As you all know, DAE is an organization that is trying to build a movement to defend and transform our schools into the kinds of places that we ALL deserve. To get there, we’ll be taking on lots of campaigns to win things like a school board election, changes in policy, or due process rights for educators.
But for our first campaign, Mr. Cason and I have decided that we need to change the name of Spring Valley Elementary School to either Sunshine Valley or Smiley Valley. This place is simply too cheerful not to carry a more fitting name. Everywhere you turn, someone’s smiling, and this positivity is at the center of why Spring Valley is a great place to learn and work.
School Secretary Kimberly Knight started off our day with a smile as she spoke about the strong parental involvement at Sunny Valley (see what I did there?). Apparently, the PTA is quite active, and there are several programs that the school runs to ensure that families stay engaged. Today was Grandparents’ Day, an annual event where grandparents are invited to spend the day in classes, lunch, and the hallways with their young ones. We didn’t get to meet Mr. Cobb, but he is the school’s parent liaison, and he also coordinates a program that specifically reaches out to fathers and pulls them into the school community. This programming, and the general open-door policy of the administration, keeps the Smiley Valley staff connected to families in a way that Knight described as “cohesive.”
By her side, ESL teacher Alma Flores greeted her students and her students families and described, “my students, my families, and the community,” as the school’s strengths.
According to Nicole Noon, one of the school’s counselors, the fact that Sunny Valley is a neighborhood school adds to this sense of community. While we talked, dozens of parents came in the building and walked their kids to class rather than just dropping them off outside. The school clearly welcomes this, and general smileyness of the environment was enhanced by the parental presence.
For school psychologist Ashley Morris, the smll size of the school contributes to the community feel, and she demonstrated her point by greeting each student by name as they bounced out of their parents’ cars.
Both Mr. Cason and I knew the next name, Sajdah Ali, because she taught with us at Hillside. It’s Sajdah’s first year at Smiley Valley and she, unsurprisingly, remarked about the friendliness of the atmosphere at the school. “Everybody makes sure that everybody feels welcome here,” she offered, noting that this kind of caring, familial atmosphere helps the students immensely.
Sajdah isn’t the only educator trying on a new position at Sunny Valley. ESL teacher Marijean Young is in her 3rd week as an ESL teacher, making the transition from being a media coordinator to a classroom teacher as another way to engage young people in her passion: literacy. She’s happy to be trying something new and added, yes, that “everyone is friendly and welcoming.”
Sherita Tharrington rounded out the car line team, and added her voice to the chorus of relationships, warmth, and community. She has worked as an Instructional Assistant at Smiley Valley since the school opened. “The goal of everyone should be the success of the kids,” she shared, noting that positive relationships among staff, between staff and kids, and between the school and the families were the keys to that success.
Inside the building, Doris Leonard and Stephanie Moss used the word love to describe their kids, the school’s staff, and the school’s administration. And when I asked them to pose like they loved each other, they said that it was easy because they do.
The administration came up again in our conversation with Jamie Wilkerson. The school’s math specialist was all smiles with the kids in the hallway and told us that she appreciated being able to bring forward new suggestions for how to improve the school.
Art teacher Parminder Rajpal has clearly brought forward a few of her ideas, as the first floor’s colors are complemented by her bright and lively art projects. She loves Sunny Valley like she loves her students, and the school bears the stamp of her, and their, creativity. “All they need is a little boost,” she said with a smile, and “the things that come out are so creative.”
Instructional Assistant Shon Mayfield added to the color of the hallway, beaming broadly as she walked up and down chatting with her co-workers and kids. “Everything” was her answer to the “what’s good?” question, and she specifically pointed to the staff’s friendliness, approachability, and teamwork as the keys to the school’s smiley success.
EC Resource teacher Iyenda Bolton and Computer teacher Mehrtash Olson said that they were more like a family than a team. Olson added, “I love my co-workers, they are so supportive…it’s great to get a smile here and a kind word there. There are so many challenges working in a school. It’s good to have community.” And then he and Bolton broke into an impromptu photo shoot to demonstrate their affection for, and comfortability with, each other.
While we chatted with Bolton and Olson, Cafeteria Worker Wilhemenia Farrow delivered breakfasts to the students’ classrooms. Rather than have the kids come to the cafeteria, the staff brings the food to them on a cart, allowing them more time with their teachers and classmates. Farrow noted that everyone at the school is nice and that she’s felt very welcome in her short time at the school.
Going further, Assistant Principal/mom/whatever needs to be done Gwen Wilson said that Sunny Valley is “the best place to be.” “It’s alive,” she added, pointing out that people work well together and enjoy one another.
Wilson specifically noted the work of before school/after school/PBIS coordinator Daunte Marrow as a key component of the school’s success. Marrow, in his 16th year in education, works hard to integrate the work that students are doing during the school day into his before and after school programming. Like any educator knows, Marrow pointed out that “no two days are the same,” and that his favorite thing was watching students develop over time. That time, of course, extends beyond their term at Smiley Valley and Marrow shared two stories that, again, will mean a great deal to any educator. He recently had a former student return after a year in middle school to share with him the progress that he’d made, and another called to say that he had just been named captain of the Jordan High soccer team as a sophomore. Marrow was all smiles as he told these stories, and Mr. Cason and I nodded knowingly, recognizing the pride that all educators feel in those moments.
Data Manager Mary Horton noted simply that, “I love children.” Again, the language that the staff used about each other and their students had Mr. Cason and I smiling all morning.
We also got to smile when new Principal Sarah Sanchez shared some Sunny Valley swag with us. She had prepared a little gesture of love for both of us, with the school’s lanyard, a magical cup that changes color in different temperatures, a very sunny-colored pen, a set of nail clippers with the school’s name and colors on it, and a five-fingered highlighter with the school’s bee emblazoned on the side. These Smiley Valley folks sure were sweet to us.
Sanchez, in her first year as Principal at Sunny Valley, grew up, like many teachers, in a family of teachers. Before becoming an administrator, she taught 2nd, 3rd, and 5th grades, as well as working in middle school and serving as a curriculum specialist in Alamance County. This breadth of knowledge has served her well in stints as an AP at Chewning and Lucas before taking the reigns at Smiley Valley. Like everyone else we talked to, she noted that everyone wears a smile and that visitors from the district walk through the building asking, “is it always like this?” because they are shocked at the level of happiness the staff and students exude. This positivity is central to the school’s PBIS approach towards school culture and discipline. The students and staff regularly earn Bee Bucks for their positive contributions, and the administration holds weekly drawings where bucks can win fun rewards. The quarterly contest currently running in the front office will give the winning student a chance to pie the principal in the face if her/his name is drawn.
Sanchez shared more about the school’s open door philosophy, arguing that, “we shouldn’t be doing things that we don’t want other people to see.” As her staff prepared to greet the grandparents that would be joining them today, Mr. Cason and I smiled about the school’s commitment to keeping parents connected. Sunny Valley really is a special place.
DAE Vice President LaToya McCrimmon is also special, unable to resist the urge to tease me with a “what are you doing in here Bryan?” expression on her face before she warmly professed her love for the Smiley Valley staff. We “always make it work,” she told us, when asked what made the staff so great to work with.
Custodian Mario Bermudez also pointed to the team atmosphere as his favorite part of the school. He feels a great deal of respect from everyone, loves helping out the teachers, and feels supported by the solid communication between all the members of the Sunny Valley team.
A school’s “energy” is often an intangible factor that makes the difference between student success and struggle. If the smiles are the center of Sunny Valley’s environment, the beautiful colors and art throughout the building are the visual supplements, and I enjoyed taking photos of the scenes that the kids learn amidst every day. One can’t help but feel happy walking down halls like this.
So there you have it, the opening shot in our campaign to rename Spring Valley Elementary School. I personally like the sound of Sunny Valley School of Smiles. Be on the lookout for petitions soon.
Thank you for opening your doors to us today Spring Valley, I can’t wait to see your smiling faces 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.