprised by the priorities that came from the briefing. I would say strengthening middle schools would be my top priority, along with improving the health programs (better food, more exercise) throughout the system. The middle schools are just SO uneven - one teacher in one subject one year can be very strong, and a different teacher on the same subject in the same year in the same school can be totally weak. And then some - not all - of the teachers simply do not belong in any job working with kids. The parents know it, the kids know it and the admin knows it - but for many reasons - largely, the inability to find good, qualified teachers in certain subjects - the system has to make do with really mediocre staff. As for healthy schools, the whole system incentivizes the sale of unhealthy food to subsidize the cost of the schools food system overall, the exercise programs in the elementary and middle schools are woefully uneven and the PE teachers in the middle schools are often untrained and unmotivated about ways to make exercise fun AND healthy. You simply would not believe the ridiculously inane worksheets that my kids did has part of the class time for their middle school PE courses. It would be hilarious if the stakes weren't so high - as so many DPS students are overweight or obese and many do not have access to food - healthy or unhealthy - outside of school.

Beth

As a teacher in a traditionally low-performing DPS school (praying for high growth this year!), I'd like to clarify a few things:
First, Tina hit the nail on the head. We give tests early (the 18th, not the 11th) to provide a week of remediation and allow for retesting. If a child is on the border between passing and not, we'd prefer to give that child the benifit of the doubt and see if the second time around, they have a better day. That second retest, as I understand it, actually replaces the first test score, and the school gets credit for their grade. If they fail the second time, and retest the third time, the school receives no credit for that score. Passing students should be given new content.
Secondly, one thing to consider in analyzing testing data is when tests are renormed. Standards are raised, which is great, but the percentage of students who pass always falls dramatically. They renormed the 3-5 math test a few years back (2006, I think), and they just renormed the 3-5 reading.
Finally, I appreciate all community interest in education. I love that people engage in this dialogue and was thrilled to see the amount of people who came to the budget meeting Tuesday. But I agree with Kainz. Pick the right battles. My classroom is seldom too hot or cold to the point that adding or removing a jacket won't fix it. Any resources we have right now need to go to personnel, not decentralizing the thermostats. I have a hard time seeing the EC task force and accredidation for preK as target issues. As a system, our biggest concern should be the fact that we need quality educational programs that provide an equal education to all students regardless of background or school. We need quality educators (including administrators) and to support them so they stay. We need to get rid of teachers that don't educate. We need the support of parents, social agencies, and the community so we can teach, not worry about school supplies or kid's home lives.
When scores are low, ask your school administration why.

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