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Duke student body: Where is Durham?

cut the bull

“My high school, Hillside, is just five minutes away, but when I’m here it feels worlds apart.”

I grew up in in a beautiful North Carolina public school district with great teachers and enough chairs and tables for most of the class to sit on any given day. My mom became an assistant principal in the early 1990s at Githens Middle School in Durham, and reminded me often of my great fortune. At Githens, she told me, she would frequently take weapons from students. Her kids were robbed of childhoods by the greedy hands of mass incarceration, poverty, substance abuse and racism in 1990s Durham.

Durham Public Schools has a complicated history with segregation. Until 1970—16 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education—its districts remained segregated. After a court order demanded that Durham integrate its schools through busing, white families fled from the Durham City School System to the outskirts of the county which operated as the Durham County School System. These two neighboring districts remained institutions of de facto segregation until they merged in 1992, causing another surge of white flight from the public schools to private and charter schools. Today, the district is home to students of various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds—the majority of whom are nonwhite. About 82 percent of Durham Public School (DPS) students identify as racial and ethnic minorities, and about 66 percent of students receive free-and-reduced lunch funding.

When I started school at Duke, I expected to meet a plethora of other kids from North Carolina public school districts. In fact, I expected to meet kids from the schools where my mom taught, schools that lie mere miles from Duke’s campus and yet seem worlds away. I figured that students in Durham would be drawn to Duke’s campus and Duke would seek them out, given that they share a home.

I quickly learned that this was not the case. I met many Duke students from schools like Durham Academy and North Carolina School of Science and Math, but few who graduated from the Durham Public School system. I actually met a Marketplace employee who attended Riverside High School long before I met a Duke student who walked those halls. It felt almost shameful that I was attending an institution with so few roots in its community that most of my friends couldn’t name a single high school in Durham, let alone speak to the city’s impending obstacles like the affordable housing shortage and the lack of public transportation.

I reached out to the Admissions Office to see if my observations matched the statistical reality. Was Duke really so unrepresentative of Durham, or was I exaggerating? It seemed necessary to acquire the data. 

Understandably, during this busy time of year, the Admissions Office was unable to share high school information with me. I tried to avoid going one by one through the class of 2020 student directory, so instead I reached out to the high school counselors at each Durham Public School high school. While most only had access to self-reported data from school newspapers, they seemed to corroborate my perception that few DPS students end up attending the prestigious University down the street. Over the past five years, Northern High School enrolled only two students in Duke University. Both are white males, and both played for the football team. 

I also spoke to friend of mine who went to Hillside High School. Hillside is the oldest historically black high school in the state of North Carolina that has continued to operate. Its long history as a hub for education and community in Durham makes it a city landmark serving a wide range of students. My friend believes that he is the first student in 10 years to be accepted to Duke from Hillside.

Coming to Duke can be scary and intimidating. It can be frustrating to hear about the college counselors, equestrian teams and field trips many students had in high school, and to wish that your old friends could have experienced those luxuries. It can be sad to know that your peers are probably more likely to work at Marketplace than sit in your classes.

For these reasons, I’m not sure if many DPS students apply to Duke in the first place. It might just feel like too much of a long shot or too much of a stretch. Another friend, Lee Rodio—one of the white males from Northern—said that he almost decided not to attend Blue Devil Days after hearing his tour guide say that she only felt safe on campus because there weren’t any “random Durhamites walking around.”

“It was almost like when I first got here, people were surprised I wasn’t trying to mug them,” Rodio said. From his perspective, Duke students seemed to either pity or fear their Durham neighbors.

This is not a condemnation of the Admissions Office, nor is it an indictment of my fellow Duke students, who are talented and deserving of their spots here. Rather, it is an observation of a concerning discrepancy and a need for investment in public schools systems. After all, if only 48 percent of Durham Public School students enroll in any sort of college, then there is a clear need for improvement within the district itself. Duke should continue its relationship with the Durham Public School system and work to strengthen college readiness throughout the district.

Additionally, students like my friends from Northern and Hillside say there’s much to be done in recognizing Durham-bred talent. 

“If Duke really wants to walk the walk instead of just saying that they want to be reflective of Durham, then they need to give more than just a first glance to DPS applications,” Rodio told me. “Where DPS students stand out, though it might not be the pinnacle of academic success, is that they have this well-roundedness. In the past five years, we’ve had a Morehead Scholar, a Gates Scholar, and a Jefferson Scholar—just to name a few. But the stigma around Duke’s culture often discourages our best and brightest from pursuing academic careers here. In terms of actually demonstrating their appreciation for that, I think the Admissions Office falls short.”

When it comes down to it, each of us worked hard to be here and each of us is qualified to sit in class at Duke. But if Duke aims to establish roots in its community, to provide equal opportunities for education, to honor the contributions of Durham to Duke as an institution, then it’s worth remembering the inequities at hand. Even without a team of faculty preparing them for standardized testing, college essays and extracurricular activities, students from North Carolina public school districts are still ambitious, intelligent and compassionate. They deserve a shot—if they want it.

Leah Abrams is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “cut the bull,” runs on alternate Fridays.

Leah Abrams | cut the bull

Leah Abrams is a Trinity senior and the Editor of the editorial section. Her column, "cut the bull," runs on alternate Fridays.


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