School board names interim Durham School of the Arts principal, as parents speak out

·4 min read

Durham Public Schools has named Jim Key the interim principal of Durham School of the Arts, effective July 1.

The decision was made at Thursday’s school board meeting, during which students, parents and educators spoke about the board’s recent decision to not renew current principal David Hawks’ contract.

Key, who will serve through December, has been a teacher, principal, coach and area superintendent for high schools, and has spent his entire career in the Durham Public Schools system after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, according to a DPS press release.

“Mr. Key’s extensive history and knowledge of DPS and respect from across the Durham community make him the perfect supportive leader to students and staff at DSA as we begin the hiring process for a new principal,” said Superintendent Pascal Mubenga. “We are all glad that he is coming back during this important time.”

Earlier this week, Hawks informed his school’s PTSA that his 14 years at the visual and performing arts magnet school would end June 30. The board’s decision to not offer him another contract came despite Mubenga recommending he continue, he said.

DSA, which spans about three blocks on North Duke Street near downtown, has roughly 1,750 students in grades six through 12.

More than 30 people signed up to speak during Thursday night’s public comments period, which lasted close to an hour.

DSA teacher Matthew Thompson said staff members have been sobbing “for days” and thanked Hawks for his leadership.

He noted how Hawks made sure students and staff had access to technology during the pandemic. He also pointed to Hawks’ guidance during the deadly 2019 gas explosion down the street from the school.

“I fear you have made a grave mistake,” Anthony Amos, another DSA teacher, told the school board.

Student Elizabeth Kramling said the school has flourished under Hawks’ advocacy for the arts.

“He has been there for us, and I’m disappointed that you’re taking him away,” the rising junior said.

Others at DSA tell a different story

Ronda Taylor Bullock, a former DPS teacher and current education chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, said she doesn’t doubt the success stories shared by families and educators.

But the experiences of Black and brown students and students with disabilities are different, she said.

“If you don’t know, it’s because you don’t want to know, and you’ve been under a rock,” Taylor Bullock said.

The Rev. Fatimah Salleh, who transferred her two sons out of DSA, said it’s possible to hold multiple truths at once about the success of the school and the traumatic experiences of some students.

“The success of Mr. Hawks does not have to come at the expense of brown, Black bodies,” she said through tears at the meeting. “It does not, and it has.”

According to DPS disciplinary data, in the 2019-20 school year, Black students made up 29% of the total school population, but 44% of those receiving restorative practices, which the district transitioned to from in-school suspensions. Hispanic students constituted 25% of the total school population, but 31% of those receiving restorative practices.

White students, who made up 37% of the total school population, received 16% of restorative practices in the same year.

Jay Rahim, who graduated from DSA last week, said it was upsetting to hear white students, teachers and parents praise Hawks’ success based on quantitative measures.

“It’s almost as if our stories, our experiences do not matter in any way,” Rahim said in an interview after the meeting.

DSA parent Cathi Sanders said the school board needs to be transparent about its decision in order to get to the root of racial equity issues at DSA.

There’s a disconnect between the leadership at the district level and what’s happening at the school level, Sanders said.

“What’s the process? Because us as the PTSA, us in the school improvement team, us at these levels of the folks being involved in the school are not hearing about these things,” she said.

As of now, DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said the school board has no comment on the personnel matter.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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