BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for July 31, 2009
More musings on building a sprawl-free Durham high school campus

Durham Magazine, NRDC stories coincidentally highlight two sides of new high school debate

Dm_augsep_2009cover Amidst the usual ebb and flow of stories and articles in traditional publications and new media, two in particular struck me on Thursday as being ironically well-timed given the continuing debate over the proposed new high school in western Durham County.

The organizers of the opposition to the project are holding two tours of the proposed site next week for County leaders and members of the media. And here it just so happens that two different perspectives -- one national and one local, one eco-oriented and the other enmeshed in Durham's dark history of racial prejudice -- seem well-timed to inform the discussion.

The first piece: a blog post from the Natural Resources Defense Council's Kaid Benfield, the director of the NRDC's DC-based smart growth program, who got tipped off by a Durhamite to the proposed 50-acre Duke Forest site for a new high school in the Bull City.

Benfield's conclusion, after a back-and-forth with his correspondent? Nothing more than what many have been saying in the public discourse and the comments, since this whole discussion began: why, precisely, does it take a space one-half the size of the Magic Kingdom to build a high school for less than 2,000 students?

[A]ny example I brought up, old or new, wasn't applicable, in her opinion, to Durham.  What it came down to was that the authorities there really wanted a greenfield property, of around 50 acres or more so they could build, among other things, nine athletic fields on-site.  And R wanted an example of that in a nonsprawling location.  Basically, a sprawl site but somewhere other than in sprawl.

Are you kidding me?  If those are your criteria, you're going to build a large campus of parking lots and one-story buildings in an outlying location.  Those of us who care can't simply accept the authorities' current criteria: we have to muster the facts, examples, advocacy and, ultimately, public will to do things differently, and maybe even to conceive education differently, with being placed inside a community valued for the kids as well as for traffic and the environment.

Benfield points out that urban, denser high school sites are nothing new. Sidwell Friends in DC serves 1,100 students on about 15 acres, he notes; Woodrow Wilson High near the capitol handles 1,700 high-schoolers on less than a dozen acres.

The NRDC program director expresses some skepticism over the Erwin-Cornwallis movement, implying that there may be what he calls a "NIMBY" effort outcropping among individuals who already live in residences (and subdivisions) near the proposed site.

But he turns his sharpest critique by far to school systems for failing to think imaginatively about what could be better sites for public schools -- noting that it's not just places like NYC that are building urban in-fill high schools, but urbs like New Haven, Columbus, even Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Of course, Benfield's not from here, which may explain his surprise at hearing from his correspondent that no such brownfield site for redevelopment exists in downtown Durham. Two decades ago, we might have thought of American Tobacco or West Village as good sites for teardown and adaptation for high schools -- times that are thankfully over with two of the largest historic building re-adaptations in the state, each north of 1 million sq. ft.

And, of course, the one-time Durham High School is downtown, and was adapted shortly after its closure to become a successful magnet school, the Durham School of the Arts.

Then again, that's not to say that there aren't such available sites for redevelopment elsewhere around downtown Durham. From the old Lakewood Shopping Center to one-time industrial sites in East Durham, there's places that one could creatively locate a new high school, we presume.


Which, of course, brings us to the second half of this tale.

As we noted during the Erwin-Cornwallis organizers' meeting a few months ago, the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one wants to confront is the matter of just who gets to attend a new high school.

Both Riverside and Jordan High are near or at capacity, yes. And while some have proposed expanding both on-site, let's assume for a moment that there's no choice but to build a new high school.

Well, then, who's to say that its location must be such that it can only (or primarily) draw from Riverside and Jordan?

Of course, those who lived in Durham when Riverside was opened can tell you: no one has the political will, it seems, to go through a round of school assignment map changes.

Both Jordan and Riverside, after all, are academically well-regarded; the former produced last year's Intel Science Talent Search winner, for instance.

Yet when Riverside opened, there was to hear tell of it a battle among parents afraid their kids -- and their houses, and their houses' real estate value -- would be dragged out of "successful" Jordan and sent to new, unknown Riverside.

Of course, Riverside has itself become a well-regarded, successful school in its own accord. Few parents would complain about having this as their high school.

Yet Durham's assignment system has created, through class and socio-economic segregation, winning schools at Jordan and Riverside -- while exiling historically-black Hillside and Southern to academic marginalization culminating in their inclusion on a list of high schools under court mandates to improve.

Still, as former school board chair Katherine Myers said at the June Erwin-Cornwallis confab, no one seems to want to tackle this particular problem.

All of which makes it most welcome that the new issue of Durham Magazine tackles as its cover story no less a look back on Hillside's desegregation, forty years ago this year.

DM editor Matt Dees recounts his experience working on the story, which features a number of first-person accounts of the historic school integration. From the DM Blog (emphasis mine):

I heard countless stories of black students reaching out a welcoming hand to their new white counterparts. Same went for administrators and teachers, who may have gone out of their way to welcome white students, some said, to avoid any of the aforementioned violence and tumult.

I've been thinking a lot about why the integration experience went so smoothly.

My best guess is that the large black population in Durham made some interaction among the races almost inevitable. Add to that that integration had started to a limited degree in elementary and junior high schools before 1969. By the time the first handful of white students completed their first year at Hillside, it had been 16 years since Brown v. Board. Folks had had enough time to get used to the idea of going to school with a different race.

But boy how that changed. Many of the folks I spoke with said white flight began in earnest by the mid-to-late 1970s, sending white families into the county to avoid integration. Today, Hillside has essentially resegregated.

Now, here we are in the supposedly enlightened year of aught-nine. America's elected its first African-American president, a man smart enough to be a University of Chicago law professor -- and to turn a gaffe on this summer's racial profiling hubbub into, perhaps, a symbol of understanding.

But we're not smart enough to build schools that don't dwarf Tomorrowland, Frontierland and Main Street U.S.A. combined.

We're not smart enough to keep our schools -- and our neighborhoods -- from becoming just as segregated as when Jim Crow laws were on the books.

Heck, we're not even smart enough to avoid patting ourselves on the back when school test scores soar after we change the rules on what it means to pass an end-of-grade test -- especially when that soaring was just a little more earthbound than other urban North Carolina districts.

We may not be all that smart. But if we're wise, maybe we'll think about ways to include a range of colors in Durham's new high school.

That means making it more green. And more black and brown, too.

(In the interest of disclosure, the author of this post is a paid freelance columnist for Durham Magazine and has a column appearing in this month's issue.)



Of course the underlying race issues and legacy of Jim Crow are a major factor. There is much flight from DPS into private and charter schools that makes me so sad. Of course, some of this is a better fit than DPS for families. We chose Durham to live (in spite of being directed to North Raleigh and Cary by relocation "experts" as stated in previous Bull City posts) because we wanted to raise our family in an open and diverse community. But when it was time to register for kindergarten, it was like a total breakdown occurred. I couldn't believe how the decision on where to go to kindergarten had become filled with so much anxiety and fear. Perhaps because public school saved my father, who grew up poor and went on to become a professor because his teachers cared and made sure he got into college on scholarship, I am not so easily scared by the thought of my kids going to school with peers who on free and reduced lunch. I visited the DPS base and magnet schools. We enrolled and have overall had a positive experience because we value the actual experience of schooling with diverse teachers and staff and peers instead of just talking about it. It's an unfortunate reality how we say we value things, but then in the end we just want to be safe and stick to what we know.

That said, our family is part of a small but growing number of families in southern Durham who are choosing the best school even if that means experiencing for the first time being in the minority and discovering cultural practices different from yours. Now, we are the sprinkles. And most everyone could not be more welcome and open. And we're learning how to have a REAL pep rally at Pearsontown.

I can tell you that a new high school does need to be figured out as the southern part of Durham has had the growth explosion. There is no way Jordan can possible accommodate it. We're going to be in big trouble if this community can't have an open dialogue and get it done and done right. We have some failing high schools that have re-segregated. We have real issues. We have a massive amount of young students who will be entering high school. Let's have the open meetings, let's encourage our "teachable moments", let's go green and include the whole rainbow of families. Remember, these are our children and we adults need to be role models, not insensitive gits. It's awkward to be different and stick out in the school because, like it or not, that's how it still is in aught nine. Think of the African American student who reaches out and befriends my child. What pressures might s/he be facing? We're asking kids to do what many grown ups wouldn't do -- walk into the lunchroom, unknown and in the minority, and handle it on both sides. This is real stuff. So people leave DPS because it's too hard to imagine doing. But support young people in these efforts and you can change the world for the better. Call me a sap, but I believe it, and I want my community to believe it.

And for the record, it's a real crappy thing to be redistricted and lose your base of friends and your network of teachers and staff and parent volunteers who know and care about you. And it's hard on the teachers and staff and students left. It changes the dynamics of the school. DPS leadership knows that, and it is political, so give 'em a break. And it's not fun to be on a bus driven all over the place wasting time, and it's not fiscally or environmentally smart. So the best hope is for this community, of such diversity and community activism, to engage in lots of public input and discussion and be open about our spectrum of concerns. As long as we're all respectful and the focus is on the right thing for the children we want to send off, engaged and ready, into the 21st world.


Good post, Kevin. You might want to bold-face the link to the Durham Mag blog post -- I almost couldn't find it...

Yonah Freemark

As a (relatively) recent white graduate of Hillside, it pains me to watch so many white inhabitants of Durham find ways to avoid attending my alma mater or Southern. It's true, both schools underperform compared to the Durham average, and they're at the bottom end in terms of academic performance at the state level.

But my experience at Hillside suggests to me that that low performance is not at all representative of the quality of education offered there. Rather, I'm happy to point out that my teachers at Hillside were fantastic, that the school's community was very accepting of my presence, and that my own success there and after indicates that Hillside has the potential to produce (and has produced) excellent results.

Yet the continued resegregation of Durham schools, as you put it, makes it appear that Hillside and Southern are simply abysmal, because they're unable to attract many whites and asians -- people who do better, in Durham and elsewhere, on the tests whose results people correlate with the quality of a school. Performance of blacks and hispanics at Hillside and Southern, significantly, is not dramatically different from that at Jordan or Riverside.

This is not to suggest that white people in the Durham community will simply agree with my assessment and decide to send their kids to Hillside -- nor would most admit that the reason they won't is racism. But the controversy over the placement of this new high school certainly smacks of it.


Excellent post, Kevin!

Yonah, you're right on the mark with your assessment!

I would just like to add, that it's not the age of the school or the quality of the teacher that makes the biggest difference in education, it's the parents willingness to discipline, and the attitude of the student to learn that matters most. We've poured millions of dollars into Hillside and Southern, and we get re-segregation as a result. Is it partly due to racism, or a deeply ingrained sence of entitlement in the black community that whites flee these schools for the wealthier suburban sectors of the district?

Putting a new high school in the western edge will only make it more exclusive unless a serious re-drawing of the district maps are on the table, BEFORE approving its final location, so that it keeps all the other schools as ethnically diverse as the new one.

Doug Roach

I'm thinking a "Lakewood High" could be that-which-cannot-be-imagined... i.e; all things to all people.
--Urban redevelopment site. (Apply for federal money fer cryin' out loud.) The place right now is a freakin' ghost town since the cops left.
Potentially a "green-building" showpiece that could be designed and built TO ALSO OFFER CURRICULUM that demonstrates legitimate environmentally sustainable building and energy use practices.
--It's within walking distance of a huge number of kids of ALL RACES and would thus enhance desegregation efforts just by the fact of it's existence.
--It's close enough to both downtown and to Duke that it could be adopted as a lab school for corporate and collegiate advanced/enhanced programs.
--As far as I know, Duke hasn't even agreed to sell the Erwin Road site yet which begs the question; who is it who seems to have a dog in this fight and will benefit from that most ill-thought-out locale?

Just sayin'.


If I remember correctly, the school system "considered" the Lakewood site. I can imagine how that went..."less than 50 acres...next".

Why not tear down the section where substation used to be? Move the tenants to near the grocery store and fill that space. Then build an Urban HS for 800-1000 students while revitalizaling the abandoned lot behind as athletic practice fields for the school and community. They can play games at the DAP, County Stadium, etc.

I might have to draw up a plan just for kicks...I know Yonah used to be an expert at this. :)

Todd P

A few notes:
- I think the NRDC quote about one story buildings is wrong - DPS has proposed a 2-story design.

- 9 athletic fields sounds like a lot, but consider that Northern has 28 teams playing 20 sports, per their website. Riverside fields outdoor teams in baseball, softball, soccer (boys and girls), track & field (boys & girls), football, lacrosse (boys & girls), field hockey, golf and tennis (boys & girls). Most of these are spring or fall only, but throw in varsity & JV teams plus other activities like band, and you can't cut those 9 fields down by much and have everyone practice right after school. How many fields could be squeezed in at Lakewood?

- Where the lines are drawn for the various HS attendance districts means little as long as DPS continues to allow transfers for pretty much any reason. This allows parents to select the school they want for whatever reason - academics, athletics, commuting convenience, fear, or anything else.

The racial breakdown of the high schools for 2007-08 was as follows:

DSA: 43% Black, 42% White, 9% Hispanic, 5% Multi, 2% Asian

Hillside: 88% Black, 2% White, 7% Hispanic, 2% Multi, 1% Asian

Jordan: 40% Black, 39% White, 11% Hispanic, 4% Multi, 5% Asian

Northern: 55% Black, 35% White, 7% Hispanic, 2% Multi, 1% Asian

Riverside: 43% Black, 40% White, 13% Hispanic, 4% Multi, 2% Asian

Southern: 76% Black, 8% White, 13% Hispanic, 2% Multi, 1% Asian

County Avg, High Schools: 57% Black, 28% White, 10% Hispanic, 3% Multi, 2% Asian

County Avg, All Grades: 54% Black, 23% White, 17% Hispanic, 4% Multi, 3% Asian

If you look at these numbers, and then look at the district attendance map, it is pretty apparent that the 'white flight' is happening with families living in the Hillside district (west of S Roxboro St and south of US 70, Woodcroft, Parkwood) and the Southern district (east of I-85 and north of US 70).

The question is where those students from the eastern part of the county are going - Jordan, Riverside, a charter school, or a private school?


Thanks for the stats Todd.

The remaining white students, mostly poor, are going to Southern. As I look around my middle class suburban pocket in eastern Durham county, I don't see many white children at all, especially teenagers. Spring Valley Elementary just opened up but it's mainly in an upper middle class neighborhood. This tends to confirm the theory that the DPS transfer policy is so liberally applied, that basically, anyone can get a transfer out of Hillside and Southern for reasons other than academics or commuting distance. The district maps won't matter if this policy continues, and segregation of our schools and neighborhoods will start all over again if yet another high school is built on the western edge.

There should be no expansion allowed for Jordan and Riverside, and a new high school should be built closer to the city's core such as the Lakeside site.
Continued resegregation will only lead to splitting Durham in two, with property values declining further and further in the east, while the west becomes more like Chapel Hill.

Todd P

G/L - The location of the school is not relevent so long as the transfer policy stays as it is, combined with the many families who flee the system entirely for charter or private schools.

It is not a fair assessment to call Jordan and Riverside 'segregated' when both of them are 60% minority now, as is Northern.

Jordan and Riverside are the 2 high schools that are bursting at the seams - including multiple trailers at each - and it makes sense to me that the new school would be built between the 2 since they will supply most of the students for the new school.

I have no idea what the constraints of the Lakewood site are vs the Erwin Rd site or any other site the schools are looking at. I just want to see a decision made and have them move forward. My oldest kid is 3 years away from high school and I would really like to see the new school open and all of this settled before then.


As a taxpayer with no kids, there are other reasons for choosing where to locate a school than just overcrowding. If overcrowding is the only metric for locating a new school, then the city will become more divided along racial and socioeconomic lines, which will affect property values and crime across the entire county. If there is evidence of widespread white flight out of parts of the city or county, whether by moving or just using a liberal transfer policy, you can't justify further acceleration of this by building new schools or expanding existing one in wealthier parts of town.

DPS needs to slow down and consider the impact on all residents of the community, not just react to enrollment numbers in certain sectors of their district. The county commissioners need to step up and influence these decisions for the benefit of all their constituents, not just the wealthier interest groups on the perimeter. I help support other peoples' kids, which means I help support irrational decisions that parents make to stress the school system out of fear and racism. It's time to put a stop to this transfer policy and start enforcing a fair and equitable re-drawing of school districts before Hillside becomes 98% black, and we get a new high school that is 80% white.

Seth Vidal

I have no children, no plans for any children, etc. However, the idea of Lakewood shopping center being turned into a large high school complex seems like a fantastic idea. Maybe even beyond fantastic, inspired might be a good word.

Seriously, get that ball rolling. A high school there could be wonderful.


Although I'm not a fan of placing a new high school on the periphery of the county, I don't see how this would lead to a lily white enclave. Simply looking at the demographics of the two nearest elementary schools, that would presumably feed the new high school (via Githens or some such), Forest View and Hillandale: Whites make up only 30% of the combined student population[1]. Where does the GreenLantern get all this white children for this new high school??? Given a county-wide student population that is majority black, it isn't too ridiculous that we have some schools whose populations are nearly entirely black, no?

[1] http://www.dpsnc.net/images/pdf/enrollment/0708Enroll.pdf

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