What’s Good at R.N. Harris?

When Principal Carolyn Pugh greeted me for my visit at R.N. Harris, she told me that her school was the “best kept secret in Durham.”  When I told her that she wasn’t the first to tell me that, she looked at me, smiled as she walked away, and said, “yeah, but this one really is.”   Swagger.

As one who appreciates a certain kind of confidence, I couldn’t wait to test Pugh’s assertion and see what Harris had that made her so sure of herself.  In a city full of secrets, I don’t know enough to name hers the best, but I will say with certainty that Harris is a place so special that it deserves the respect and attention of parents and educators everywhere. After spending a day with the school’s staff and students, I shared Pugh’s smile, and I walked away thrilled to get the chance to tell their story.

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At the center of the school’s story is the Integrated Arts/Core Knowledge Curriculum.  Harris is an A+ school, which means that the arts are integrated into every part of their curriculum.  This concept, combined with the “spiraling” Core Knowledge curriculum, utilizes Howard Gardner’s theories on multiple intelligences to create a constantly reinforced knowledge base rooted in creativity and deep understanding of the diverse cultures of the world. Pugh, who’s been at the school for all 34 years of her career in education, broke down what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.  The kindergarten students study geography and continents of the world.  In the next few grades, they explore the histories and cultures of Egypt, the rest of Africa, China, Japan, Greece, India, Europe,and the Americas in broad strokes.  In the grades that follow, they go into depth into each of those regions of the world to expand on the foundations that they’ve already built.  At each point, the staff collaborates across disciplines to build in more layers of understanding.  For example, as the 4th grade students learn about the history and cultures of Europe’s Middle Ages, the dance teacher instructs them in dances from the period, the music teacher has them writing their own Gregorian chants, and the PE teacher helps them explore games and understand health concerns of the time.  Everything is reinforced and rooted in creativity at every level.  When the students get to the 7th grade and study the Middle Ages as part of the Common Core, they already know everything the curriculum expects from them.  Harris’s 5th graders read Shakespeare a year before the Common Core will have them explore his works again.  This approach levels the playing field for students who have less exposure at home and allows Harris students to consistently perform higher on standardized tests than students who come from much higher socioeconomic backgrounds than they do.

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To back up her assertion that she’d put her students “up against anyone in the world,” Pugh told me of a Principal who visited from India several years ago to study the school.  She went to give the 2nd graders a presentation on the basics of Indian cultures, only to find that the students already knew everything that she offered.  In 2012, Harris won an Urban School of Excellence Award, an accomplishment that no other NC school shared.  In 2013, the school received the Lighthouse Award for Curriculum and Achievement, something that only 5 elementary schools in the state could claim.  Pugh claims to have the “brightest kids in the district,” and a hard-working and constantly-improving staff to guide them.  After an hour in her office, I could see why Pugh felt so strongly about this place, and I was excited to explore it for myself.

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Instructional Assistant Pamela Barnes has been at Harris almost as long as Pugh has.  For her, the students are what makes the school so special.  “They are so loving,” she offered, before sharing that she enjoys the challenge of adapting to each student’s own individual needs.

IMG_0846[1]Julia Cozart seemed like a relative newcomer in her 24th year at the school.  She called the school community a family because of the ways that everyone works together to meet the students’ needs.  And, like Barnes, she named the students as her highlight.  They are, “like your own children,” she asserted, and smiled when she noted that they love the school so much that they want to stay there at the end of the day.

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Counselor Queen Pryor is a newcomer to the school, though she’s in her 10th year in the profession.  She loves the warm welcome that she’s received from the veteran staff and is excited to be returning back to her hometown.  Pugh shared that her grandson recruited Pryor to Harris from his seat in the Guilford County school that Pryor worked in previously, proving that the Eagle experience truly is a family affair.

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One of the school’s custodians attended the school when it was originally a K-2, and another, Norman Webb has been at Harris for 9 years.  Webb spoke of the friendly atmosphere and how strongly the students seem to feel about their school as his highlights.

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Those same students, according to Before/After School Manager Dominique Taylor are, “smart and fun to be around.”  She also talked about how friendly and welcoming the environment is as she and Webb joked around in her office.

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Katherine Kuhn wanted her picture taken by the window, which looks out onto the 3 giant garden beds that her class gets to use as they learn about plants.  In her 1st year teaching 3rd grade in the building, Kuhn loves the positivity of the school community, an attribute she attributes to Pugh’s leadership.  She also pointed towards the strong collaboration among the 3rd grade teachers as a major factor in her happiness at Harris.

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Mary Harris is a part of that 3rd grade team, and she loves the Integrated Arts curriculum.  By a few months into the year, she noted, the hallways look like a mural, and the students take great pride in the display of their work.

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I found another Harris veteran working as an Instructional Assistant for Kindergarten.  She worked at the school for 24 years, left for a bit, and has been back for 5.  She loves “everything” about the school, but specifically named the supportive team and the consistent collaboration of the staff as being among her favorites.  She also relishes the opportunity to learn new things from her co-workers, making it clear that the students aren’t the only ones growing at Harris.

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Patricia Dorsey loves watching young folks grow.  As a tutor in the Before/After school program, Dorsey is excited to get to mentor kids who live in the community that surrounds the school, exposing them to higher levels of education every day.

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As the school’s Multi-Tier System of Supports Coordinator, Mshinda Brown mentors students every day.  She’s been at Harris for 14 years and loves the closeness of the teachers and the families.  She’s seen multiple generations of students come through the school and feels like the strong sense of community at the school is its strength.

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As a relative newcomer to Harris, 2nd grade Teacher Kathleen Leonard loves the balance of the veterans and young Teachers in the building.  “Everybody here works really hard,” she said, following with, “I love my team.”

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Kirtina Jones is on Leonard’s team, and has taught at the school for 12 years after student teaching at the school.  For her, the Integrated Arts curriculum is the center of the school’s success, allowing her and her colleagues the freedom to come up with different ways to introduce new concepts to students.  The school’s morale stays high, according to Jones, and the smiles I saw all day bore out that truth.

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I missed the chance to see her dance for her students, but apparently Daphane Sigman does it all the time.  In her 10th year at the school, she also clearly feels free engage her creative side, and she gushed about her “awesome” and “loving” students who “always get their work done.”  Next time, Ms. Sigman, I hope to get to catch some dancing.

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EC Resource Teacher Dabney Hopkins dances throughout the building during the day, shuttling between working with students in their classrooms and pulling them out for extra support.  She mentioned both the Integrated Arts and Core Knowledge curriculum as the best parts of the school.  For Hopkins, the deep multicultural background that it provides is good for all students, whether they have some exposure to the world past Durham already or not

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Down the hall, Cansis Rigg also named the Core Knowledge curriculum as her highlight.  She’s learned about it right along with the students, and loves the way that the knowledge constantly builds on itself.

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Student Teacher Nikki Parker is also learning the curriculum.  She’s observed and taught at a number of different schools, but this is the first one where she’s felt like a part of a family.  “Everybody gets along and helps each other” at Harris, she said, and the results are obvious.  I watched her guide her 1st graders on her own with the confidence of a seasoned veteran, and it was clear that she’s gotten a lot of support in a short amount of time.

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Justine Mirsky-Blank also feels super supported at Harris.  She’s in her 2nd year teaching Kindergarten at Harris and loves “everything” about it.  When I asked for specifics, she offered the strong communication among the staff, the fully supportive administration, the positive atmosphere, the creativity in the hallways, and the Core Knowledge curriculum as her favorites.

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Her Kindergarten comrade Tiffanee Swain also feels at home at Harris.  She mentioned that the administration and the strong teamwork among the staff have helped her grow.  And she loves that the arts “is what we do here before, during, and after school.”

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Bonnie Guerra went into great detail when she described why Harris feels like a family.  She’s gone through major life changes during her 9 years at the school, and the community has supported her each time.  She mentioned Pugh specifically, but held her warmest comments for her Instructional Assistant Ms. Parks, who is “the reason I stay here.”  She feels great about having “a job that she loves,” and smiled when she offered that, “I would love to be a stay-at-home mom, but if I have to have a job, I love that I get to love other people’s children.”

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Jackie Teel echoed these sentiments, sharing that the Harris staff, “truly, genuinely, loves our kids.”  She’s in her 2nd year as Assistant Principal at the school, and was one more in the chorus that highlighted the Integrated Arts and Core Knowledge Curriculum.  The school’s staff, according to Teel, works long hours to make sure that the kids get what they need, but also hangs out with each other at night and on the weekend.  The family atmosphere, it seems, extends beyond the school day and the whole Harris team “looks after each other.”

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In a sign that the staff must really be on the same page, my last conversation sounded almost exactly like all the others I had throughout the day.  Art Teacher Monica Unger-Suarez talked about the closeness of the staff and the support of the administration, in addition to the Integrated Arts curriculum, as Harris’s strengths.  In a small-world moment, we also discovered that she had taught at the same Department of Defense school I had attended in Iwakuni, Japan, which brought a huge smile to my face and prompted a longer sit-down that ranged from the state of the teachers’ union to educational politics more broadly.

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I ended my day at Harris by coming back to talk at their staff meeting about DAE and educational politics, and I couldn’t have walked away more impressed. Not only is this school filled with sharp, committed, worldly, and family-oriented educators, but they are ready to fight for their kids in the political arena too.

Thanks for sharing your secrets with me R.N. Harris.  If I have anything to say about it, y’all won’t stay among Durham’s best kept secrets much longer. But I have no doubt you’ll stay among its best.  Right Ms. Pugh?

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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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