There’s no shortage of elected officials who spend enough time in and around public education to recognize the many barriers to student success. For 13 years I’ve watched them take office with good intentions and fail to deliver, because realizing what it takes to legitimately improve student outcomes takes much longer than they thought. That’s why local school boards need leaders like Steve Unruhe.
Steve’s been driving positive change in Durham’s schools for over thirty years. He taught some of the district’s first computer science classes at Northern High School in the late eighties. Then he moved to Riverside when it opened in 1991 to teach math and build a student newspaper, The Pirates’ Hook, from scratch. For the next 25 years his journalism classes provided a platform for student writing, photography and video production that helped kids inform and entertain their school and community, win state and national awards, earn college scholarships and rewrite the district’s student expression rights.
I saw him in action every day for six months in 2015. Steve was retiring at the end of the year, and I spent the spring semester learning how to run Riverside’s newspaper program. Putting a math and English teacher together to lead a single class creates a scheduling nightmare, but Steve met several times with Riverside’s administration to explain why I needed to be in his room during newspaper class every day to learn about the deadlines, budget, fundraising, parent communication and students, who also needed to know that the program would survive after he retired at the end of the year.
That spring I learned what it means to lead from behind – to create opportunities and hold kids accountable while also empowering them to choose their own stories, take photos, design pages and deliver 2,000 copies of their work to classmates, staff and the community. Steve had his students’ best interests in mind, anticipated the support I’d need, and worked with school leaders to create a schedule that worked for everyone. And as a result, The Pirates’ Hook continues to thrive.
He remained an invaluable mentor as I plodded through my first semester of running the paper on my own that fall as he ran for an at-large seat on the school board. Then, in January 2016, Riverside senior Wildin Acosta was arrested by immigration officials, detained and set to be deported. Four journalism students advocated for his release and right to graduate. In addition to covering the story in The Hook they wrote columns for The News & Observer, spoke at city and county government meetings and organized rallies. Their efforts, combined with countless other teachers, community members and organizations, helped halt his deportaton in March, but he remained in detention indefinitely.
A few weeks later the kids received an invitation to travel to Washington, DC and brief congress, speak to national media outlets and meet with US Secretary of Education John King about Wildin’s right to graduate, regardless of his immigration status. But field trips during the month of May were prohibited, and the dates conflicted with students’ AP exams. As time was running out, Steve worked with school and district leaders find a way to let the students both take their tests and make the trip to Washington. Wildin was finally released in August. He returned to Riverside and graduated in 2017.
Enthusiasm, acronyms and calls for change can drive an election campaign, but effective leadership requires a deep understanding of systems, stakeholders and student experiences. As DPS considers redistricting, I want a board member who helped the county and city schools merge in 1992. As schools implement restorative practices and culturally responsive pedagogy, I want a former teacher who not only supports the practices but also anticipates educators’ needs – beginning with timely and effective teacher training – to bring it to life in every classroom. As we look for new ways to support Durham’s growing number of Spanish-speaking students and families, I want someone who recognized that need years ago and turned The Pirates’ Hook into North Carolina’s only bilingual student newspaper. And as federal immigration policies and ICE arrests threaten students’ right to an education, I want an elected official who knows how to amplify the voices of students and teachers who are already doing the work our community needs.
Identifying the obstacles students face is pretty easy. But Improving outcomes within the parameters of our current education system is hard, especially during a four-year term in a state that underfunds its public schools. The “establishment” has plenty of work to do, but that doesn’t mean its members aren’t part of the solution. Throughout his career, Steve Unruhe’s done more than just call for change. He’s delivered. And I’m voting for him again next month.