What’s Good at Southwest Elementary?
I want to start today’s post by encouraging all readers who don’t already to start paying close attention to the public discourse about public schools. And then I want to bet you all $5 that if you start doing it, you’ll be overwhelmed by the following words on near-repeat status on the television, in the newspapers, and online: accountability, testing, failing, achievement gap, scandal, curriculum, rigor, standards, and choice.
After I collect your money on that bet, I want to go double-or-nothing that you won’t hear the word that actually represents what most frequently happens in our schools on a day-to-day basis: caring. Teaching, like nursing, social work, and a few other select professions, is nearly 100% about caring, and if we’re going to have honest conversations about our schools, we need to be brave enough to use the word, because it is way more accurate than any others you could use. The problem for those who are shaping the narrative around our schools, of course, is that caring can’t be measured and no one can make money off of it.
But for the staff at Southwest Elementary School, caring is not quantifiable. It is just what they do. All day. Every day.
The caring began today in Southwest’s cafeteria, as the school’s administration provided the staff with a breakfast. Teachers smiled sleepily and chatted with each other over eggs and bacon until Principal Nick Rotosky began a meeting with shout-outs in recognition of staff that have made special contributions to the school’s community. People clapped knowingly and lovingly as their co-workers were recognized, and the vibe felt familiarly familial. At the end of the morning meeting, Cynthia Sanders rose to thank her comrades for the ways that they had responded when her car battery died the previous day. Apparently, every staff member she called showed up, spouses in tow, to get her out of a jam. As she praised her people for their kindness, I remembered that not all work environments breed this kind of love and support.
As the shout-outs continued, custodian Maureen Boyer, whose son was in the back of the room, got love from the staff as “the hardest working lady in the building.” We caught up with her later, barely, as she sped through the hallway, keeping the school safe and clean for the students and staff that she referred to as “family.”
Dance teacher Robin Crouch continued the Care-a-Thon in the hallway when she talked about her history in Durham Public Schools. One of the first Black students to integrate both Southside Elementary and E.K. Powe, Crouch has attended DPS, put her kids through DPS, and has now worked for DPS for over 20 years. She used the word nurturing to describe her colleagues, and it was obvious that they feel the same way about her.
Principal Rotosky is also a caring-at-the center DPS success story. He started his teaching career as a lateral-entry teacher at Southwest, became an AP there, bounced around to a few other schools in administrative positions, and has landed back with “his family” at Southwest. Roughly 20% of the staff is the same as when he taught there many years ago, and that retention rate is likely to get higher, as only 1 teacher left the school this last summer. His frame on caring centers individual student growth over the test scores that they can produce, and the school’s efforts at parent engagement reveal a commitment to the whole-child that must be highlighted. Since two buses worth of students come from a local apartment neighborhood plauged by the instability of poverty, Southwest goes to the parents that might not otherwise be able to come to them. He proudly showed us pictures of a community outreach event the school sponsored last year. They brought pizza for the whole neighborhood to enjoy, handed out books for students to keep, and set up grade-level tables where parents could meet with their child’s teacher. Rotosky and other staff members canvassed the neighborhood the week before, and they went to the doors of parents who didn’t come to the festival to make sure that they had exhausted every option. This is not “required.” It is caring. While we talked, AP Torrey Flores joined us to talk about the school’s unique after school programming, like the Young Rembrandts art project, the Earthkeepers nature-exploration program, and the character-and-fitness-building Girls on the Run. The school clearly goes out of its way to care for its kids in a variety of ways.
The staff’s centering of caring carried on in the hallway as counselor Jen Schira shared that “everyone’s happy” and that there are always lots of celebrations. In fact, she demanded that Robert Cox be celebrated by us while we stood there. The single father/military veteran works as the school’s behavior support specialist, but both he and Schira asserted that his actual title ought to be “school dad.” Again, there are few workplaces that have such a position, and the part-time counselor/part-time drill-sergeant and full-time nurturer popped in and out of classrooms all day while kids smiled and waved in ways that revealed that the love he feels for them is mutual.
Phyllis Simms, a 27 year veteran EC teacher called the school a family, and reiterated Rotosky’s emphasis on the growth of the whole child, rather than focusing on test scores.
Music teacher James Lyle got most excited when he talked about finding the students’ “hidden talents,” and is looking forward to adding an African drum ensemble to the school’s musical repertoire. Sometimes caring takes the form of curricular creativity, and Lyle’s motivation is clear.
Jennifer Willingham’s role as the school’s technology facilitator/”fixer of everything,” is relatively new, though she’s been at the school for 12 of her 13 years in education. “The kids are happy here. It’s a safe place. A good place,” she noted, as Lyle left and a crew of youngsters bounded into the room.
For Kerri Lockwood, those kids are the center of everything. She really enjoys watching young people transform over their six years at the school, and the family atmosphere of the staff facilitates a deeper caring towards the students.
The 5th grade team echoed the emphasis on family and caring. KF Groteleuschen (who sang us the song she used to teach her own child to spell his name) taught Jennifer Meyer’s kids, and KF taught hers. Meyer shared that she feels strongly about her kids getting the same level of care that she extends towards her students, and she drives them over with her from Orange County to be a part of the Southwest family. 2nd year teacher Katy Easton has been embraced by the team and loves the atmosphere of care.
Merelyn Bunn’s daughter also came to Southwest, and felt so well cared for in the school that she went on to be a teacher herself.
In the best quote of the day, Valerie Souchak noted that “every time I try to leave this place, they suck me back in,” as she described her 23-year tenure as a 2nd grade teacher, 5th grade teacher, and media coordinator at the school. She falls in love with one kid, and then feels like she has to stick around when their sibling shows up years later. Like many of her colleagues, Souchek drives a distance to work at Southwest, and despite feeling the sting of the state’s disrespect towards teachers, continues her commitment to caring.
Antoinette Jordan simply said, “I love my kids, and I love my co-workers,” when asked to name the best parts of the Southwest experience.
One of those co-workers, school treasurer Linda Henry, has been at the school since 1995. Beyond watching the students’ siblings come through, Henry has watched former students bring their own children to the school, creating a multi-generational community of care in the building.
In each of these conversations, the concept of care showed up in both words and actions. And it always will when one talks to educators. Each school community, however, shows that differently, and the most exciting part of this tour is learning the unique ways that each school creates a culture of caring. At Southwest, a highlight was the school’s emphasis on students learning multiple languages. We first learned about the 2-way immersion program in a conversation with ESL teacher Laurel Scolte. Each year, one class of kindergarteners enters the program with the aim of staying in it through completion at the school. The class is comprised of 50% native English speakers and 50% native Spanish speakers, and their first year’s instruction is 90% Spanish and 10% English. From there, each year evens out 10% until it arrives at a 50/50 balance. The program is so innovative that parents are choosing to live in the school’s district just for the chance to participate.
Sarah Rodriguez works as an instructional assistant in the program because her son is having such a positive experience learning both languages. She noted that she feels like she “won the lottery with this one,” because her child will leave the program with a skill set that extends far beyond Southwest’s walls.
The program is staffed by native speakers from Spain, Puerto Rico, Peru, and Venezuela and sets students off on a journey that not only teaches them new languages, but opens up the world to them in new ways. The emphasis on languages is deepened by the Lingo Kids program, where students make requests and volunteers from UNC work with them to learn Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, and French in an after school initiative.
Language-learning programs are not necessarily unique, but what makes Southwest’s dual-language immersion program so exciting is its history. Created 10-15 years ago by a teacher with a vision, the program does not have magnet status, does not originate from a central office mandate, and is funded entirely through the school site’s budget. It reflects the kind of initiative and creativity that, if fostered by school leadership, can take an ordinary school and make it extraordinary.
And yes, Southwest Elementary is extraordinary. Not because its teachers care, because that is the most central part of an educator’s profession. Southwest Elementary is extraordinary because it has created an atmosphere where teachers are encouraged to take the initiative to turn their care into curriculum. Maybe one day legislators will listen, and if they do, they’ll hear that our kids don’t need more tests, accountability, and rigor; they need a care-centered curriculum that opens doors to whole new worlds and allows them the space to be the people that their teachers know they can be.
Thank you Southwest Elementary. I’ll see you soon.
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.