It’s a question I expect to hear from buyers and their agents as they tour homes we’ve listed in subdivisions that are divided: some streets are in Durham County while other sections of the neighborhood are in Orange County. All too often, when the answer is Durham County, it becomes a deal breaker for a buyer. It’s practically a knee-jerk reaction: “we don’t want Durham County Schools, we want Orange County Schools”.

Durham Public School’s reputation has been dismal at best over the years. Even as Durham continues to add scores of new residents daily, these newcomers have habitually avoided Durham Schools in favor of charter schools or private schools. In fact, over the last eight years, charter schools have experienced a 110% increase in enrollment while public school enrollment had gone up just 3%. A full 30% of Durham County school-aged children don’t even attend Durham Public Schools.

However, with last month’s release of North Carolina’s school test scores, there’s a subtle, almost silent transformation taking place within the Durham Public School System. Compared to last year’s scores, the number of F-graded schools in Durham County has dropped from six to one and the number of B-graded schools have risen from eight to 11.

One school in particular, Lakewood Elementary, jumped two letter grades from an F to a C! Kudos to Principal James Hopkins, the teachers, and of course, the students. The big question is, “how did they do it?”. At the helm of this transformation is Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga. This past January, he laid out a strategic 5-year plan that fosters a strong partnership between Durham schools, parents, teachers, and an unwavering commitment from the business community.

Every school will have an official community partner. In Lakewood’s case, they have three: Duke University, YMCA, and KBI Biopharma. Every day, Duke students volunteer as tutors at Lakewood.

On a similar note, the DPS Foundation was formed a year ago specifically to foster community support and investment in Durham Public Schools. About 25 businesses have helped fund school projects and there’s about $120,000 in grants planned for next year. Additionally, the Foundation provides an online forum for parents to request meetings with city officials to discuss enrolling in Durham Public Schools.

Is the plan working? Well, a couple of weeks into the school year, Durham Public Schools has an enrollment of 32,993. That’s an increase of 555 students over last year’s number. And according to Mubenga, it’s encouraging since he hadn’t seen numbers like this going back four to five years.

There’s a slew of dedicated individuals and businesses working hard to flip Durham Public School’s reputation on its backside. As realtors serving as the front line to new home buyers contributing to the rise of Durham’s popularity, we have the responsibility and duty to defend these efforts and change the knee-jerk reaction to the all too frequent question:
“Is That House In Orange County or Durham County?”. Everyone’s response going forward should be, “Yes! It’s Durham County! And have you seen what’s been going on with the rejuvenated Durham Public School System?”.

Durham Magazine: October / November 2019 Issue pg. 122