Dear Members of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education:
We are writing today, as the Executive Board of the Durham Association of Educators, to share our final thoughts with you as you head into the homestretch of the new Superintendent hire process. As the elected representatives of a significant portion of the DPS workforce, certified and classified, we are reaching out because we know that you have a difficult task. Leadership is a great responsibility, and we continue to be grateful for the thoughtful and progressive ways that you have governed our district in a period of tumult and uncertainty. We feel fortunate to be working with a body that listens openly and engages in constructive dialogue when making decisions about our students and the adults that care for and teach them every day.
DAE’s mission—organizing leadership to defend and transform public schools—summarizes our thoughts on the Superintendent search perfectly.
First, we are clear that any new leadership in the district needs to have a clear understanding of stakes of this moment. The political leaders of this country, from the North Carolina General Assembly to the U.S. Department of Education, are not confused or misguided. They aim, armed with the ideological and material backing of an international movement, to privatize our schools and open up new markets for profit. “School choice,” massive budget cuts, and attacks on the profession of teaching are a few obvious examples of the tools that they are employing to dismantle our public schools. The futures of our community’s young people, and the futures of our communities themselves, are at stake.
New leadership, then, must be willing to defend our district, our students, and our educators, from both the slow creep and the obvious attacks of the privatizers. We must resist the cost-cutting promises or claims of “expertise” by contractors and profit-making operations. Our staff can clean our buildings, teach our young people, feed and transport them, and train and support one another most effectively when all of the operations are accountable to you, our elected representatives. We need public school leadership that is committed to the public. We also need to take our stories to the public, using all of the human and technological capacity available. The privatizers use a narrative of “failing public schools” and “school choice” policies to drive our students and families away from our schools. We love our schools and we know that our students and staff make miracles in them together every day. We need leadership that will engage the privatizers’ narrative head-on and prioritize telling our stories in creative and compelling ways that demonstrably impact public opinion. And finally, we must use the instruments of policy to fend off the privatizers’ attacks. Years ago, when the state legislature took away the due process rights of teachers, the DPS Board voted in stronger protections. This is leadership, and we need a Superintendent who knows that we won’t survive without a clear understanding and a sophisticated strategy that uses every tool at our disposal.
We must also, however, commit to transformation. Our public schools are the last institutions left on the front line of the struggle against poverty and racism. The futures of our students, and our whole society, would be terrifying without them. For too many of our young people, however, the present is still too much of a struggle. Students of color, immigrant students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ-identified students, and poor students deserve more. Gaps in performance on standardized tests are well-known and measurable, even if we know that the measures themselves are biased against poor students and students of color. Privatizers both make money off of and cynically manipulate this data to build the case for increased “school choice.” But we know that our students’ lives are bigger than test scores, and we watch them struggle with the physical, social, and emotional impacts of trauma and instability every day. Some of the solutions that we need, of course, are resource-dependent and contingent upon our broader efforts to win public support and increased funding from county, state, and national bodies. Some of it, though, is not, and can be accomplished through a shift in spirit and orientation.
The new leadership of the district must be willing to engage these gaps and have the courage to create spaces for conversations and problem solving. Staff at all levels should be able to discuss the nature and impacts of social systems that limit our students’ ability to achieve their fullest potential. We should be be taught, and expected to employ, best practices that confront racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia/transphobia and mitigate the social stigma of poverty. All parents, and the communities that entrust us with their young people, should feel valued, welcomed, and engaged. We must use our resources to ensure that our students have what they need to feel whole, healthy, happy, and capable of learning and growing every single day. We must hold one another to the highest standards. Again, we are clear that much of this can be accomplished through shifts in approach, without a significant influx of resources. We are heartened by the myriad ways we already see this happening in the district, and we feel clear that the new leadership must prioritize, and deepen, this commitment.
Similarly, our district leadership must prioritize valuing all staff members. We know that some of this is resource-dependent. And again, much of it is not. Treating people with dignity, respecting our legal rights, and creating healthy work environments can be accomplished without more money. When our efforts successfully garner more resources, they should be distributed equitably, with a commitment to ensuring fairness, sustainability, and economic stability for all staff. New district leadership must understand this as not only a moral/values imperative, but the antidote to high turnover and growing instability among staff. Our students need the support of stable educators. This must be a priority of the new leadership.
Finally, we are clear that the defense and transformation of the district is only possible if new leadership is committed to unleashing the untapped potential of the thousands of leaders we have in the district. We know that leadership is difficult. We know that it is even more difficult when it works in isolation. The experts that we need are already in classrooms, driving our buses, serving breakfast and lunch, answering phones, counseling and coaching students, and cleaning and fixing our buildings. The district leadership should harness all that we already have and create conditions that allow us to find shared purpose and utilize our insights. Listen with humility. Ask people to generate solutions. Create teams and committees that allow for our best to emerge. And then support and resource what we come up with. Leaders don’t need to know all of the answers. They need to know how to understand and frame the problems, ask good questions, identify and develop more leaders, and create the structures that leaders need to carry out our tasks. We have the experts that we need. We need leadership that understands that and turns us loose to collaborate and solve problems.
We have a tremendous amount of faith in your leadership, and regularly boast that ours is the best school board in the state. Irrespective of who you hire, we are excited to continue to lead alongside, and follow, your leadership. Thank you for all of the hard work and thought that you have put into this search already, and thank you for the last bit of energy that you put into getting our students the district leadership that they deserve.
Please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-210-9256 if you have any questions or concerns.
Durham Association of Educators