What’s Good at Hillandale Elementary?

The purpose this blog, and the 60 schools in 60 days journey that I am on, is to tell the story of all of the amazing and brilliant and exciting things that are happening in Durham’s public schools every day.  Readers, I hope, understand that this task, in the midst of an unrelenting assault on our schools by corporate reformers, is inherently political.  They say our schools are failing; we say that the privatizers are failing our young people and our future by failing our public schools.  It’s pretty straightforward.  And though it feels pretty uncontroversial from where I sit, some would take exception. That said, I’m starting today’s post with an assertion that also feels like common sense, but is actually quite contested, especially by those who want to privatize our schools.

Veteran teachers, and the stability that they provide, are an essential element to a successful school.  No place I’ve seen yet proves that like Hillandale Elementary, and I’m thrilled to get to share the stories of the hardworking educators that Mr. Cason and I saw today.  IMG_2268[1]

Dena “Diva” Byers, a 15-year veteran of HIllandale, teaches music and set the tone for our day by saying that she was “struck by the immediate feeling of goodness,” when she first walked in the school’s doors.  The top notch faculty teach her own son, and she has most certainly taught many of their children.  We got a chance to watch Ms. Byers teach later in the day, and her high-energy approach clearly captivates her kids.  She noted that there was very little turnover, but we hadn’t yet realized how much of an understatement this was.


In her 13th year at the school, media coordinator Norma Stanley-Gibby was so excited to tell us about the book giveway program that the school has.  Each month, students who have birthdays in that month get to take a book home with them to keep.  Stanley-Gibby is clearly passionate about her students’ literacy, and she runs the media center that was just renamed for the recently retired principal Sandy Bates, at the end of her 15 year tenure as the school’s lead administrator.


Counselor Sarah Leverett, at Hillandale for the last 12 of her 32 years in education, proudly showed us “Midnight,” the stuffed animal she sometimes uses to coax reluctant students into opening up to her.


The parade of veterans continued when Mr. Cason and I walked into the front office, where the quirky kids clearly run the show.  Nancy Foreman, in her 3rd year at Hillandale and 30th year overall, serves a utility woman, filling in where she’s needed.  “You have to do more than one task if you come to work at a school,” she shared, in a truism that so many classified staff will certainly relate to.  She and 18-year Hillandale veteran Debbie Farmer had us cracking up as they talked about the strengths of the school.  Farmer, who taught 1st grade for 17 years because she “couldn’t get promoted,” recently left the classroom to become the school’s secretary.  She added that “there’s a lot of joy here,” not knowing that she’d already proven it to us.  The front office staff clearly loves each other, and the bond that they’ve built does not emerge overnight.


Debbie Wilson, at the school for the 24th of her 25 year career in schools, is the data manager and let us know that if there was ever any secrets that we needed to know about Hillandale, she was the one to ask.


The family atmosphere that the front office exuded is the school’s strength, according to 8-year Hillandale veteran Elizabeth Lake.  Ms. Lake works as an ESL teacher, and coordinates a program that houses students from 20 different countries.  She works hard to connect to parents that are often reluctant to come to school, and she’s been known to go to their homes to have dinner and figure out how to best support her students.  Very impressive.


Clearly, having veteran teachers is important, but a school’s stability is contingent upon its entire staff.  Custodian Theo Bishop has been at Hillandale for 19 years.  Yup, 19 years.  Typically, custodial positions suffer from high turnover, and the district’s shift towards a privatized service provider has increased that trend.  Bishop, one of the few remaining custodians who works for DPS rather than a private company, lends a hand to teachers with their kids when they need support.  One teacher later told us that Bishop has had students walk with him on his rounds when they need to have their energy redirected from distracting behavior in the classroom.  Everybody pitches in to support the kids.


One of the few teachers newer to Hillandale, art teacher Kelly Learned, named the above-and-beyond nature of the staff as her favorite part of the school.  When she asks the media coordinator for a resource for a particular project, she “brings me a stack of books.”  The staff, veterans and newbies alike according to Learned, is trusted to innovate and create and do what is best for their kids.


IMG_2266[1]When classes started, we got back to the Hillandale veterans with a sit down with Principal Shannon Gill.  Ms. Gill is only in her second week on the job, but her Hillandale roots run deep.  She attended the school as a child and her mother taught here for 26 years.  She was an administrative intern here.  She was the Assistant Principal last year.  And now she’s taken the helm, and though she’s been alive fewer years than some of her staff have taught at the school, they clearly respect her leadership as part of the school’s long and successful legacy.  Countering the corporate reformers’ narrative that veteran teachers just take up space and dial it in, Gill noted that the entire faculty is constantly growing and learning new skills.  On our tour of the school, Gill’s words rang true in every classroom we observed.  Hillandale teachers are always innovating and adding new tools to the repertoire.  In fact, the math program that teachers are using was a result of teachers noticing a downward trend in test scores and studying a new student-centered model that they wanted to experiment with.  The 1st grade teachers spent two years piloting the program before they lead the rest of the faculty in a professional development process that shifted how the whole school works.  The new curriculum facilitates students leading their own learning through a highly differentiated set of tasks that matches their individual skill levels.  As we’ve seen in other schools, when committed staff are encouraged to take initiative, good things happen.


The energy of the staff was palpable throughout the day.  We watched 3rd grade teacher Sharon Hale lead her students in an Addams-family-inspired song to teach her students the days of the week, and every class we visited was filled with active students and even more active teachers engaged in the practice of learning.  In the hallways between classrooms, we watched retired Hillandale teachers volunteer their time to work with individual students on strategies geared towards their specialized needs.  You couldn’t throw a rock without it hitting a veteran, and all of them clearly bring their A game.


At the end of the 3rd/4th grade hall, 42 year Hillandale veteran Lori Marriot bounced around her room like one of her students.  According to Ms. Gill, she arrives at 7:00 A.M. and leaves at 7:00 P.M., and her class is clearly a constantly evolving center of learning.  Throughout the day, we watched Ms. Marriot use the school’s new technology to help facilitate her students learning everything from math to coordinated steps to Pharrell Williams’  “Happy.”  I dare anyone to watch Ms. Marriot’s room and disrespect a veteran teacher’s ability to evolve.


In addition to having the “most energetic, creative, dedicated, and committed teachers anywhere,” Ms. Gill pointed to the school’s cultural diversity as its strength.  Because there are students from five continents, the kids learn how to work with each other across differences in a way that prepares them for an increasingly shrinking planet.  The school’s PTA has created a culture-sharing spring fling, and the teachers build cultural awareness activities into their curriculum to build on the students’ strength.


Katheryn Fochler has been at the school for 35 years, and helps to support the diverse student population through the school’s AIG program.


Technology teacher Ryan Kempf, who has been at Hillandale for 15 years, and instructional facilitator Donna James, in her 30th year at Hillandale and 38th year overall, pointed towards the camaraderie of the staff as the school’s biggest selling point, and their smiles sold it more than their words ever could.


3rd year science teacher Suzanne Ellett has been quickly integrated into the Hillandale family, and noted the staff’s emotional support of her as her favorite part of working there.  She was so excited to share about the family-atmosphere at the school that she ran down the hallway to tell us her story.  These folks at Hillandale really love each other.


A relative newcomer, 4th year teacher Jonathan Dixon has felt that love, noting that “everyone here looks out for each other.”


Across the hall, 41 year veteran Miles Reck claimed that he was “the Doogie Howser of education,” having started teaching at 2.  We believe you Miles, if only because of the energy and enthusiasm that you clearly bring to the table.  No matter what age he claims, Reck is a veteran, pointing out that one of his co-workers, whose son is in his 4th grade class, was once in his 3rd grade class.  But he never stops innovating.  In past years, Reck has shaved his head and used the measuring of his hair growth over the course of the year as a math project, in what is clearly the most committed act of experimental pedagogy I’ve ever come across.


We rounded out our conversation with the 4th grade team as Luann Bryan joined us in the hallway.  She’s taught at Hillandale for 10 of her 12 years and named the entire school’s population (teachers, administrators, students, parents, an community support) when asked what was good about being there.

IMG_2283[1]Brian Meadows used the word family (like most of his colleagues) to describe the school.  He’s been working in the EC department for 21 years and said that everyone has a good time with each other, does what is best for the kids, and avoids drama.


Ellen Harward asked me to meet her in the cafeteria because she was excited to share her story.  She’s been at Hillandale for 29 years and described the school as a family before telling me about her own family, another Durham public school story worth noting.  Her daughter, a junior at Riverside, is getting ready to walk 60 miles for breast cancer awareness and has engaged her classmates in the process, helping to raise money to fight the deadly disease.  This story, like that of Hillandale, is likely to to fly under the rader of the dominant “public schools are failing narrative,” and it was exciting to get one more example of something life-changing that our students and staff are creating.


Throughout the day, I had seen Nekia Riley and Michelle Dutton with their pre-K students, and took advantage of a free moment in the cafeteria to get their stories.  Riley is in her 8th year at the school and loves her Hillandale family.  Dutton said simply, “it’s just a blessing to be here.  It’s just good.”


I left the cafeteria awestruck by the stability of this school.  The only new teacher in the building this year was a student teacher there last year.  There is not one adult in the building that didn’t begin this year already integrated into the Hillandale family.  In a state where veteran teachers are being forced out of the profession in an endless stream of anti-teacher policies, this kind of resiliency is rare.  I am inspired by the dedicated educators at Hillandale Elementary School, and I am grateful I get to tell their stories.

Thank you Hillandale, for all that you do to make our kids lives better every day.  They love you.  And so do the rest of us.

I can’t wait to come back and watch you work.


Post-Script Disclaimer:

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. 

6 thoughts on “What’s Good at Hillandale Elementary?

  1. Yaaaay! When I saw today was Hillandale, I was hoping to find a picture of Miles Reck. So glad to see you back in the classroom, Miles! Much love to you and all of Hillandale! Looks like a great place to learn and teach.


  2. This makes me so happy to see. I attended Hallandale, and it truly is a wonderful place!


  3. Rebecca Viverette September 6, 2015 — 12:53 am

    Hillandale has been such a gift to our son and family. We did not know a soul at the school when he started as a kindergartener. He was greeted his first day by a wonderful bus driver and all the folks since then have been just as wonderful. We could not be more proud and appreciative of the Hillandale family and all their efforts.


    1. It really is an awesome place Rebecca.


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