What’s Good at Lowe’s Grove?

There’s a story about Durham’s public schools.  The story says that our students are out of control and our schools are unsafe.  The story says that our teachers and administrators aren’t adequate, don’t care, and mail in our lessons every day.  The story says that, if you have a choice, you should take your kids somewhere else because our schools, like the state’s letter “grading” system indicates, are failing.

This story is not true.  And, like the grades that the state assigns our schools based on test scores, it is mostly a story about race and class in a city in economic transition.  No school that we’ve seen on our tour elucidates this reality quite like Lowe’s Grove Middle School, and I’m thrilled to get to share the school’s story with the world.

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IMG_0336[1]According to Ms. Ava Thompson, who has been a counselor at the school for 31 years, the story about Lowe’s Grove began in the 1990s.  Before the city and county systems merged, the student body at Lowe’s Grove’s reflected the rest of the county with respect to race and class.  After the merger, many of the more affluent families in the school’s feeder zone opted out of the school because students from a public housing neighborhood were in the school’s new zone.  This began a demographic shift that was solidified in the wake of the release of Welcome to Durham, USA, a documentary film about the rise of drugs, gangs, and violence in the city.  The film highlighted items that sheriffs had confiscated from the school and featured a shot of the front of the school’s building.  From that moment, gang violence in the city has been linked to Lowe’s Grove in the popular perception, and irrespective of whether or not gangs have ever played a significant role in the school (they don’t now, if they ever did), the story has stuck.  With two local charter schools pulling on the student body in response to “the story,” the Lowe’s Grove community has struggled through years of transition and instability.

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But, according to Ms. Thompson, the students that go to Lowe’s Grove are top notch and their families are incredibly supportive.  Over and over today, the quality of the students stood out in the stories that the staff told, and it is clear that this faculty and staff are prepared for the challenges they face and are making great progress despite the weight of “the story” hanging around their necks.

IMG_0339[1]A big part of the Lowe’s Grove transition seems to be its new leadership.  Dr. Takeisha Mitchell, in her second year at the helm, had hired her full staff by the beginning of the year, something that has been challenging in years past.  In her 21st year as an educator, Dr. Mitchell has been focusing on helping to rebuild the infrastructure at the school and improve teacher morale.  Last year, according to Mitchell, the staff felt beat down, blamed, and drained.  They had been told that they weren’t doing good things, and some of that treatment trickled down to the students.  To shift that atmosphere, Dr. Mitchell has hired talented young teachers to bolster the energetic veterans who staff the school, and has worked to shift the culture of the building through measures like her “shout out board” at the front of the school.  Here, Mitchell identifies students and staff that have been doing exceptional work and highlights them at the front of the school.  When she catches a student doing something great in the classroom, she puts their name on the board in the front of the building and calls their parents to let them know.  It’s a little thing, but it matters.  As does Mitchell’s approach to interviewing applicants for jobs in the school.  Instead of selling the school to them, she asks them to share a talent beyond teaching that they bring to the table, and she thoughtfully assembles a staff that balances each other out in interests and skills.

IMG_0303[1]This approach has allowed Dr. Mitchell’s team to bring back a robust culture of school clubs as a way to engage students who might not otherwise be as interested in school.  For one day a month, the building works on a modified schedule while the staff works with the students in clubs as diverse as drama, fashion, robotics, odyssey of the mind, Distinguished Men, Phenomenal Ladies, and the school’s most popular club, lacrosse.  These clubs offer the student body opportunities to learn and explore topics that they might not otherwise have access to, and Dr. Mitchell noted that the existence of these clubs, the school’s athletic and arts programs, and the focus on Science Technology Engineering and Math have led many families who had opted for local charter or private schools in 6th grade to return to LGMS for the 7th and 8th grade years.  Those students, according to Mitchell, are returning to a school that is safe and orderly.  She has “written up” only two students so far this year, the hallways are clear, and the classrooms feel productive and well-organized.  Mr. Cason and I noted throughout the day that the building looks new, and that anyone with a perception that this school was “out of control” just needed to spend five minutes in a hallway.  The students are where they should be, safe and learning.

The learning, however, is not limited to the classroom.  Thanks to a number of community partnerships that the school has developed, there are 5 outdoor classrooms scattered throughout the beautifully kept grounds.  Much to our delight, Lowe’s Grove also has chickens running around its courtyard, and the whole center section of the school is both a massive learning lab and beautiful place to be.

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On Friday evenings, 1st year Agricultural Science teacher Kamal Bell can be found tilling the garden beds in the courtyard.  “What people told me about this school is not true,” he shared when we asked him how his first year was going.  Bell’s excitement about his students was palpable as he noted that, “he likes seeing what they can do when they are held to a higher standard.  There’s no reason why these kids can’t be the next generation of leaders.”

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His excitement about his kids was later matched in the reviews that this first year teacher was getting from his colleagues.  20-year Lowe’s Grove veteran and Bell’s Biotechnology teammate David Ware was giddy when he talked about the contributions that his young co-worker is already making.  Retired teacher Willard Rose, serving as a mentor teacher for Beginning Teachers throughout the district, noted that Bell was “the real deal,” as we watched Bell teach history in his Agricultural Science class.

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The other half of this dynamic Biotechnology duo is the aforementioned Ware.  He greeted Mr. Cason and I at the school’s door with an excitement that belied a deep love for his profession.  He was so excited that we were there, and he couldn’t wait to tell us about the things his kids are learning.  When we caught up with him later in his Forestry class, he eagerly led us to the edge of the school’s grounds, two staff from the NC Forest Service in tow.  The hands on projects he’s developing include a understudy-clearing effort to turn a portion of school’s grounds into a park-like setting where the students can both research the water and learn to identify plants in a real life setting.

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Ware’s biggest excitement, however, was reserved for the school’s rock garden.  I hadn’t paid it much mind on my walk through the courtyard, but Ware beamed when he discussed its development.  Apparently, the school’s art room used to flood every time a heavy rain would fall.  Using a problem-solving based approach to the curriculum, Ware’s students studied the grounds and built a rock garden that would prevent future flooding.  Mr. Cason and I walked away shaking our heads in admiration at this flexible approach to curriculum and the faith and love that Mr. Ware has for his students.

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2nd year Digital Media teacher Rander Harris similarly exuded a faith in his students’ abilities.  He loves the access to technology that students have at Lowe’s Grove and really feels like he’s getting his kids ready for the 21st Century through hands on practice, real life problem solving, and pushing them to develop new ways to think about the world.  Teachers at “out of control” schools don’t approach their students with this much trust, and Harris’s energy reflects the same student-centered pedagogy that we saw throughout the building.

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Dean of Students Danyka Davis also started her story with the students, saying that the relationships she builds with them are her favorite part of the job.

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Social Worker Alexia Whitley and Instructional Facilitator Summer Hill both centered the students in their answers to the “what’s good…?” prompt.  Hill argued that there is never a dull day at Lowe’s Grove, and Whitley called the school community her family, noting that, “everyone supports each other, no questions asked.”

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Around the corner, Social Studies teacher Christia Lockett was preparing to answer the questions of her 1st period students.  The caliber of student at Lowe’s Grove is what stands out for Lockett in her 10th year in education.  “They are eager to learn,” she shared, in one of the best endorsements any teacher can ever give her students.

Travis Marshmon endorsed every single one of his students as they walked into class, addressing each with a handshake as they crossed the threshold.  He told us that he loves how loyal his kids are, and put words to the teaching style that we were already watching:  relationships are the center.

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For Lowe’s Grove students, these positive relationships with adults begin before they even get to the school.  Bus driver Chris Waden discussed his love for the students he serves before he proudly pulled out a picture of his own daughter, a former student of mine at Hillside.  Mr. Cason had similar pleasures throughout the day, giving high fives and hugs to his former Bethesda students who were so excited to see their teacher.

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Waden’s friendly face provided the kind of energy that Kimberly Webb noted as the school’s strength as she held down the front office with a presence both kind and commanding.  She said that the school’s staff was easy to work with and that there was great joy in watching young people develop.

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Down the hall, I had the great pleasure of running into a young woman that I’ve gotten to watch develop.  2nd year social studies teacher Brittany Chambers spent two years observing my classes at Hillside, and it was a lot of fun to watch her in action.  She “loves the kids more than anything,” and it’s clear that they love and respect her back.

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Matthew Grady has also won the love and respect of the kids as the full-time school nurse, an almost unheard of phenomenon in these days of educational and health budget cuts.  Grady is one of 90 full-time school based nurses in the state and argued vehemently that schools shouldn’t have to share the services of healthcare professionals.  Because he is in the same school every day, Grady can build the kinds of relationships that allow kids to trust him, leading to much better health outcomes.  And kids, we hear, learn better when they are healthy.

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We also hear that they learn better when they are well fed.  We got to spend a few minutes talking with the cafeteria staff, and they rightly pointed out their importance in the lives of the students.  “The kids can’t learn without us,” they noted as our conversation drifted into a discussion about the county’s budget and how they haven’t gotten a raise since the recession, forcing many of them to work multiple jobs.  Miranda Markham, Julia Bethea, Brandy Hill, Anita Elliot, and Evelyn Guadalupe serve our kids every day, and they deserve dignity and financial stability.  Politics aside, talking with these women was a treat, and they spoke with great love for the Lowe’s Grove students for whom they help provide structure.

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This across-the-board structure allows students to thrive, and Media Specialist Sandra Ellington has put some serious work into this project.  She proudly showed off the library’s new student-friendly system of organization, even if she wouldn’t let us take a photo of her.

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Mr. Kincy would let us take his photo, and no one seems to have more impact over the school’s physical environment than this day porter/utility man.  Mr. Kincy’s been at Lowe’s Grove for 28 years and loves the people that he works with.  “Everybody puts a lot of effort into educating the kids,” he shared.  And everybody, it seems, plays a key role.

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Substitute teacher Monae Jenkins knows her role, and she serves it steadily, regularly working at the school over the last three years.  Having substitutes who know the school’s culture and the students is invaluable, and we were excited to hear Ms. Jenkins talking about the kids that she loves.

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In his 3rd year as an Assistant Principal, Antwayne James feels good about the direction that Lowe’s Grove is headed.  Relationships, he notes, are the key to that success, and the collective desire to do good work makes it easy to work with the school’s staff.  IMG_0307[1]

Counselor intern Leanese Woods loves coming to work at Lowe’s Grove because it “feels like you’re accomplishing something.”

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This whole school is accomplishing something, and Visual Arts teacher Shawn Smith’s work was just one more example.  The drumline instructor proudly showed Mr. Cason all of his new equipment while his students worked diligently at their desks.  Their project, to design their own middle school, reflected the same student-centered approach we’d seen all day.  Soon, the students will be studying the political origins of graffiti art and, I’m sure, learning some of the techniques that have sent Hip-Hop culture circling around the globe.  This multi-disciplinary approach brings more meaning to the curriculum, and Mr. Smith’s kids are lucky they have him.

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And the kids are lucky to be working in a school filled with adults who believe in them and push them to believe in themselves.

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Throughout the day, when asked what was good about Lowe’s Grove, the first words out of every staff person’s mouth were, “the students.”  It seems that the grown folks at Lowe’s Grove are refusing to believe the stories that the world is telling about their students, about their school, and about them.  That mental and spiritual commitment has become a force propelling this school forward, and it impressive to see.  But don’t take my word for it, go check out Lowe’s Grove for yourself.  I suspect you’ll walk away a believer in a whole different story.

Thanks for telling me your story Lowe’s Grove.  I can’t wait to keep telling it.

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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. 

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