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?
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'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.)