Q&A with School Board candidate Donald Hughes

By Briana Aguilar
NCCU Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

What are some of the ideas that you plan to implement if elected to a seat on the Durham Public School Board.

Many of the schools in District 1 are the lowest performing schools in the district. One of the things I think we need to bring to the interior Durham Public Schools, even more importantly to District 1, is an environment where we are allowing parents, teachers, community members, and business leaders, to really have a part in the direction that the school system faces.

I am hoping to implement a system-wide tutoring and mentoring program. We are not just asking individuals to come into the schools to tutor and mentor students, but we are keeping track of hours logged in the schools, the type of activities taking place with the tutors and mentors, to see what kind of positive impact that we can have on our students in the district.

Finally, we have to understand all students learn differently. We must look at programs across the state and nation where districts have brought some of the lowest performing school systems to grade level and even far beyond and then try to replicate those programs. I would be one of those individuals.

NECD has a large African American population. As you know, the Latino community is growing rapidly. Are there any programs that you’d like to implement into the school system that you would reach out to those children regardless of a language barrier?

Not being of Hispanic origin, I don’t know all the challenges that our Hispanic students are facing in the community and in the school system. But one of the things I do know is that we have a number of organizations whose missions and goals are to serve the Hispanic population here in Durham. We have El Centro Hispano and a number of organizations that the Durham Public School System must partner with to figure out what are the specific challenges our Latino students are facing. We must make a connection with our Latino parents. We’re working with the students on a day-to-day basis, but we often don’t involve the parents in the process of education. We have to also find a way to communicate the objectives and vision of the Durham Public Schools, and find a way for the Hispanic parents to really buy into our efforts to educate their young people.

I would focus a lot of energy on really allowing those community organizations to lead the way, because they understand the challenges that their population faces. And we can just implement it with our educational experts, technology, and resources that we have, to help them accomplish their goals. I can’t be specific until we sit down and have a candid discussion with our Latino community about some of their challenges and of their issues in the Durham public schools.

With so many cutbacks, how do you plan to budget some of your ideas?

A lot of the ideas I have won’t require a large amount of funds. Again, the community organizations that already exist receive funding from our city and county government. Some of them receive funding from the state government and some receive federal funding. Using resources that already exist is a way to really leverage the community effort that we already have, so we don’t have to duplicate and spend extra money through Durham public schools.

I am not going to propose anything that is so radical and so costly. I think that it’s just common sense approaches and maximizing the resources that we already have available in the community. I know that we are facing a serious budget crunch this year. I think they are projecting somewhere between an $18-25 million shortfall, so we obviously have to find a way to cut back our expenditures or look for other opportunities for funding. I would definitely champion ways to implement proposals for grant funding from our federal and state government to really target these challenge areas that we face.

District One has been known for high crime rates. How do you plan to keep children in school and out of gang activity?

Having grown up in NECD, we do face our share of problems in terms of criminal activity. But I will say that District One doesn’t have any more criminal activity than any other district in our community and in the city of Durham. What I mean by that is, often low-income communities have more police presence. More police presence and surveillance leads to an increase in the number of crimes actually reported.

I do believe that there is crime that takes place over all the city of Durham and we must work to minimize crime wherever it exists, but I don’t like the characterization of NECD being more crime ridden than any other part of the community.

I really believe that economics is one of the most important factors and we have to increase opportunities for our young people to obtain jobs and to obtain internships, so that they won’t resort to a life of crime and drugs in order to just meet their basic needs. The approach I’m hoping to bring to the school board is really partnering with our business community to provide increased opportunities for our young people. If we give them a chance through our curriculum to participate in what I call project-based learning where they would partner with a business to complete a project for a class grade that helps their business solve a particular problem.

By giving that student the first step into the business, I know we can create opportunities for long-term relationships, where that business will be open to provide internships and jobs to our young people. That’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that I plan to bring to the school system. Again, by implementing a tutoring and mentoring program so that young people can know the individuals in the community that are dependent upon them to be successful and productive members of society that we need in order to take Durham to the next level.

There is a high percentage of children who are homeless. Do you have any plans for these particular children in District One?

Again, it boils down to the lack of economic development that exists in the community and the lack of jobs. I actually have volunteered to collect food on behalf of the Backpack Buddy program. They fill backpacks up for students, with nutritious non-perishable items, that can sustain them through the weekend when they aren’t in school.

I think we have to expand those kinds of programs to recruit volunteers to go and collect resources for the type of efforts that deal with our most needy children. We have to open up the doors of the school system to partner the local homeless shelters and various organizations.

We can’t expect our school board members to know all there is to know about every single challenge that our community faces, but if we rely on individuals in the community that have expertise then we can accomplish much more than operation in isolation.

How do you plan to keep the dialogue open between the board members and the community?

If we look at two great models that already exist here in Durham, we have our Durham County Board of Commissioners and our City Council. What both of those elected bodies do to engage the community, they actually have various boards and commissions which citizens can apply in order to meaningfully contribute to discussion around areas they may be interested.

I think that’s the direction we need to move our school system in, and our board of education. We have to look at the creation of various boards that will allow community members, parents and teachers to really have a say in issues, such as the school system budget, curriculum development, and how to engage our parents from some of our most at-risk communities, and how to keep our students from dropping out.

The creation of boards and commissioners will give the community the opportunity to play a part in decisions, instead of just sitting back waiting on the school system to make decisions. They can have a proactive way to be involved with the various decisions that are made through the system. That’s really where I can concretely say I hope to engage parents and community members in a meaningful way.

Will you do anything besides serve on the board?

The school board doesn’t require all of your time, and is paid less than $10,000 a year. They have one official board meeting per month. All of our board members currently have full-time jobs. The chair of the board Minnie Forte-Brown is a professor at NCCU. The board is set up so individuals can maintain jobs and serve the board. I think it’ll be an asset to me to be a graduate student in the Public Administration program (at NCCU) because I can take what I’ve learned in the program and actually apply it to real life situations I may be faced with on the board of education.