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Fresh from class

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The political scuffling around Durham classrooms isn't lost on the people who sit in them every day. Last week, a group of students told the grown-ups to get their act together.

DeWarren Langley, head of a new group called Teenagers Politically Active (TPA), told the Durham Board of Education and Superintendent Ann Denlinger they're letting problems like gang activity, crowded classrooms and the shortage of bus drivers linger unaddressed while they fight over Denlinger's evaluation and who should be the principal of Hillside High School--two issues that have split the board along racial lines, accompanied by emotional outbursts and a ton of newspaper ink.

"The school board has demonstrated its inability to work together," said Langley, a 16-year-old sophomore at Jordan High School, as audience members went "mmm-hmm" and "that's right, son."

Langley wasn't the only one who got up to criticize the board, but the combination of his youth, his self-assured oratory and the cheering from young and old supporters alike brought the spotlight firmly to him. He pointed out that the three black school board members and four whites represent just two of the many, diverse ethnic groups in the Durham public schools. He accused the board of spending too much time and energy wrangling over Denlinger's $8,100 bonus, which as it turns out she's given away--minus enough to pay taxes--to the district's teacher of the year and three other finalists.

"You've said, 'We're not going to worry about gangs in Durham Public Schools, because they aren't as visible as the superintendent's work. ... As long as we have a superintendent with a contract extension and a bonus, the schools will be all right,'" Langley said.

Langley was among a group of students at Jordan who started the TPA last fall to grapple with local issues that affect their peers. TPA is open to teens from every Durham school. It meets the first Saturday of the month at the West End Community Center and has a Web site (www.teensactive.homestead.com/home .html). The membership, now 32 strong, is investigating ways to raise its voice in various channels of government, including forming a mayor's youth council, Langley said.

But their primary focus is the breakdown of school leadership. "This is the single biggest issue our group has cared about," Langley said, after the board meeting. "As separated as the school board is, they are not going to accomplish anything for the good of the students."

That problem will likely continue to challenge TPA members--and bring in new recruits. As Langley finished speaking, 17-year-old Hillside student Renee Clark, there to protest the possible removal of her principal Richard Hicks, rushed up with a classmate to say: "We want to join!"

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