Program Report: Dr. Eric Becoats – Durham Public Schools

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From left to right Dr. Julie Spencer, Dr. Lewis Ferebee, Dr. Eric Becoats, Dr. Stacey Wilson-Norman, Y.E. Smith Principal Letisha Judd, Neal Middle School Principal Jill Hall and COO Hugh Osteen.

Durham Public Schools Superintendent and Rotarian Eric Becoats brought his brain trust as guests for a status report on the schools. Introduced by CountyCommissioner and Rotarian Ellen Reckhow, Dr. Becoats gave an encouraging report on the continuing improvement in the academic achievements of the 32 thousand plus students including greatly improved end-of-grade tests and the fact that we no longer have even a single school classified as low performing. Graduation rates are up and dropout rates are down.

In the last thirty years we have seen many changes in our school systems and many, many superintendents come and go.  And although there are still many challenges, this was one of the more positive reports that we have seen. One of those challenges is literacy.  Our Club has taken on the role of organizing the Reading Rangers to tutor in the schools because of a frustratingly high rate of illiteracy among our students.

As often happens, some of the most meaningful insights came from Dr. Becoats in response to questions. One dealt with why a family with the capability to send their children to private schools should send them to DPS and a similar question about attracting white residents back to the school system so that the school population resembles the population as a whole.  It’s unfortunate that we still have to measure things that way but that’s the reality.

The short answer was that the system has to make it attractive. The obvious institutional things that the system is doing such as creating magnet schools and specialized curricula for niche interests, are extremely important. But there is something else that is a little more subtle that seemed to come out in the response to Melissa Mills’ testimonial about her daughter moving easily from the Durham Public Schools to Stanford.  It has to do with community commitment and involvement.

I’m a proud Reading Ranger on Monday mornings at Y. E. Smith but I’ll admit I wasn’t convinced that either the classroom teachers or the administration would welcome a bunch of know-it-all Rotarians into their classrooms with a minimum of training. But what I have gotten out of the experience has been more than what I expected in terms really helping and getting to know the three young students that I have been working with.  Maybe I’m helping them and I do get my warm and fuzzy feeling from their smiles, but maybe the teaching assistant in the classroom could be doing it just as well.

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the real importance of the program is just being there. I had a similar feeling working on a Habitat house the first time. I knew that a couple of experienced framing carpenters with nail guns could run circles around a bunch of amateurs with hammers putting together the pieces of a home. But being in the classroom (or on the job site for Habitat) gets you more involved and more committed than the alternative of paying more taxes to try for the same outcome…and you get better results.

Our schools cannot fail if the community supports them. The kids that, for whatever reason, have parents that cannot be actively involved in their children’s education need those that can, to be involved even more. Since I began tutoring, I’ve probably spent more time in east Durham than I have in the previous 28 years combined. It has made me realize that the community is much broader than I ever imagined and made the idea of diversity much less scary. Y. E. Smith is amazing. The reason that we need to support DPS whether we are white or black or have “options” is because the kids need it, the community needs it, and our souls need it.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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