There is a lot to say about the role that the charter school movement is playing in North Carolina these days. There is nuance and research and a million different ways to take on the question. And, while I do feel clear that the rapid infiltration of charters promoted by the current NC General Assembly and its monied backers is little more than a foot-in-the-door towards privatization and spells disaster for our communities, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion for a whole ‘nother post.
I begin today’s post with the mention of charters because I know for certain that many of them are staffed by talented teachers who left traditional public schools so that they could create and innovate past the often-rigid structures that school districts impose. For many parents, it is that same ability to individualize and experiment that draws them in. Because the corporate reform agenda is driving the public narrative, and most people don’t spend that much time in public schools, one can be led to believe that our public schools are not places of creativity and innovation.
This assertion is flat wrong, and anyone who spends any time in traditional public schools knows that the educators who work in them are constantly improvising and generating new ideas and new approaches. Imagine a jazz musician who knows that her audience’s life depends on her performance. To the untrained ear, the virtuoso’s skill can be lost.
But every now and then, traditional school systems create the space for the artists and their audiences to vision together, and the experiments that they generate are undeniably provocative. In these schools, the staff does not cede the high ground of innovation. In these schools, the stakeholders lead with their brains and their hearts and their whole selves, and the result is a masterpiece.
Welcome to The School for Creative Studies, where the students and staff STAY outside of the box.
I’m told that any story of the school needs to begin with Principal Renee Price. Before I even got to Creative Studies, administrators and staff from around town were singing this visionary leader’s praises. Though she was out at a principal’s meeting for the day, Ms. Price’s footprint in the building was evident, and her remarks that I was “going to see some really impressive stuff” when I came to Creative Studies rang truer than I ever imagined that they would.
As usual, my day began with custodial staff, as Al McLaughlin welcomed me to the building with a friendliness that matched his description of the school’s staff. “Everyone treats people well here,” he shared, extending me the same courtesy.
But it was administrative assistant Anita Neville who set the tone for my visit by naming the school’s “out of the box features” as what I would fine most exciting. She was clearly happy to be a part of a school that “allowed children to discover themselves while they also got educated.” Going further, she added that, at Creative Studies, there is an “emphasis on individuals vs. a mandate to comply with the status quo.” And rounding out her role as the school’s most quotable staff member, Ms. Neville shared that schools “talk about formative years. We need to allow them to form.” Yup.
One of the school’s counselors, between a conversation with a kid about the skills she would need to survive the zombie apocalypse and an inside joke about another owing her a pie, named the students as her favorite thing about the school. They are a “quirky bunch,” she noted, the first of many times I would hear that phrase throughout the day.
The EC team of Natashalyn Snipes and Veronica Black both praised the school’s leadership for creating the space for teachers to lead. Ms. Black said that the staff is eclectic, but that they are judged by their creativity, skills, and performance, not by the way that they look. This freedom goes beyond appearances, according to Ms.Snipes, and the staff are given the space to experiment.
I heard “outside the box” again while I walked down the hall with Donavon Harbison. He noted the creative options that access to more technology allows, and pointed to the strong collaboration between teachers as another strength of the school. Not only are the staff allowed to generate interdisciplinary approaches to student learning, the school builds in substitute pay so that teachers can spend a day in the classrooms of their colleagues, learning from each other and bringing best practices back to their own classrooms. For those of you who have never taught in a public school, this is as dreamy as it gets.
Chemistry and physical science teacher Jill Parker also named the cross-curricular collaboration as the school’s main selling point.
Assistant Principal Jon Dixon wasn’t sure how long Creative Studies would remain Durham’s “best kept secret,” but he knew he wanted to work here as soon as he walked into the building. The students are being prepared, he offered, for the kinds of creativity that will mark the economy of the future. Like a few of the other schools I’ve visited recently, Creative Studies’ student body is roughly 1/3 Black, 1/3 Latino, and 1/3 white, but the school has a higher percentage (roughly 20%) of students with learning exceptionalities. According to Dixon, the school takes the task of both individual support and mainstream integration for these students very seriously. And unlike many places that seem bogged down by bureaucracy, the school’s creative approach is extended to its programs for students with EC classifications.
After my administrative orientation, I wandered out into the school’s courtyard, drawn in by the chicken coop, the garden beds, and then, yes…the chickens themselves, pecking about aimlessly. Nearby, students hung out at tables with each other, learning new techniques in art by drawing a balled up piece of paper sitting in front of them. The scene screamed of the eclecticism that the staff had mentioned, and art teacher Amy Wolf described the task that the students were engaged in before leading me into her room to talk with her students. The kids like the school’s year-round schedule and the ways that the staff supports them to be their full selves. While they worked, the smiles on their faces backed up the words that they shared.
Gorgeous Carvinale masks hung on the art room wall, and I later learned that an artist-in-residence who has worked with the school’s students helped the staff create a multidisciplinary project where students learned the history of the festival, made masks, and learned the dances in P.E. class. Seriously. That happened.
Cybrarian Kristen Street gets to see this kind of cross-section all of the time as she supports individuals and whole classes on their projects in the school’s never-quiet 21st Century media center.
Much of the noisiness that Ms. Street relishes is supplied by Forest Newark’s students in the school’s recording studio that occupies a space at the back of the Cybrary. As I stood outside, his first period class, Rock Band, was finishing up their rehearsal of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” The seven student band is not only learning music, but the logistics of music festival planning and preparation, and Ms. Newark’s students hope to be gigging around town sometime soon. Other students of Newark’s are learning music technology like Garage Band, developing independent projects, or taking one of his two intro to guitar classes.
Next door, Rick Dillwood’s film production students were busily editing some footage that he had shot in order to learn the intricacies of the cuts that keep the momentum in our movies. Their first assignment was a 60-second one-shot project, and the emphasis is on students assessing and learning from one another’s work once their products are finished. I later caught the film-school-graduate working with his students to shoot a music video in the school’s hallway.
That same spirit of innovation emerged from Jesse Heller’s EC science class. There, some of his students constructed a massive to-scale model of the solar system, eschewing what Mr. Heller referred to as, “one of those mobiles that you hang above a baby’s crib.” In the adjacent classroom, another of his students worked on a project on his computer while Neil DeGrasse Tyson provided the background. Here, “out of the box” was explicit as students carved up cardboard to construct their sun.
Regina Forte, a behavior support teacher loves working with Heller and their students because the approach to teaching allows the kids’ unique gifts to emerge.
Creative Studies practices what it preaches, and the hallways are full of gorgeous art. The massive mural that dominates a whole hallway of the school caught my attention, and while a stood in awe, Rita Rathbone approached and explained the schools artist-in-residency program that produced the mural and the Carvinale performance. Rathbone was a part of the team of parents and educators that came together to create the school. The committee worked together for a full year, developing the school’s pedagogical approach and mapping out the direction it would take. This kind of collaborative creation, while rare in traditional school districts around the country, points us towards what is possible. Rathbone beamed with pride while she walked me through the school that she helped to envision and discussed the ways that they try to break down the artificial walls between disciplines. A recent project on pandemics saw the math, history, and art departments working together to help students learn and create an infographic that could inform people about the danger of particular diseases while not frightening them into inaction. We walked back to the library to check out the school’s 3D printer, and I was even more awed by Rathbone and the Creative Studies team’s commitment to helping students leave the school with the creative skills that they will need to generate their own life path. “We want kids to be able to make our community better,” she shared.
Community, it seems, is defined very broadly at Creative Studies, and Lee Washalefsky’s class drove that point home. In a few weeks, she will be taking a group of six students on a tour of China that she and a team of adults took together to one of Durham’s sister cities last year. The kids will also get to visit Beijing and tour a national park. The best thing about Creative Studies, according to Washalefsky, is the fact that she can “throw anything she wants” at her kids, and they’ll take up the task.
During my last classroom visit, Carl McDaniel took a moment to share with us that the freedom and ability to innovate was his favorite part of the school.
As Rathbone walked me down the hallway to an interview with D, an incredibly impressive young woman who wanted to interview me for the school paper, she noted that 20% of the school’s population comes from home schools, charters, and private schools. Durham’s public schools, it seems, don’t have to lose the fight for innovation, creativity, and teacher autonomy. The blueprint is available, and I’ll end this article with a hope that the kinds of creativity that public school teachers bring to their profession every day continues to find environments where it can flourish like the one I spent my morning in.
Thank you School for Creative Studies. Your vision is inspiring and I can’t wait to see a million more of you.
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.