When I asked DPS principals to sign up for the “What’s Good Tour”, my calendar filled up quickly. September and October were nearly full within minutes, but the slot by August 24 remained blank. It was, after all, the first day of school, and it made sense that school leaders were wary of inviting in outsiders on such a sacred day.
But Tonya Williams at Sherwood Githens Middle School jumped at the chance, and after my visit to her building, I understand why.
The day started off with Hillside High’s legendary band director and recent retiree (sort of), Xavier Cason, and I greeting staff members as they made their way up to the building for their first day back from the summer. The smiles were a little sleepy, and the vibe varied from nervous to excited to calmly purposeful.
At the car line, Jennifer Wayson and Amber Clive-Rabah told us about their work supporting the teachers who work directly with students, and Molly Wright and Matthew Bowen, who seem to plug in anywhere they’re needed, told us about the great partnership that Githens has with the Citizen Schools after-school program. And Tom Daly shared that he’d been working with autistic kids for 36 years. That’s right…36 years!!!
Becky Burns talked about the diversity of Githens’ student population as its biggest strength and Christy McCormick and Danielle Garzon shared that the ways that staff support each other every day is the best thing the school has going on. Send me a private message to find out where they have their Happy Hour every week. It’s an important institution.
Up until this point, Mr. Cason and I were mostly wandering. Then we found our way to Patrick Blackburn’s room, and the 10th year band director gave us a show. This son of a recently retired teacher has over 160 students in his band; so many that they needed to be split into multiple sections. They’ve performed at Duke/UNC basketball games and he was in the midst of prepping his students for an upcoming performance at the Durham Bulls’ stadium. Having spent the summer practicing with each other, his students jumped right in with breathing exercises and scales and everyone in the room new what to do as soon as the instructions were given. It was quite a treat, and watching Mr. Cason’s face light up as we watched the class, communicated as much as his praise of Mr. Blackburn as “the real deal” ever could have.
Next it was Dr. Charles Murrill’s antics with peers and students alike. Our tour guide, Mr. Carter, proclaimed math teacher Dr. Murrill to be “All-World”, and the animation he brought to his classroom introductions bore that description out. Don’t worry Dr. Murrill, as long as you can convince the kids that you’re still 31, your secret is safe with us.
From there, Mr. Carter showed us to Mr. France, an administrator who noted that “nothing is better than changing lives on a day to day basis,” in a refrain I’ve heard from hundreds of teachers over the course of over a decade in the classroom.
Immediately outside the door, Mr. Carter stopped and introduced his to Mr. Garcia, parent-volunteer extraordinaire. The husband of the PTA President played a lead role in re-establishing the athletic booster club and carried a zeal about educators that I wish every parent in our schools possessed.
Ms. Parker walked by and invited us down to talk to the cafeteria staff, who passionately discussed their role in the school, from feeding the kids to stepping into disputes to building key relationships that keep students connected in so many ways. We talked about the fact that Classified Staff hadn’t had a raise since the recession, and I’m hopeful that Ms. Morris, Ms. McBroom, and Ms. Cross will jump into the fight for the respect that they are owed.
Mr. Lee, a physical education teacher who has spent 23 years at Githens, talked about its recent turnaround, and the fact that there is a sense of pride and school spirit that drives the school’s success.
In the media center, Justine Daniel, Ananda Ghosh, and Lynne Brady talked about how awesome Githens’ students are, and how strong a sense of teamwork there is between the teachers. Their team is developing a multidisciplinary service learning project that will focus on “Lost Voices of Durham” and have kids exploring the lived realities of some of Durham’s most marginalized social groups. The end of the project will be an art show based on the interviews, statistical analysis, and research that the students conduct. I can’t wait to come back and check it out. Don’t forget to let us know when it is Ms. Daniel.
Ms. Mary Hoose, the school nurse who works in 6 different locations, affirmed the team atmosphere and pointed to the village-like way that the staff has met the needs of students with diabetes in the building.
My last lengthy interaction of the day had me talking to Michael Telesca. This 20+ year veteran computer teacher has his students on the radio at WXDU out of Duke at 6:00 on the 2nd Sunday of every month, with a show focused on the lyrics and historical significance of Bruce Springsteen. Yup…Bruce Springsteen. The show sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to check it out. You can catch highlights at this link.
I can’t express enough the gratitude I feel towards Principal Williams and Mr. James Carter, who served as our tour guide throughout the day. Mr. Carter, the PBIS coach who I was fortunate enough to know from the time we both worked at Hillside, had us popping in and out of classrooms, introducing us to everyone in sight, and brought kids’ perspectives into the mix, pulling them aside and letting us ask them questions about the school. It is overwhelmingly evident that the diverse student population at Githens is being served by a dedicated and stable staff (only 11% turnover this year, and most of the new teachers had been at Githens before) that is excited to be doing what they do every day. As Mr. Carter noted, the oft-used creed of “rigor, relevance, and relationships” only works well if the #1 priority is relationships. And it’s clear that the Githens staff works hard to center their students’ humanity.
It was also clear, as the video (that I can’t seem to get to load) and my experiences throughout the day show, that Principal Williams supports DAE and need for public school educators to fight for themselves and fight for their students. Many thanks to Ms. Williams and her staff for giving me the run of the building and letting me document all of the good stuff Githens has got going on.
What’s good about Sherwood Githens Middle School?
Thanks for sharing your first day with me y’all. I’ll see you tomorrow E.K. Powe. Let’s spread the word.
Please note that the intent of these “What’s Good?” posts is to highlight the positive elements of each of Durham’s public schools. They are intended to focus on the best efforts that our well-meaning and supremely dedicated educators make every day to love and nurture the young people in our schools. These posts are snapshots, not comprehensive reports on each school. The important contributions of so many will, unfortunately, be left out.
We fully acknowledge that each of our public schools is imperfect when it comes to meeting the needs of students of color, poor students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and mental or physical health problems, and lots of other students for a variety of individual reasons. However, this blog is not intended to shed light on those problems, which are much more complicated than can be explored in a disclaimer.
So, we ask that if you choose to write a comment, you keep with the celebratory intent of this blog. We’re happy to post comments that focus on the good. Meanwhile, DAE is also out in DPS every day, fighting to win the schools we ALL deserve. We hope you’ll join us. Thanks for reading.
4 thoughts on “What’s Good at Githens?”
I love this article! As a proud Githens parent, I second all that you’re saying that is good about this school.
Thanks Joi. Make sure to follow the blog as I share what’s good about all of the other DPS schools.
i love githens DPS