Durham school district redistricting plan corrects segregation
6 mins read

Durham school district redistricting plan corrects segregation

Given that North Carolina public schools are now more segregated than they were before, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling in 1954, it’s no wonder Durham Public Schools (DPS) is taking such bold, purposeful action with the Growing Together initiative. Brown v. Board of Education a unanimous decision compassionately determined that segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” Now, 70 years later and still grappling with segregation and inequality, DPS has directly called for the resegregation of schools and has developed a plan that divides Durham into five regions, creating a student assignment plan in which students can attend either a neighborhood or magnet school.

In their unwavering commitment to diversity and community support, DPS administrators have been working to reimagine student placement and improve the quality of learning environments at DPS. To make this vision a reality, DPS leaders have implemented three key changes: introducing a new DPS regional access model, improving the distribution of programs across all elementary schools, and refining DPS school boundaries. DPS leaders listened to teachers, parents, students, and community members and developed Growing Together to improve and ensure diversity and equity, efficient transportation services, academic offerings, and issues related to overcrowding and undercrowding.

Overall, these changes were designed to advance the goals of diversity and equity across the district and combat many of the issues and barriers that families in our community have struggled with for years. In the enforcement space, the loudest voices of opposition have come from the most “intensely segregated” schools. When I hear disagreement about the goal of Growing Together, simplifying policy, and getting buy-in from stakeholders, I must remain grounded in what I know to be true across Durham and the resegregation of our schools.

District-wide segregation

In 2016, it came to light that enrollment at George Watts Montessori School was discriminatory. The magnet priority zone lottery had no mechanism to avoid the re-creation of segregated schools like in 1955. Several parents, including myself, began demanding answers from DPS regarding the purpose of magnet schools, the purpose of priority zones, and the segregated data to back up their assumptions. The answers varied depending on who you asked. Was it to prevent white flight? Was it to attract more white students to create diversity at George Watts? Was it to attract students from across the district to benefit from the Montessori curriculum? Unfortunately, the entire district did not have the same level of access as those in the priority zone.

Segregation between schools

In 2018, it was discovered that school segregation was damaging local educational environments. At EK Powe, black students were not receiving equal access to a rigorous curriculum. In 2018, 78.5 percent of the school’s 39.2 percent white population were withdrawn from Advanced and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) classes, while 90 percent of its 32.7 percent black students did not receive the same rigor. At Jordan High School, the suspension rate (resegregation) for black students was more than six times higher than the suspension rate for white students (20.81 percent black, 3.23 percent white, and 6.72 percent Latino). The suspension rate for white students was almost nonexistent (0.83 percent).

Another example of perpetuating resegregation came in 2019, when the DPS administration presented recommendations to the Board of Education to change the zoning due to overcrowding at Githens Middle School, whose demographics are 24.3 percent white, 37 percent black, and 31.7 percent Latino, and move students to Brogden Middle School, whose demographics are 14.4 percent white, 33.4 percent black, and 45.8 percent Latino. The administration presented the board with the natural boundary of Cornwallis Road. If you lived south of Cornwallis, you would be zoned Githens, and if you lived north of Cornwallis, you would be zoned Brogden.

On November 7, 2019, a handful of families from one community (Duke Forest) petitioned the board to allow their neighborhood north of the boundary line to attend Githens, an already overcrowded school with a higher white population than Brogden Middle School. Their reasons were varied: they wanted to keep their children together; some families would not have chosen DPS; it was more convenient. The DPS Board of Education ordered staff to investigate further and within two weeks agreed to the requested change, placing students in the already overcrowded school, despite publicly stating that they were trying to avoid that. These are examples of “exceptions to the rules” that continue to perpetuate inequality in the school district.

We study together

Growing Together doesn’t have to be painful when communities are willing to learn together. At the height of racial and economic diversity at George Watts in 2018, school and district leadership began to reckon with these disparities and authentically engage Black parents. As a result of this engagement, George Watts had the highest academic growth among Black students in the district that academic year. In 2019, the school had its most inclusive fundraising carnival yet (featuring minority vendors, cultural inclusion and family participation, and authentic commitment to participate) that raised over $50,000 for its school community, which led to a partnership with a majority-minority Title I school to offer a donation and one-on-one support to build a community of parent engagement. When we can have open discussions about race, implicit bias, and build authentic relationships with students and families, everyone in our community thrives.

Growing Together has the ability to ensure that diversity, equitable access to rigorous curriculum, global language, arts, and STEM programming are extended to every student in our community, regardless of their zip code. Growing Together has the ability to connect economically diverse backgrounds and potentially result in a more equitable distribution of resources.

Parents have complained about fragmented information, confusing applications, and a lack of communication between central administrators and schools as part of the Growing Together plan. While I can acknowledge that there are several moving parts that need to be put in place at the start of the 2024-2025 school year, the courage to do what this administration has done is commendable. Communication throughout the process is key and will help resolve questions that families have; however, I can also speak truth to power and reveal that some of the public comments are driven by personal desires, not personal hardships or a collective, inclusive “wave-raising.”

Jovonia Lewis is a former member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.