This article appeared in The Herald-Sun in 2012:

By Wes Platt

Jackie Tobias leads the way, walkie-talkie in hand, down the stairs and through the corridors of Riverside High School.

On a recent morning, the nearly 1,750 students are swarming through the halls of this Durham public school between classes, although some linger in pairs and trios, talking together or listening to iPods with their white earbud cords dangling. They’ve got about five minutes to reach their next class.

“Keep moving,” Tobias urges, firm but not impatient. She’s smiling. “If they’re not moving, they’ll never get where they’re going on time.”

***

It’s not quite as hectic in the halls of Duke School’s middle school building as Tracy Proctor opens the door into Jeannine Borzello’s art class.

The private school serves 490 students in pre-K to 8th grade.

About two dozen kids are gathered in groups of three and four around tables in the room, with its prominent windows and warm wooden accents trimmed with painted leaves.

They’re working on the first phases of a longer-term project, curling and clipping wire in shapes like ancient fossils, from lizards to horseshoe crabs to snails.

“It’s all building up toward a culmination next month,” Borzello says. “They’re doing great with it.”

***

In its first year, Research Triangle High School – Durham’s first public charter high school – has 150 students in its strip center campus.

When they’re not in a structured class, the students spend study time in the common area.

Since the school opened in August, it has seen some students who originally left public schools in the surrounding region return to the public schools. But other new students have enrolled to fill the void.

“That always happens, especially with a new charter school,” said Pam Blizzard, the director of RTHS. “Sometimes it’s just not a good fit, so parents have to do what’s best for the children.”

***

The home school run by Melissa and Tommy Lee Edwards has two students, Henry and Scarlett. They’ve got several live mascots: a dog, Jane, and four cats named Tibby, Jingle Bell, Kanaya and Philomena.

Their campus is pretty much anywhere they want to go.

Sometimes it’s the dining room table in their home on a few acres of rural Chatham County land in a town called Silk Hope.

But sometimes it’s the Nasher Museum, where Henry is working with a team on a prototype for a smartphone application, or Bull City Crafts, where Scarlett puts her colorful artwork inspired by Princess Mononoke on display.

They follow the calendar used by Chatham County’s public schools, though.

“We want to make sure their time off matches up with the days their friends have off,” Melissa Edwards said.

***

These four educational approaches – public, private, charter and home schools – are different in many ways.
Public schools like Riverside High, subsidized by dwindling tax dollars, provide structure, a common curriculum and extracurricular activities, such as athletics. They’re part of a big machine, with federal, state and local education agencies pushing for excellence on tests while parents and children sometimes push back, wanting more unstructured activity time when kids can just be kids.

“School for me is school,” Tobias said. “Riverside High is a great school. We have a lot to offer and, even with budget cuts, we have all that we need to run a great school. I love the diversity of Riverside, I love the community, I love the staff and I could not ask for a better calling.”

Private schools like Duke School, provided to those who can afford tuition and sometimes to those who qualify for scholarships, aren’t immune to testing pressures, but are able to pursue a style of curriculum that school leaders best suits their community.

“The advantage of private school is that parents can choose a program that fits their educational philosophy and the learning style of their child,” said Dave Michelman, top administrator at Duke School. “Since a private school is not shackled with governmental requirements and end of the year tests, the curriculum can be more dynamic and engaging to students. Teachers are free to teach, and students are free to enjoy learning.”

The downside: “Many parents feel private schools are elitist and only for the rich.”

Tuition at Duke School ranges from $2,500 to $16,800 based on a family’s ability to pay, Michelman said. More than 25 percent of the school’s students pay below the maximum.

Charter schools like Research Triangle High are considered public and receive some state tax dollars that would otherwise go to traditional public schools. They tend to benefit from smaller class sizes, although transportation may rely on regional transit bus passes or carpooling. However, charters don’t get any money for capital outlay. If they want to expand facilities, they must rally parents and community to invest in the project.

Home schools like the one run by the Edwardses give families the smallest class sizes, but they rely on parents to have the expertise to teach, sort through the best textbooks and learning methods for their children or the know-how to find mentors who can help. Parents play principal, teacher, bus driver, janitor, media center manager, athletic director. But each child can learn at their own pace, with a style that’s inherently natural to them.

The home school remains answerable to the state Department of Public Instruction and parents must administer standardized tests and keep the results on hand if they don’t send them in.

Despite their differences, all these methods share one goal in common: preparing children to be productive citizens of the world.

***

In Steve Unruhe’s journalism class, Cameron McNeill is working on a “face-off” piece for the Riverside High School newspaper.

He’s taking on the role of President Barack Obama in a point-counterpoint against Republican contender Mitt Romney.

“Mitt Romney flip-flopped more than a pair of rainbow sandals,” McNeill reads from the computer screen to a friend next to him. “Think that’s funny?”

“It’s kinda funny,” his friend agrees.

McNeill, a 16-year-old junior who plays on the varsity soccer team and participates in trampoline dodgeball at Defy Gravity, comes from a big family in the upscale Croasdaile Farms neighborhood off Hillandale Road.

His classes other than journalism include advanced placement classes in English, U.S. history and calculus.
He and his older siblings – brothers Jonathan and Matthew and sister Jenna – all followed the same Durham Public Schools track, from Hillandale Elementary to Brogden Middle to Riverside High.

His father David works in finance for IBM. His mother Diana is a doctor and clinician educator at Duke Medical Center.

David McNeill attended public schools in Connecticut, while Diana attended private Catholic schools in Florida.
They sent their kids to public school rather than private for two reasons: David valued his own public education and both parents wanted to save for college instead of paying tuition for four kids in private school.

“Another consideration was the demographics of Durham,” David McNeill said. “We considered the diversity of Durham’s population to be best represented in our public schools and we wanted our children to grow up respecting and enjoying their community.”

The McNeills find plenty to like in public schools, with honors courses and career technical education opportunities. But they recognize drawbacks too.

“Public schools are supported by tax dollars and are subject to the limitations of government funding,” David McNeill said. “Public schools cannot adequately identify and differentiate the payment of truly excellent teachers as well as those in private, so it is likely that some excellent teachers will be attracted to offerings in other educational and business environments.”

***

In Borzello’s art class, Bella Cude quietly and carefully coils wire into the form of a nautilus shell on a sheet of white paper.

“It’s pretty fun,” says the sixth grader, who went to Epworth for pre-school and has been at Duke School since kindergarten. In the coming weeks, she’ll add layers of leaves and toilet paper until the creation takes on the appearance and texture of a fossilized discovery.

Her parents, Susie Bird and Jonathan Cude, are divorced. Bird, a self-employed commercial real estate attorney, lives in the south Durham neighborhood of Woodcroft.

“I went to public school all the way through,” Bird said. “I was very determined, actually, that Bella go to public school too, at least at first.”

Cude pushed for private school and Bird compromised on Duke School because it would end at eighth grade and then Bella could get some “real life” experience in a public high school.

“Ironic,” Bird said, “because now I wish that Duke School went through 12th grade!”

She recalled that her mother, a public school teacher, had warned that “it’s kids like Bella, reasonably smart and capable, who get little to no attention in the public schools, the teachers being overwhelmed by numbers and the more challenging children.”

Next weekend, Bella’s swimming in a triathlon with her mom and stepmother on a relay team they’ve dubbed “Modern Family.”

***

Lara Pacifici, science teacher for Research Triangle High School, watches as DeVon Eaddy and other students in her first period class check their egg weights.

Different teams let their eggs soak in different solutions as part of an experiment to see how osmosis works through plasma membranes.

One team dunked an egg in corn syrup. Another submerged their egg in salt water. Others used colored water or sugar water.

Eaddy’s team sank their egg in pure water and noted that it gained mass.

“DeVon, what is it called when water crosses a membrane?” Pacifici asked.

He raised his hand, smiling, but paused.

“It’s on the tip of your tongue, isn’t it?” she pressed with a smile.

“Osmosis,” he answered.

DeVon, a freshman in Durham’s first charter high school, has never attended public school. He transferred to RTHS from Maureen Joy Charter School.

“It has always been charter since kindergarten,” said his mother, Tanaka. “I wanted him to be in a small classroom because I feel that children learn better in small groups. I just heard that charter schools are wonderful too.”

She and her husband, Jeff, live with DeVon in a modest house off Fayetteville Street on the edge of North Carolina Central University’s campus. She attended Durham schools, from R.N. Harris to Lowe’s Grove to Jordan High. Jeff graduated from East Wake High School.

She works at Bright Horizons child care. He handles file maintenance at Kroger. They also partner in a cleaning service, Alpha and Omega, that they started in 2005.

They weren’t totally opposed to public schools – they had put their son on the waiting list for Durham School of the Arts, but he never got in.

So rather than send him to Hillside High, where they thought he might have faced bullying, they looked for other options.

“I did not want to put DeVon in a high school where he could be bullied and not able to focus,” Tanaka said. “I wanted him to attend DSA since middle school, but each time I applied, he was never picked out of the lottery.”

One day, while working out together at the YMCA, they saw a flier for RTHS.

“We thought it would be a great fit for him,” Jeff said. “He’s a good guy, definitely unique and different.”

So far, they have no regrets about the choice.

“DeVon loves the school and he feels appreciated by the students and teachers,” Tanaka said. “He has not been this happy in school since the fifth grade.”

***

It’s a Sunday and the classroom for the Edwards family is about an hour from home at Bull City Crafts in Durham.

Scarlett, the artistic child who seems to work best with visual media, is part of a small group having their work showcased.

She’s not quite ready to sell out, though. While some kids want people to buy their work, the 11-year-old just wants to show it.

“We’ll see if she can work up to selling it someday,” says her mother, Melissa Edwards, as the creative sixth grader gets her face painted. “Right now, she’s kind of a purist about it.”

Henry, a 13-year-old eighth grader, lingers near the front of the store with his father, comic book artist and graphic designer Tommy Lee Edwards. Henry is more of a reader and works better on computers, which might help explain his aptitude for developing ideas for smartphone applications.

Both children used to attend public school in Silk Hope. Melissa, a former comic book colorist and art education major who manages the business side of Tommy’s career, helped as a volunteer at school.

“I really enjoyed it until I saw exactly what was happening,” she said. “And I thought that I could do this better in half the time.”

She was frustrated that Henry had to wait for remedial students to finish with computers before he could get access. Henry got angry when he would complete his work in class and earn scorn from teachers if he started reading a book. And he didn’t like the persistent stress that teachers seemed to place on the end-of-grade tests.

“The problem I had in third grade was it was all about the EOG,” he said. “We didn’t learn anything else. We didn’t go on any field trips.”

This boy she had always known as “a mellow dude” would come home and let the anger fly, Melissa said.

“We can change this,” she decided.

So Henry and Scarlett now work at the dining room table most days. Henry has his stack of books and a smartphone for reference. Scarlett’s got her lapbooks and sketch pads. They watch course material on Netflix. They take tests. If they get answers wrong, they have to revisit them and correct the mistakes.

“I’m not big on grades,” Melissa said. “I’m more worried that they get it, not that they can just memorize and regurgitate.”

The kids get to do some things as home school students that they might not have time for in public school. As an example, Scarlett traveled to Los Angeles with Tommy while he did some work on J.J. Abrams’s movie, “Super 8.” Henry has been to Chicago, L.A. and London.

Later this month, Scarlett’s custom-designed cover will share shelf space with her father’s for an edition of Marvel’s “Adventure Time” comic book at Ultimate Comics in Chapel Hill.

Home schooling is not a perfect solution for everybody, though, Melissa warned.

“It was hard in the beginning, going back to the never-being-away-from-your-kids thing,” she said. “But we’ve acclimated. Home schooling is now just a part of family life and parenting for us.”

The driving can get old too, hauling the kids from Silk Hope to Durham on a regular basis.

Should the kids ever decide they want to return to public school, Melissa said, their parents won’t stand in the way.

“They can go back any time they want,” she said. “This isn’t a prison.”