Program Report: DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga

Having a 6 year old kid in my household who now is in kindergarten at Hope Valley Elementary makes the quality of our public schools much less abstract, the same way getting mugged makes crime statistics achingly real.

And so, it was not just my lousy hearing that put me on the front row for new Superintendent Dr. Pascal Mubenga’s program.  However, I did bring a little skepticism with me.

We have seen much progress since the merger of the city and county systems in 1992. Nevertheless, the statistics that Dr. Mubenga shared shows that we still have a long way to go. During that time, Durham and the Club have heard from several new superintendents that where hired with high hopes and who promised a strategic plan and great progress.

As Dr. Mubenga pointed out, some of the challenges haven’t changed. Durham has a history of poverty that all the start-ups in the American Underground have barely made a dent in. 67% of the 32 thousand plus students in the system qualify for lunch assistance.  Many of these students still suffer from a legacy of racial segregation that deprived their parents and grandparents of equal education. This is now exacerbated by an influx of families that may speak Spanish at home but whose kids must keep up in classes with English speakers.

Three other external forces pull the numbers down. The first is the proliferation of Charter Schools that now siphon over 6,000 students and enormous amounts of money away from DPS.  Often these are students that would raise the average performance of a school. Second, the legislature’s involvement in dictating class size and teacher pay, squeezes resources even more. And finally, technology is requiring a much higher level of education for the jobs that will get someone out of poverty and into the middle class.

Like his predecessors, Dr. Mubenga promised a strategic plan soon. But he also provided some reasons why we shouldn’t lose hope of moving the needle significantly towards improvement under his leadership.

Most importantly, he’s done it before…in North Carolina, in the Triangle, in the Johnston County School system.

Also very important is that he outlined what he called Four Guiding Principles. These principles are what guide the jump from strategic objectives to the day to day goals and tactics that are necessary to implement a strategic plan.

The first is to raise the bar for the level of performance through high expectations. That phrasing may be a little redundant but that’s where you have to start with students, parents, teachers, principals, the rest of the Administration, the school board and the community.

Second, provide outstanding support through a service-oriented approach to our schools (teachers and principals) and to students and their families.

Third, hold everyone accountable in their roles and responsibilities for increasing student achievement.

The fourth principle, (which I found a little surprising, but I totally get it,) is to celebrate successes along the way.

We should be encouraged. The missing piece for me is how it’s paid for. Strategic planning involves a lot of modeling of where the money comes from and where it goes for greatest impact.

At the end of last year tutoring twice a week in a kindergarten class at Y. E. Smith I was disappointed to hear that the teacher whose class I was in, was leaving the profession after five years. She was young, enthusiastic, the kids loved her, and I could see results in her teaching. When I asked her why she was leaving, it came down to money. She said she’d like to be able to buy a house someday, so she was going back to school to learn website development.

This was sort of like witnessing that mugging and removed the abstraction from the numbers. It also reminded me of why I left teaching way back in 1973. Some things are slow to change.

Money won’t solve all the problems, but it is unquestionably part of the equation, something I’m sure all of our community leaders are aware of, especially the elected officials that were in the room for the presentation .

I think we all wish Dr. Mubenga well and hope he will come back and update us with good news for many years to come.

Dr. Mubenga was introduced by Program Chair Steed Rollins.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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