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."
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.