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Durham Public Schools superintendent Mubenga talks teacher turnover, other challenges

Pascal Mubenga became superintendent of Durham Public Schools in November. Mubenga, who was previously superintendent of Franklin County Public Schools, has since visited more than a dozen schools and spoken with community groups and parents to learn more about Durham. The Chronicle spoke with him about his current plans and how he aims to address some of the challenges facing DPS. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: You’ve been superintendent for almost two months now. How is the transition going? 

Pascal Mubenga: Things are going really well. We have a lot of work to do. The community has been really receptive. We had three townhall meetings with different stakeholders, and the attendance was really what I was expecting. So we got really good feedback from those townhall meetings. We’re in the process of starting our strategic plan process, which is going to start next month. We have 50 people that are going to be a part of those discussions. Out of those 50, we have faith-based involved community and civic organizations, PTA representatives, city representatives, county commissioner representatives and different staff at the school level as well as at the district level. So I’m really pleased with the group that we have been able to put together to be a part of that discussion about our strategic plan. Other than that, things are going really well. We have had some quick wins that we’re putting in place so that we’ll be able to finish up stronger at the end of this academic year. All of the different stakeholders that I’ve met in the community—different organizations—they’ve been really receptive, and I’m really pleased with the progress I’ve made over the past two months. 

TC: While your were superintendent of Franklin County Schools, the district experienced a turnaround. The number of low-performing schools dropped from seven to one. And by the time you left, 13 of the district’s 16 schools met or exceeded growth expectations. How is your experience in Franklin County helping you now? 

PM: We did some great work. I had four principles that guided my work. Those are the same four guiding principles that I’ve brought to Durham. The first one is that we have to make sure we raise the expectation pool, which means for students and staff as well. We have to believe in our students that they can reach they’re full potential. Number two—once you’ve raised that expectation, we have to make sure we’re providing appropriate support to our students and staff as well so that they will be able to meet our expectations. Number three, we have to hold one another accountable for the success of our students as well as our staff. Then number four—we have to be able to celebrate along the way because we’re working real hard. Working with our students is just hard work. We have teachers staying after school till five, six-o’clock. So we have to be able to celebrate with our students and staff as well. Those are my four guiding principles that I was able to use at Franklin County, and I’m going to bring them here and be able to get the same results. And so far, so good. I’ve been receiving some good feedback from the community. 

TC: Does the situation that you stepped into in Franklin County compare in any way to what you’re stepping into in Durham? 

PM: Definitely. Even though Durham is larger than Franklin County, you have that status quo where folks felt pretty much business as usual. We start the school year in August. Then we finish in May. Whatever results we get, then we just keep on moving. You have people that have been around for 25-30 years in the school system that felt like there was no need for change. That’s pretty much the safer mentality—laid back. You see that everywhere and when I came to Durham. So they did not feel a sense of urgency. That’s the kind of practices that I’m bringing to Durham that I was able to implement in Franklin County in a different scale, but pretty much the same. 

TC: What do you foresee the strategic plan including? 

PM: There is a strong need for good professional development of with our teachers. We have a high turnover of 20 to 25 percent of our teachers every year. As we’re hiring a lot of new teachers, they really need support to understand the standards and be able to teach at a rigorous level so that their students will be successful. As I go to schools and I see some impressive practices—we have some great teachers. We have great principals as well, like any other district. But there are some areas that need to be tweaked a little bit so we can make it better. 

TC: Why has there been so much teacher turnover? 

PM: We’ve been collecting a lot of data, which is going to be a part of the strategic plan. But some of the teachers felt they were not supported when it comes to discipline. They really wanted support from their principles when it comes to disciplining students. They were dealing with those challenges and that’s one of the reasons why they decided to leave. They also felt pressured from the central office that everybody is monitoring suspension rates and they have to be careful with that. 

TC: DPS has seen its enrollment decline in recent years. How do you address that? 

PM: We are going to make sure that we improve our low-performing schools. That’s one of my focuses. And then we’re going to make sure that some of the programs that are doing really well in our district, some of the magnet programs that we have—some of our top students, our academic gifted students—we want to make sure that we have good offerings for them, so that they will be able to reach their full potential. The combination of making sure that we’re reaching out to our top students as well as fixing our low-performing schools—those are going to be the two focuses that are going to get us to be competitive and be able to be appealing to our parents and our students. 

TC: DPS has not had a comprehensive redistricting in which students’ school assignments change in more than 25 years. Several schools are now over-enrolled and others are under-enrolled. Does DPS have a timetable for when it will redistrict and address those enrollment imbalances? 

PM: This is what I told community members when that question came up—they need to give me a year to make sure that we come up with our strategic plan. That’s going to be my focus for my first year. Throughout this conversation as well as developing this strategic plan, there may be conversation about redistricting. But I’m not promising to tackle that particular topic my first year. Maybe second year, depending on what the needs [are] going to be at that point, then that could be a topic of conversation.