In a 6 -1 vote, the Durham school board voted on Jan. 19 to adopt a controversial redistricting plan that Durham Public Schools says will increase equity in the district.
Called “Growing Together,” the plan “will create five regions designed to increase pre-K seats and special program classrooms, reduce transportation time, increase access to magnet schools and specialized services and provide a geographical base for students through ‘neighborhood schools,’” according to the News & Observer.
DPS leaders have been working to build this initiative for years, aiming to “increase equity, access, and diversity across [the Durham] school district,” according to the initiative’s website. The initiative, which will be completed at the elementary level in the 2024-25 school year, will also send thousands of K-3 students to different schools — a point dozens of parents spoke out against.
“The changes that we are making now will enhance opportunities for our current students and families, and for the families and students we will serve in the future,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga told the N&O.
According to William Sudderth, chief communications officer for DPS, “the plan is beginning with our elementary schools to increase diversity, access and equity for high quality academic programs ... while also responding to the incredible growth in Durham County.”
In addition to expanding academic programming at every elementary school, including increasing STEM instruction and having dedicated classrooms for the visual and performing arts, the initiative aims to improve families’ access to schools with application processes to increase their equity and diversity, according to Sudderth.
DPS will develop “regions [that are] comparable in terms of demographics and income, [each having] a year-round school and a dual language immersion school,” he said.
With the creation of these regions, students will have comparable access to choice programs, bus routes will be simplified and facilities will be utilized more effectively, according to the initiative.
“Durham Public Schools was formed in a merger of the city and county school systems in 1992. And with some exceptions, the layout of the school district and the boundaries for the schools were established back then and [were] not really changed for almost 30 years,” Sudderth said. “And this is an opportunity to ensure that we have strong schools in every part of the county.”
But it took some time to reach the agreement that the board finally voted on.
The initial plan would have reassigned over 6,000 elementary students in Durham — nearly half the number of current DPS elementary students — and potentially force them to switch schools during the 2024-25 school year. DPS is also constructing three new schools and implementing renovations on existing schools under the Capital Improvement Plan.
This initiative sparked controversy among some parents, who felt blindsided and concerned that the plan would disrupt their children's educational experience.
In response to community frustrations, district leaders brought forth an alternative plan during the board meeting on Jan. 12 that allows fourth and fifth graders in 2024-25 to continue at their current school, reducing the number of affected students to more than 2,000.
Under the approved plan, K-3 students will need to move to new schools in 2024 due to legislation limiting K-3 class sizes, while current fourth and fifth graders will be able to complete their elementary education in their current schools. Parents worry that moving this young group of students around will only add to the disadvantages they have incurred due to decreased in-person class time from the impact of the pandemic.
“What we tried to accomplish was a compromise so that older students would be less likely to move and that we could still achieve the diversity, equity and access goals of the project,” Sudderth said. “Now we have even more work to do in terms of communication to make sure families are aware of the options and what is happening.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed quotes from William Sudderth to Matthew Palmer. It has been updated to reflect that Sudderth spoke to The Chronicle. The Chronicle regrets this error.
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Audrey Patterson is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.