What’s Good at Oak Grove?

A picture, they say, is worth 1,000 words.  If that’s the case, there’s no way I can muster the words I need to describe the mural that takes up a whole wall in the cafeteria at Oak Grove Elementary School.  What I can do, however, is attempt to connect the school motto, this mural, and the stories of the talented staff who work there to paint you a picture of just how awesome of a place to learn Oak Grove is.

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The school’s motto, “Excellence is our expectation, we won’t settle for anything less,” is everywhere throughout the building, and sets the tone for the students, staff, and parents who walk through its hallways.  Public schools receive lots of criticism for their allegedly low expectations, but Oak Grove flies in the face of that story.  This year’s variation on that theme is, “Can’t is not part of our vocabulary.  We can and we will.”  As I walked through the building this morning, it is clear that the Oak Grove staff emanates this positive mantra every day.

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This positivity was the first thing that Instructional Assistant Lakeisha Watson referenced when we spoke.  She’s in her second year at Oak Grove and loves both the challenge that working with young people presents and the ways that the staff supports each other to accomplish the task.

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That challenge, according to Kindergarten teacher Joelle Moser, is not just about helping Oak Grove students grow, but about changing the entire city of Durham.  The sense of community that Watson named was evident between these two cooperating educators, and it’s the kind of collaboration that makes one believe that anything is possible.

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Another Instructional Assistant, Brandi Barbee, also spoke with a great love for the ways that the Oak Grove staff come together.  That support network, plus the boost of energy provided by the smiling faces and joy of elementary schoolers, has kept her at Oak Grove for sixteen years.

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Math Teacher Adrienne Jernigan is only in her first year at the school, but she called the school a family as she discussed the relationships that she has quickly built with staff and students.  The whole team functions cohesively and, according to Jernigan, feels “homey.”

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When I asked Kindergarten teacher Wendy Howell what was good about her school home for the last eleven years, she said simply, “EVERYTHING.”  Watching Howell love on her students felt like a huge part of the everything, and if all Oak Grove students get what her’s are getting, this change in Durham that Moser is proposing feels so possible.

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Student Teacher Jasmine Mack is soaking up every bit of Howell’s mentorship and feels lucky to be learning from, as she said, “the best teacher ever.”  Howell has welcomed her and supported her in all of the ways that the best cooperating teachers do, and Mack says the whole staff instantly treated her like one of their own.  Student Teachers aren’t always embraced in these ways, and their acceptance is obviously an extension of the high expectations and positive attitude that Oak Grove’s staff lives by.

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ESL teacher Polly Leck is feeling very positive about Oak Grove these days.  In the past, she’s functioned as a one-woman ESL Department.  She’s glad to have a teammate now, and feels excited to be able to offer her students the resources that they need.

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When I ran into Justin Peoples in the hallway, he felt like the poster child for positivity at the school.  In his second year as an Instructional Assistant, he listed off the names of a dozen people who provide him with regular support.  He was so excited to name the people who keep him coming back, and his commitment to the school’s mantra was palpable.  More telling, however, were the interactions between Peoples and his students and Peoples and his co-workers.  It was all smiles, high fives, laughs, teasing, and love, and I couldn’t help but feel connected to the “we can” attitude.

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For school Data Manager Loyda Marquez, “we can” means that none of her co-workers is ever too busy to lend a helping hand.   Everyone plugs in when and where they are needed.  Marquez’s own children are Oak Grove students and she trusts the education they’re getting in the school’s high-expectation-filled classrooms.

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Carla Terry backed up Marquez’s words by calling Oak Grove a “come to” school, pointing out that parents work hard to figure out ways to get their kids into the school.  As the school’s Secretary/Receptionist/Counselor/Nurse/Therapist (she joked, but anyone who works in a school knows that the front office staff holds down all of these roles), she has her finger on the Oak Grove pulse, and couldn’t say enough about its strengths.  The administration goes above and beyond, the teachers are vibrant and care each of their kids, and the whole team is tight knit and relies on each other to meet each student’s individual needs.  High expectations all around.

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Fourth grade teacher Angela Humphrey has high expectations for her students and extends them to herself.  She talked about how much fun her kids are, and named the challenge of coming up with new ways of teaching them as fun too.  That love for, and commitment to bring the best to, her students is clearly shared by the hard-working team on the fourth and fifth grade hall.

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One of those teammates, fifth grade teacher Daniel Dulany, pointed out that, “everyone cares about the students and their well-being.”  The staff at Oak Grove has each other’s backs, he noted, sharing that he “felt like a part of the family right away” when he got to the school last year.

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Before/After School Manager Karla Pratt is also in her second year at the school, but she came to Oak Grove with twenty years of experience working with younger children.  Since she’s been there, she has extended the high expectations of the school day to the before and after school team.  There, the staff is using project based learning and individualized activities to meet the needs of each student.  Beyond the 3 R’s, Oak Grove students are getting access to Duke volunteers who are leading enrichment activities focused on students learning about their bodies and being healthy.  Before and after school programs are not always this focused, and it’s exciting to see the “we can” attitude filling every single moment of day at Oak Grove.

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Assistant Principal Jennifer Halsey undoubtedly spends a lot of moments in this school every day, and her adoption of its vision is clear.  Because head Principal Aisha Howard was out of the building for meetings, Halsey gave me an overall picture of the school that was very impressive.  When she came to the school, her assumption was that the AP job would be filled with all kinds of logistically-focused tasks.  To the contrary, Halsey has been pleased to find out that Howard would have her helping to shape the school’s instructional framework.  Using studies on brain development, the team has mapped out research-based strategies to support the teaching staff.  These initiatives include using lots of graphic organizers, writing in every subject, and peer-to-peer efforts that hold students accountable for their own learning.  The staff pushes itself to create an environment that is loving and safe, while still holding students to a high standard.

The school is also making concerted efforts to connect to its community.  Because many of its students come from a low-income apartment neighborhood near the school, the Oak Grove team is holding a cookout there so that parents can interact with the staff on their own turf.  The school’s leadership is trying to ensure that the first point of contact for parents is not a negative phone call home.  This kind of extra effort demonstrates that the high expectations are not simply for students, but set the tone for the whole school community.

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That community is a big part of what brought Positive Behavior Intervention Support Coordinator Wesley Clark to the school.  He is Durham born-and-bred and loved the experiences that he had in DPS so much that he wanted to give back to the community that had such a positive impact on him.  His positivity was palpable, and he hopes that the “we can” ethic roots itself in the students before they head on to middle school.

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One aspect of the Oak Grove experience that will undoubtedly stick with students is the cafeteria.  I got a chance to speak with the cafeteria team of Margarita Vargas, Cathy Autrey, Shakia Moss, Shaun Kelly, Bessie Royster, and Ruby Barlow-Lewis and they were as positive as every other part of the staff.  They offered that the teachers are good, the people are friendly, and that the staff has been welcoming.  The members of this crew have been in the building anywhere from two weeks to 25 years, and it was all positive nods when Kelly smiled and said, “I love these people.”  Undoubtedly, the students feel, and will remember, this love.

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The most memorable part of the cafeteria, however, is the giant mural that served as the backdrop for our conversation.  Art Teacher Christie Hollis had walked me down there earlier in the day, and I was awed by the massive demonstration of the school’s creativity and “we can” attitude.  The arts, for Hollis, are an antidote for the hyper-tested cloud of standardization that hangs over so many school communities these days.  She loves laughing with her students and sharing moments of levity that allow both them and her an escape from the stresses that they endure everyday.  Her kids have a lot of pressure placed upon them, and the mural project allowed them to momentarily put it aside and generate a monument to the school community that believes in them, supports them, and pushes them to accomplish things that much of the world doesn’t believe that they are capable of.

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The project, which took the better part of six months to complete, is filled with concepts that hold deep meaning for the school community.  Across the bottom, words that represent character traits that the school wants to instill in its students serve as a foundation for the art.  Because the students were working on the project when Maya Angelou passed away, her words float around the painting’s sky, offering important insights.  Creative references to individual staff members dot the landscape, but none ground the painting’s significance more than the roots that reference Oak Grove volunteer extraordinaire Betty Humes.  Ms. Humes, who has spent every day volunteering in the building for the last four years, said that she keeps showing up “because someone did it for me, and it was instilled in me to give back.”  The school carries the same whole-child, family-centered philosophy that she was taught in as a child, and she asserted that, “if it didn’t have that stuff in place, I wouldn’t be here.”  While we talked, several staff people walked by and proclaimed, “we love Ms Betty,” and it is clear from the metaphor that the students used in the painting that the spirit that Ms. Humes brings to the school every day serves as the foundation for the schools “we can” approach.

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So there you have it, a couple thousand words that come nowhere near capturing the spirit of this school.  I encourage any and all of you to visit this fabulous school and revel in its loving, supportive, challenging, and positive atmosphere.  The students in Oak Grove are growing healthy roots, and I can’t wait to see the kinds of beauty they continue to create.

Thanks again for hosting me Oak Grove.  I can’t wait to come back soon.

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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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