What’s Good at Neal?
Obviously, the Durham Association of Educators has a critique of the onslaught of standardized testing that our kids are facing in schools every day. Most of them don’t measure anything meaningful. They don’t give teachers real-time results that we can use in ways that our own ongoing systems of assessment can. They operate off of the assumption that all kids can be standardized and that differences in culture and language don’t matter. They are used to punish. They are borderline child abuse (you ever see the discomfort of a third grader trying to sit still and do anything for an hour, much less the 4-8 we sometimes require of them during these tests?). And, they mostly exist so that some corporation can squeeze some profit out of taxpayer coffers.
But the bigger critique is that they don’t measure the things that are most essential about our schools and our teaching and what our students need. Kids need to be loved. They need stability and consistency. They need to be praised for their positives and corrected, supported, and shown a different way when they make mistakes. They need to be engaged and excited and find meaning for their lives in the things that we teach them. All kids need this stuff. And because of the instability and limitations that poverty and racism create, some groups of kids need more of these things than other kids.
But that doesn’t meant that they don’t bring a ton to the table. And no school community can survive unless it values its students for who they are and how they are smart. At Neal Middle School, the faculty and staff believe in what their kids are bringing, and they show up to work with the same amount of heart that their students carry into their classrooms. And if you spend some time in their hallways, this heart can be measured.
My Neal story begins two days ago when I was invited to attend their staff meeting after school. There, I got the pleasure of watching teacher-extraordinaire Ashley Solesbee show off the students in her newly built Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) program. Solesbee’s kids gave a short presentation on their experiences as AIG students, and they fielded 15 minutes worth of questions from their teachers with honesty and aplomb. At the end of the exchange, their teachers were clear that this education thing is a two-way street, and they had just learned valuable lessons about how to better support and teach their students. As the rest of the students walked away from the front of the room, one remained to pose a question to the teachers, and the resulting back-and-forth challenged the adults’ assumptions about what their kids needed even more. This commitment to reciprocity is rarely seen in a school setting, and even more rarely in a school that is made up of over 90% students of color and over 90% students on free and reduced lunch. I knew already that the faculty and staff at Neal believed in their kids, and I couldn’t wait to see them in action.
My morning began with Stephen Little, who runs the school’s In School Suspension program and coaches basketball. Little was a police officer for 17 years and relishes the opportunity to build relationships with young people that can increase the likelihood of positive life outcomes. He sees “teachable moments” everywhere, and is excited to watch kids transform into people who understand themselves, and why they do what they do, better. It’s clear that this relationship building approach is working because every kid that bounced off the bus in the morning showed love to Little. He obviously takes a lot of interest in who they are, and they respond to the respect he gives them.
Band director Aaron Campbell also came to Neal after spending years in other environments. In his previous career as a college band instructor, he noticed gaps in kids’ skills and went looking for how to build a band from the bottom up. He landed at Neal two years ago, and was tickled by his students’ enthusiasm as he pointed to the instruments that they were going to be begging him to bring home over the weekend. They want to learn to play so badly, and he’s looking forward to creating a culture of consistency that allows them to grow and bring a solid foundation of skills to their high school and college band experiences.
Kia Allah is only in her first year teaching Spanish at Neal, but feels committed to building a stable learning environment for her students. She specifically came to work in Durham because of the need for quality educators here, and had to battle the perceptions of her peers. “Everybody talks about what’s going on at Neal, but nobody goes to see it for themselves,” she offered as student after student popped their head into her room to greet her with a “good morning.” She pointed towards the multiple hats that teachers are willing to wear (social worker, therapist, etc.) despite the disrespect from politicians and financial instability that we endure. The ways that our students struggle are because of “systematic failure, but nobody wants to talk about that,” she noted. Clearly, Allah’s assessment of her students’ conditions shape her teaching; and they clearly feel respected in her room.
6th grade Social Studies teacher Michael Parker also put the school’s conditions in a broader context, noting that “I don’t know if we should have schools that are this segregated.” Rather than framing the student body’s demographics as a deficit, however, Parker emphasized the strengths that his students show up with every day. He talked about the things that his kids know, and how they teach the staff every day.
In his third year at the school, Josh Gibson has figured out a thing or two about what the kids have to offer. “It’s not always easy, but if you can build relationships with the kids, it’s greatest place in the world to be,” he gushed.
First year ESL teacher Emilia Sotolongo “couldn’t be happier” with her choice to work at Neal. Many of her friends, who questioned her choice to work in Durham because of the popular perception its schools carry, are now jealous of the support that she’s getting at Neal. She believed in the vision that the school’s administrators projected during her interview, and she has been moved by how much Neal’s teachers care about their kids. The kids and teachers alike, she shared, are “tired of the reputation” because they want the same things that everyone else wants. Every time I saw Sotolongo in the hall after our conversation, she exuded a joy that matched her words. She really does, it seems, “love coming to work every day.”
Success Coach Sydney Webb also loves her job, and pointed at her students as the principal reason. In a refrain that I would hear throughout the day, Webb highlighted their honesty, quickness, and smarts. “They can compare and contrast anything better than any adults can,” she shared, and offered that it was really refreshing that they don’t hold anything back.
Dolli Bradford, who works to develop interventions that will help struggling students finds success, shared this deep love for her students and the culture that comes with them.
“Everything,” was Makeda Millier’s answer to my “what’s good” question. The third year counselor has fallen in love with middle school because she can focus on actual counseling and direct engagement with students rather than reams of paperwork.
While Miller relishes the merit of focusing on one task, Eric Lockard and Sam Young rushed by me in the hallway on the way towards one of the 50 jobs they both seem to have at the school. Between them, there is science teaching, lacrosse coaching, football coaching, department heading, science olympiad coordinating, soccer (boys and girls) coaching, social studies teaching, baseball coaching, and athletic directoring. Whew! They both professed a great love for both their co-workers and their students. Young noted that, “no matter what’s happening in the kids’ lives, they want to be here,” and it’s clear that these two want to be here too.
The love that the EC team has for each other was just as evident as I stepped into their buzzing-with-energy workspace in the hallway behind me. Toria Silver noted that, “every adult in this building has the children’s best interests at heart.” Krystal Rascoe called her kids “survivors” and loves their critical thinking skills. Makayla Walden said that her kids have “great personalities.” And Amber Davis offered that, “once you show them (the kids) that you really care, they want to know about you and your family and your life.” This team has worked hard to build relationships with their kids, and their relationships with each other seem equally foundational.
Karen Sorg clearly cares about the work that she’s been at for 25 years. The speech pathologist enjoys the high morale of the staff and how eager to learn her students are. Happy Birthday Karen!
That high staff morale, according to Iris Graham, comes from the fact that she can be who she is at work. “In other schools, if you make a mistake, it’s a big big deal,” she offered, noting that the Neal staff supports each other and has each other’s backs. They’ve built this culture through social events like bowling and connecting with each other as whole people.
Barbara McKnight appreciates the “down to Earth” people at Neal, and has been substitute teaching at the school for eight years. “People greet you and speak to you when you come into the building,” she said, “and if I need assistance from the staff, then all I have to do is ask and I’ll get it.”
From there, I had the great privilege of Assistant Principal Terrence Covington taking me on a tour of the building. Between popping into multiple classes to watch the Neal students shine, Covington told me that he came to the AP job through school counseling and a career in mental health and juvenile justice. Like his co-worker Little, Covington assessed that young people needed more positive role models in schools, and he stepped up to play the role. In every classroom we went, the students were excited to see their principal, and it’s clear that Covington is living his vision.
Media Coordinator Ruby Neal also named her new role as exciting. She worked in an elementary school last year, and loves the different kinds of things that she can do with older students. In her first year at Neal, she noted that the staff has been “amazing and welcoming.”
After leaving the library, I had the great privilege of connecting with the school’s STEM team in the hallways and the cafeteria. Reed Fagan, who teaches Energy and the Environment loves his co-workers, saying that they are “fun and easy to relate to.” And, like so many others, Fagan affirmed his students with a big smile, saying that “they make me laugh every day.”
The STEM team at Neal is so cool, and I understood that more deeply when Medical Detectives teacher Kevina Henry told me about her students’ work. They’d already learned how to take vital signs, plan to dissect sheep brains and soon, and might take up a pig dissection later in the semester. She’s glad to offer her best to her kids, and she’s bolstered by the strength of her STEM teammates.
Henry then directed me to cross the cafeteria and speak with Ursela Jones. Jones, who teaches Automation and Robotics in addition to being the school’s magnet coordinator, and STEM Scholars coordinator, was a finalist for the DPS Teacher of the Year award last year. In the Scholars program, Jones works with a group of 50 African-American boys through enrichment activities like field trips and guest speakers. She is motivated by exposing her kids to new things and loves hearing them say, “wow, Ms. Jones, I didn’t know that that was out there,” when they see something new.
I also got a chance to catch up with Millie Rosen in the cafeteria, and she shared her excitement about both Neal and the political project of building DAE. Her work with her kids is rooted in her belief that, “the system can change,” and she also believes in the vision of the school’s new administration. It seems to her like they want to stick around for these kids, and it’s clear that she does too.
In a familiar fashion, Rosen then told me I had to speak with Alyssa Putt. In her second year teaching, Putt shares Rosen’s activist orientation and affirmed what so many had shared throughout the day: Neal’s students are bright in ways that state test scores will never reveal.
The whole cafeteria crew was both energized and energizing, and I had a chance to have a nice long talk with Nathaniel Williams in his second semester at the school. He teaches physics, chemistry, and math in his Magic of Electrons class. We chatted about the challenges of being a new teacher, and he noted what all of the best teachers know–you can’t stay in this profession without the support of your co-workers. He’s gotten a great deal of support from his colleagues, and it’s allowed him to stay focused on what he loves best about the school: the relationships with kids.
Those relationships also keep Assistant Principal Joe Biggs coming back. He’s worked in a variety of schools in a variety of settings, and he loves being able to work with a population of students that he says many others overlook. His commitment to young people transcends the school, and he’s created an athletics program to work with kids in the community.
The Neal/community pipeline also seems to run both ways, and throughout the day I watched volunteers work on physical beautification projects in the building and one-on-one work with kids. When I finally got a chance to sit down with Principal Michael Fuga, he ran down the program for me. Over 300 volunteers from Activate Good had been in the building during the day painting, building study carrels, and rebuilding the schools gardens with paint, brushes, soil, and planters that they bought and paid for themselves. A number of other volunteers participated in a “speed mentoring” exercise where every student got a chance to speak with an adult about a different kind of career path they could consider. This followed a summer partnership with Summit Church, who re-landscaped the school and donated hundreds of backpacks for Neal students. Fuga took great pride in the physical environment of the school, noting that students could feel good about themselves and where they were learning if the building and its grounds were well-kept.
Fuga is back for his first year as a Principal at the school where he once taught and considers “his home.” Despite a lot of turnover in the last year, Fuga feels confident about the new teachers and administrators in the building, noting that it’s clear that teachers come to Neal on purpose and with purpose. And it’s a good thing, according to Fuga, because the “kids know who cares and who doesn’t.” Their families are working hard to raise them, and it’s the Neal staff’s responsibility to pick up where they leave off, he offered, articulating a sense of continuity between parents and teachers that was different than any I’d ever heard. That continuity is connected to practice as well, as Neal teachers are expected to make one positive call home per week. Parents rarely get those kinds of calls, and Fuga did the back-of-the-napkin math to calculate the number of positive contacts that effort would generate and the shift in culture it would create. Fuga knows that his students come here with challenges (50% of this year’s 6th graders read below grade level), but he is working hard to facilitate a culture that focuses on steady and sustained growth. The staff is also expected to grow, and Fuga is thrilled to get to work with legendary DPS Principal Jim Key as his mentor and the school’s leadership coach this year.
At the end of our talk, Fuga got up to show me the T-shirts the staff will soon be receiving. On the back of the shirt, the school’s approach is summed up in one simple word: BELIEVE.
I believe in what you’re doing Neal. Standardized tests can’t sum up what this place is about, and though I trust that those will improve too, it takes more than bubbles to assess what the Neal students and staff have to offer. These folks have heart y’all, and I encourage any and all to take up Fuga’s challenge to “come see it for yourself.”
Thanks for letting me hang out with you for the day Neal. Your heart has moved me, and I can’t wait to come back for more.
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.