Walking through Central Park School for Children in Durham, students can be heard talking and laughing as they work on their assignments in class. It seems to be an ordinary school as Director John Heffernan leads the way through the halls, but the school has taken an innovative and creative approach to creating an equitable learning environment.
In the 2012-2013 school year, enrolled students of color made up only 29 percent of the student population in comparison to Durham Public Schools’ 81 percent. According to Heffernan, school leaders realized they had “become part of the problem in re-segregation, similar to other charter schools.” So, they decided to take a deep dive and reflect on their work and the students they served. It was this clarity that helped them to move the needle forward towards a new vision for the school.
They started giving weighted lottery preference to economically disadvantaged families in 2013 which made them the first charter school to do so and changed their policies to provide free and reduced-price lunches along with transportation assistance. While these are just a few of the steps Central Park School has taken to create a student population that is more reflective of the Durham community, the school knew they needed to do more, and so they didn’t stop there.
Central Park School rolled out a new strategic plan in May 2017 with a focus on creating equitable opportunities for students and parents. The school’s goal was to show parents that they were serious about their new vision and strategy, and dedicated to making a change. Part of their strategic plan was to send board members, staff, and even some parents to Racial Equity Institute training.
“The school helped me go to the training, and I was inspired to act immediately,” said Yolanda Brown, a parent of two sons who attend the school. “I saw the strategic plan and the structural changes, and knew the school was taking this work seriously.”
Central Park School found their biggest advocates in their parents. They knew the importance of this work and how it could help their children thrive. “This equity work needs to be done, and it can be done not only in Durham, but across the country,” Brown said.
While the school knew the work was a step in the right direction, the shift to make their work more equitable brought about a lot of hard conversations on what needs to change. They found a need for balance between acknowledging the biases that existed and starting the work. The school has a commitment on recruitment and elevating leadership, and for some, this can mean relinquishing responsibilities in certain ways. “This work needs to be interdependent,” said Heffernan. “And it requires a growth mindset and determination of improving, and that can be hard but it’s vital.”
Central Park School has demonstrated the importance of moving forward in equity work and being open to mistakes along the way.
“Our first year of this work didn’t go smoothly, but we had to start that conversation. We knew we needed to walk or even crawl before we could run,” Heffernan explained. “We’re actively saying we don’t have all the answers and are working with organizations like Village of Wisdom and Spirit House to learn more about how we can be better and to understand how we can build up the success of every child.”
It wasn’t just the school leadership that was brought into the change either. Teachers were excited to step up in leadership and explore their own curriculum for ways to be more equitable. The reading list, extracurricular activities, and their own form of communication with parents and students were all evaluated to make sure each student had what they needed to succeed.
Erin Linn, third-grade teacher at Central Park School, built a stronger communication relationship with her students and parents to really understand what they needed from her as a teacher. Because of this step, a family who historically had been absent from parent-teacher conferences and generally non-participatory have been attending conferences, supported decisions to get their child extra help in class, and have even participated in field trips. Linn shared, “this may seem like a small step, but I believe that anything we can do as educators to make education and school more accessible to a child’s family will result in positive experiences and will help build trust. Those things can make a huge difference for a child and their family.“
The school’s shift even changed the way teachers looked at the books they were reading and assigning to the class. “I have been more purposeful about having the books I read aloud have pictures with characters that look like my students,“ said Anna Morrison, first-grade teacher at Central Park School. “ I believe all children and families matter, and I want this to be conveyed in my teaching, my language, and the way my classroom looks and feels.
When the school noticed that many of the books students were reading were written by white authors with white characters, the lack of inclusivity in the publishing industry proved there was a larger systemic issue. The school library began to cultivate a collection of books that included stories with characters the students can relate to and identify with, and these are the books students are now assigned to read and engaged with.
What does the future hold for Central Park School for Children? In a matter of five years, the students who graduate will have been a part of this more equitable vision and strategy.
“Not only will they all have the cognitive reading and collaboration skills, but more so, they will have a deep sense of belonging and worth,” described John. “Our students will leave with a more equitable outlook, be prepared for the real world, and advocate not only for themselves but for others in their community.”