John Locke Update / Research Brief

Student Activism, Academic Achievement, and School Choice in Durham

posted on in Education, Education (PreK-12)
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Last week, students who attend Jordan High School in Durham staged a walkout to protest gun violence and demand stronger gun laws in the wake of the Parkland school shooting.  According to WNCN, “More than half the school participated in the walkout and nearly all seniors took part.” If this estimate is correct, it means that as many as 1,000 students participated.  The school has over 400 seniors alone.

Three months earlier, students from Hillside High School in Durham staged a walkout to bring attention to the deportation of brothers who were in the country illegally.  The Herald-Sun reported that a daughter of one brother “organized an hours-long walk-out at Hillside High,” while her cousin coordinated a walkout at a high school in Wake County.

Clearly, student protests are not unique to Durham County Schools (DPS), but the district appears to be more politically active than most.  What happens, then, when parents simply do not want their child to participate in an activity that they believe is not appropriate for a public school or believe that students are being used as pawns to advance a political agenda that is not consistent with their values?

An exasperated parent of a Jordan High School student contacted me after the Jordan High School walkout.  She wrote,

This week my daughter’s school decided to treat her as a political pawn as part of Durham’s “Walk-Out” in favor of gun restrictions. Parents only learned today via a phone message today. However, it appears that students were being prepared to participate over the past week for a “walk-out” or “march-out” to support gun restrictions in solidarity with the events that sadly transpired in Florida. My heart goes out to those families. However, I really resent the fact that my daughter is being treated like a political pawn to push someone else’s political agenda— seeking to restrict gun rights.  That needs to be worked out in the political arena, not by a captive audience of minors pressured to participate (without parental knowledge). A Durham Police officer was there to lecture students on the benefits of gun restrictions. He asked students to raise their hands if they planned on participating. (No pressure there!)   Most of the students participated (according to my daughter) because they just wanted to get out of class.  For whatever reason, the athletes were explicitly told to not participate.

These parents justifiably feel blindsided by school officials, and I suspect that they are not alone. They believe that the district did an inadequate job of informing parents of the walkout.   And the school appeared to be more interested in accommodating activist students and student-athletes than those who disagreed with the protest.

Academic Achievement

Protests and related activities consume valuable classroom time, which students and teachers cannot afford to lose.  Last year, 37.4 percent of Jordan High School students were proficient in math, 54.5 percent were proficient in reading, and 55.7 percent were proficient in Biology.

Their counterparts at Hillside High School fared worse.  Only 27.3 percent of students were proficient in math, 40.4 percent were proficient in reading, and 30.8 percent were proficient in Biology.  While more than half of Jordan students met the UNC system admissions minimum requirement on the ACT, fewer than one-third did at Hillside.  These are not stellar results.

To be sure, these outcomes cannot be blamed solely on the political activity of students and staff.  But they add to the many distractions that shift the focus of students and teachers from academics to what can charitably be called “extracurricular activities.”

School Choice

Moreover, student activism and politicking are among the many reasons why parents pursue educational options for their children.

Last year, DPS enrolled nearly 33,000 students, while charter schools in the county enrolled around 6,400.  The market share for charters was approximately 16 percent last year, one of the highest in the state.  Because charter school students are permitted to cross county lines to attend a charter, that enrollment figure may underestimate the number of Durham County students who chose a non-DPS public school.

At a meeting last month, Durham Public Schools superintendent Dr. Pascal Mubenga remarked that charter schools “are not serving students well” and will “segregate our schools” if charters continue to expand in the county.  Certainly, Dr. Mubenga’s comments played well with the anti-charter DPS school board, parents who remain loyal to the district, and public school advocacy organizations. Indeed, DPS has been at war with charter schools for at least a decade.  School officials complain that there is a disproportionate share of charter seats for a county of its size, and they would like nothing more than the state legislature to prohibit the expansion of charters in their county.

But students are not just flocking to charter schools.  Nearly 7,000 children attended non-public schools in Durham County last year.  There were an estimated 2,122 home-schoolers and 4,837 private school students opting for these alternatives.  All told, approximately 29 percent of Durham County children were enrolled in schools of choice during the 2016-17 school year.

If DPS officials truly want to know why are so many Durham County families opting for schools of choice, they should consider the ways that their schools alienate families who do not tow the party line.  Without a doubt, the parent quoted above is not the only one in Durham County who is not sympathetic to student and staff activism.  Some parents simply want the district to focus on their core mission of improving academic outcomes for all students.

As Vice President for Research, Terry oversees the research team’s writing and analysis across the spectrum of public policy issues. He specializes in pre-K-12 education. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the program assistant for the Child Welfare… ...

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