On Day 2 of my 60 day tour, I didn’t have to do any work to come up with the theme for today’s post. Every single person that I spoke with at E.K. Powe Elementary school told me that the best thing about working at Powe is community. It was community when they talked about the students, community when they talked about the parents, community when they talked about local business/church support, and community when they talked about each other. Every last one of them.
I had the great fortune of starting off the day with Principal Michael Somers, who broke down the unique nature of the school, describing it as a “slice of Durham.”
Despite the unfortunately-common high poverty rate (roughly 2/3 of students on free and reduced lunch), Powe has the good fortune of having an exceptionally diverse student population. As someone who has primarily taught in racially segregated high schools, it was shocking to walk through the building and see the student population broken down racially into roughly 1/3s (African-American, Latino, and white students). This is not an accident, and Powe staff repeatedly referred to the racial diversity of both the student body and the staff as one of Powe’s great strengths.
Equally remarkable was the low turnover rate among staff. In the last two years, only five teachers have left the school, and one of them came back. According to Somers, teachers “come here to retire.” The sense of family, consistency, and togetherness that I felt throughout the building over the course of the day was a palpable illustration of the impact of this staff stability.
One key to the collective ownership at Powe is the School Improvement Team. This body has, in the last two years, rewritten the school’s mission, vision, School Improvement Plan, and bylaws. All major decisions about the direction of the school run through this parent/teacher/staff body, and the impact was clear. Nearly every staff member I spoke to mentioned the school’s framework, just as Somers laid it out:
- Responsive Classroom–a community-building model where kids are motivated to respect themselves and each other without the extrinsic rewards associated with many other “behavior management” frameworks
- A+ School–an arts integration curriculum supported by the Department of Public Instruction and the NC Arts Council that was voted into place by 85% of the staff
- School Improvement Plan
These programs are obviously integrated and well reinforced and reengaged throughout the year, and all staff readily referenced them in our conversations.
A tour of the school also revealed the ways that the school’s structure adds to the sense of community. The school’s Peace Garden serves as: a beautiful outdoor space for teachers to bring their students when the weather is nice, an organic classroom where each teacher gets a plot to garden and all of the produce gets eaten, and a community space where parents gather to have coffee and meet with each other and school staff on a regular basis. The garden is run entirely by parent volunteers.
I got a chance to stop in on the before-school care, and L.D. Burris talked about the Responsive Classroom model and how it allows staff to individually tailor plans to meet the needs of each student more effectively.
At Powe, the “specials” are referred to as “Multiple Intelligences” classes, because the staff doesn’t want to marginalize the centrality of art, music, PE, science, and drama. The school’s science lab, built in partnership with Duke, and run by Treva Fitts, is a gorgeous space that students regularly rotate into as a supplement to the science instruction they get in their classroom.
When asked what was good about Powe, Ms. Fitts, who has taught there for 17 of her 30 total years in the profession, said that “every child’s name is spoken every day” in the building. The student-first philosophy comes through in many ways, and she eagerly told me that the staff at Powe does whatever it takes to educate young people.
Evelyn Bloch, an occupational therapist who spends some of her time at Powe, backed up this “whatever it takes” approach as she laid out all of the pull-out, inclusion, individual, and group work that she does to support students with a variety of exceptionalities.
The unique use of space in the building continued along the tour, as Mr. Somers pointed out the Curriculum Corridor where each grade’s theme for a time period is highlighted, and the hallway fills up with both student work and photos and examples of the process that the students used to arrive at the product. Around a corner was an outdoor nook that the 5th grade recently filled with rocking chairs for an additional space to “work and hang out”.
Also unique is the fact that the building, constructed in the 1930s, has a separate gym, auditorium, and cafeteria, allowing Powe students and teachers lots of space before, during, and after school to engage in a variety of activities at the same time.
Rashard Lee-Worthy, the 3rd year PE teacher, refused to stay put in the beautiful gym, however, and I ran into him all over the building checking out the instruction of other
teachers, marveling at their innovation and excited to connect what they were learning back to his work in PE.
His gym-mate, drama teacher Sarah Bader was also eager to point out that the unity among the staff and parents was Powe’s strength. Later in the day, I got a chance to observe Ms. Bader supporting two students through a dispute that they were in, and it was clear that the young staff at Powe feels empowered and prepared to do what needs to be done to be done for kids. As Mr. Lee-Worthy watched her work, and supported her from a distance, the sense of teamwork shone through.
4th grade teacher Morghean McPhail echoed the teamwork mantra, noting that it is a “very difficult place to leave” because of all of the support and the way that the culture “envelopes people as they come in.” She’s been at Powe for 11 of her 15 years. Suzanne Macuk, who left Powe and came back noted that the teachers feel like they’re at home when they join the Powe team.
The school’s family-like atmosphere is also reinforced by the presence of actual blood-family in the building. Lynne Goodhand, an EC resource teacher who notes that “everybody is deadly serious about doing the best for kids,” and her sister, Assistant Principal Meg Goodhand, were reunited at Powe after their early teaching days at Northern High.
19-year Powe art teacher Malcolm Goff has, like many of the staff, had his own children as students at Powe. He proudly pointed to Media Specialist Anita Brake, who instilled a love for reading in his daughter Naeemah.
Hanging out at Powe made me feel hopeful. The staff eagerly extended their familial hands to me when I addressed their morning meeting and they gladly opened the doors to their classrooms for me to hang out with their brilliant kids. The kind of learning and loving that I got to be a part of is a model for what a school can be. And more, it was a model for what so many of us long for, but very rarely find.
Thanks for hosting me Powe. I can’t wait to come back to your beautiful community.
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.