DPS votes to redraw school assignment boundaries, thousands to attend new schools

Michael Perchick Image
Friday, January 20, 2023
DPS votes to redraw school assignment boundaries
School leaders say this reassignment will improve equity and access throughout the district by putting magnet programs in all five regions of the district.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Thursday night's Durham Public Schools Board meeting concerned potential effects on legacy students, following the Board's approval for new elementary school boundaries in June 2022.

"We also looked at the demographics of our magnet programs and realized that many of the students in our county didn't have access to them based on some of the rules that were in place. So realizing that, the process started to think about how do we assign students to relieve overcrowding, how do we have opportunities that are all across the district," said Durham Public Schools Board Chair Bettina Umstead.

Initial discussions about redistricting pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, and while Umstead highlighted recently completed and ongoing construction of new schools to keep up with population growth, she believed further change could not be further delayed.

"In many of our schools that are experiencing overcrowding, they have students in trailers, they have moved some of their specials classrooms, so arts and music, on to a cart, instead of having a dedicated room space for that," said Umstead.

"The longer you allow that to happen with the more gradual transition, the longer problem continues or even gets worse. So it was a compromise between flipping the switch and making everyone move all at once and extending the process for six years and allowing those inequities to continue," added Chip Sudderth, DPS Chief Communications Officer.

The district further believes this will make more services available to more students.

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"We have five regions in Durham County that are comparable in terms of socioeconomics and racial diversity, and will have choice programs like year-round and dual language immersion in each region, which is something that we don't have today," said Sudderth.

However, the boundary lines have drawn pushback from some parents, who are worried about their children needing to switch schools.

"It makes no sense geographically to call everything north of 85 one region. My child attends George Watts (Elementary) which is a very short drive from my house. Not only is it a quick drive to school, but its proximity to my house has made it easy to attend PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences. Our proximity to classmates makes attending birthday parties no problem at all. Because I work an hourly wage, I will not be able to take off work to attend PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences at Little River. My daughter will be attending a school when the majority of her classmates don't live anywhere near her. The bus ride she takes will probably be an hour or longer every day," said James Guptil.

"I sought a Montessori school purposefully. This was the educational goal I had for her, so it's devastating to someone like me who is just being told no, the dream that you had to have your daughter in a Montessori school is potentially being threatened," added Janel Thompson, mother of a Morehead Montessori kindergartner.

Parents are able to apply for hardship waivers or transfer applications.

"What happens to the community that we have built and invested in over many, many years when the majority of that community is displaced? Is there really no way to allow our current students to stay and finish out their tenure? These are not just details or things to be figured out later. These are the things that matter to our community," asked Theresa Dowell Blackinton, a parent to a Club Boulevard Elementary School student.

Ultimately the board voted 6 to 1 in favor of the redistricting.

This move affects students in kindergarten through third-graders in the fall of 2024. The plan is estimated to affect about 2,000 elementary school students.

The district hasn't adjusted boundaries in 30 years and outdated boundaries were just one factor behind the shift. Current overcrowding and long bus waits were some of the others.

Pre-K seats will also increase and the plan will reduce transportation time.

Parents who spoke out at the meeting said they were concerned.

"That means this is going to be a big transition for our family and it might be inconvenient and it might be stressful. We will be really sad to leave the East Lake community that we have grown to love, but we will be making this transition gladly. We will be thinking of the other families in Durham that this will be benefitting," one mother said.

Moving forward the chair of DPS Board of Education is calling for the community to get on board and support the changes.

The district acknowledged feedback surrounding communication, pledging to ramp up its outreach efforts to ensure parents and children are prepared for the transition.

"I was excited to see all of the changes that were coming, but I felt blindsided by the way that they implemented this," said Thompson.

"We need school by school, I think community by community, information to have conversations about what is coming next and making sure families are aware of their options," Umstead explained.

Sudderth added DPS is focused on recruiting more bus drivers, noting transportation times was another area they hope to improve upon with the transition.