How You Can Help Durham Public Schools Students in Need

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Organizing laptops at the start of the school year to be distributed to students at Riverside High School
Organizing laptops at the start of the school year to be distributed to students at Riverside High School. Photo by Susie Post-Rust

By James Hatfield

Students who are continuing the school year virtually from home will more frequently turn to their parents or guardians and ask how to spell a word or carry the remainder. Thankfully, there are those who are actively improving the experience of learning from home and mitigating the restrictions caused by COVID-19.

The Durham Public Schools Foundation is made up of a board comprised of parents, educators and alumni who aim to build community support for Durham Public Schools and galvanize resources and partnerships from across the community to help strengthen our public schools for all students. 

In the spring, more than 2,300 donors, volunteers and partners of the organization provided more than 375,000 meals to children and families at the height of the shutdowns that closed schools. Now, the foundation is campaigning to raise $1.5 million for its Accelerating Digital Equity initiative to provide digital devices and access for nearly 33,000 students, many in lower-income families, in Durham Public Schools.  As of mid-September, 644 donors have raised $869,000.

“This was a need that already existed,” says Katie Spencer Wright, development and communications manager for the foundation. “The students are going to need digital literacy and digital skills to be able to successfully enter the workforce and thrive in their adult lives and careers.”

Magan Gonzales-Smith, the foundation’s executive director, says there are four essential pillars that have to be in place to achieve digital equity for students: learning centers, technical support and digital literacy, ongoing student needs for equipment and teacher training. Currently, DPS, Student U, YMCA and Kate’s Korner are all operating learning centers. Other partners may join the collaborative. 

“We are raising funds to help support each of those four areas and ensure that all of our students, especially our most vulnerable students who have the most to lose in this moment, have all of those pieces in place for them,” Magan says.

More than 500 DPS students are able to access these learning centers during the first semester of school. The more funding the community raises, the more students can be served and for more weeks. “We estimate as many as 3,000 DPS students need free access to these centers in order to be successful during remote learning, so a high priority for this campaign is to help make these learning centers accessible to as many of these students as possible,” Katie says. “We expect that learning centers will be needed until schools fully reopen.”

“It’s not just having a device and internet access,” Magan says. “Most fundamentally, you have to have that.”

The stakes are high. Students are facing months of potential learning loss, and lower-income students, especially those who are Black or Hispanic, are more at risk. We could see widening of already substantial student achievement gaps. Or, the community can choose to act.

“We have an opportunity to do something amazing here,” says Laura Helms Reece, Accelerating Digital Equity campaign co-chair, DPS parent and CEO of Rho. “If we get this right, we can provide our teachers, administrators, students and families with world-class digital teaching and learning skills. We can use this time of disruption to catapult us into a leading position in digital learning and digital equity. We can transform the educational experience for all of our kids and open up exciting opportunities for them. I am thrilled about these possibilities.” To learn more and donate, visit bullcityschools.org/digitalequity.

There are resources in Durham County available that extend beyond K-12 schools, like APlus Test Prep. Co-owned by Sheba Brown and Vincent Brown, the tutoring center worked with more than 12,000 students in North Carolina during the 2019/20 school year. (The oldest, a 71-year-old studying to get into law school.) The test prep and tutoring service provider also offers free community programming. “We’re especially excited about continuing our Bellringer Series from the spring,” Sheba says. “[It’s] free grammar and English lessons to help students improve their writing skills.” 

Access for all is regularly front of mind when thinking about how to best serve students. Student U Executive Director Alexandra Zagbayou, who has been with the nonprofit for 11 years, leads a community organization that uses education to build a just and equitable Durham. “We want to spread what we’re doing to impact new students,” Alexandra says. “When I was in school, if I didn’t have a counselor, I think I would have lost it. Having someone to look at what’s happening to you from a different perspective, who has [gone] through what you’re going through, I think that’s super, super important to have.”

Student U’s mission is to empower and equip first-generation college students, public schools, educators and parents. And after working for more than a decade with countless students, through all the trials that come with helping young people grow and change and fail and succeed, the time spent is rewarding. “It’s hard,” Alexandra says, “but it is also a gift to me to be able to do what I believe in every day in a community with people who I’m deeply grateful for and admire and do good work.” 

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