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Ouster of Durham School of the Arts principal brings supporters and critics to tears

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David Hawks

Durham Public Schools

Tensions ran high at Thursday night’s Durham school board meeting, with students, parents and educators speaking out over the board’s not renewing a principal’s contract.

Earlier this week, Durham School of the Arts principal David Hawks informed the PTSA that his 14 years at the visual and performing arts magnet school would end June 30.

The school, which occupies about three blocks on North Duke Street near downtown, has about 1,750 students in grades six through 12.

More than 30 people signed up to speak during Thursday’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 in particular how Hawks made sure DSA 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.

Rising junior 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,” she said.

Others expressed similar sentiments and encouraged the board to reconsider its decision.

Others 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.”

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.

Hawks has said the board’s decision to not offer him another contract came despite Superintendent Pascal Mubenga recommending he continue at the school..

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 board will not comment further on the personnel matter.

This story will be updated with more information today. Please return for a fuller report.

The Durham Report

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