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Shared prosperity in Durham requires each of us to commit to our public schools now

In their top 10 education issues facing NC in 2019, the NC Public School Forum named “Renewing North Carolina’s Commitment to Public Schools for the Public Good” as the number one issue. The Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization supporting public education statewide, identified state-level policies that have led to disinvestment in public education.

Recommitting to public education at the state level is essential. But this commitment must start at home — right here in Durham. When we come together, our community has the power to shape the vision for the public schools our students deserve, support our district in implementing that vision, and provide local investment that will make transformative change possible.

Supporting and transforming Durham Public Schools (DPS) is essential to Durham’s growth and prosperity. When we have public schools in which every student can thrive, then Durham will be a place that can both attract the jobs of the future and prepare our students for those jobs.

Durham has brilliant students and committed educators. The 33,000 students in DPS today are our city’s future. It is time that we all step up and do right by them.

In fall 2018, DPS educators, parents and alumni, and business and civic leaders made a major move in this direction by launching the Durham Public Schools Foundation to build broad community support and investment in public education in Durham. Working in partnership with DPS, we can realize the promise of public education when our community simultaneously invests on two fronts.

First, we must create transformative learning environments by supporting students, educators, and families to develop innovative and equitable practices. This year the DPS Foundation will work with community and business partners to launch education innovation fellowships. Students and teachers will identify a big challenge they experience in education, receive mentorship to develop a new strategy to address it, and funding and support to pilot their solution.

As the district embarks on its ambitious strategic plan, our school communities also have a critical voice in shaping the vision for culturally-responsive schools that create equitable outcomes for students. This work will begin with understanding what’s happening in every school today and lifting up educators who are leading meaningful equity efforts in their schools that can be scaled district-wide.

Second, we must commit to public education by enrolling students in our public schools — thus ensuring that Durham has racially and socioeconomically integrated schools that are best positioned to prepare all of our students for working, living, and thriving in diverse environments. Today, about 30 percent of families, predominantly those with the most resources, are opting out of DPS. The consistent decline in enrollment in DPS over recent years poses an enormous threat to our ability to build the public schools Durham’s students deserve.

Families choosing to not enroll in Durham Public Schools give us the important message that they don’t think their needs will be met. We need to listen to them and learn from that feedback — but we also need them committed to fulfilling the promise of public education as a public good. Every time a family opts out of DPS, it makes the work harder to improve and strengthen our schools. Those families are not directly engaged to help drive changes, and the district has fewer resources to meet increasingly growing student needs.

Something else important happens when families opt out: it sends a message to the families still in our public schools. As 2018 MacArthur Genius winner and former N&O reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote about deciding where to send her daughter to school:

“Saying my child deserved access to ‘good’ public schools felt like implying that children in ‘bad’ schools deserved the schools they got, too. I understood that so much of school segregation is structural… [but] it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system.”

Durham will reach its full potential when our community invests in transformative learning environments that ensure all our students not only attend school together but thrive together. Now is the time for all of us to renew our commitment to Durham Public Schools and its ability to nourish the brilliance in every student.

Magan Gonzales-Smith

Magan Gonzales-Smith is the founding Executive Director of the Durham Public Schools Foundation. She has dedicated her career to working in public education to dismantle barriers to success for students of color and other historically marginalized students. Most recently, Gonzales-Smith served as Associate Director of Insights & Impact for Hill Learning Center. She received her B.A. in Political Science from George Washington University and her Master’s in Public Policy from Duke University. Gonzales-Smith grew up in Eastern North Carolina and she and her husband now make their home in East Durham.