It can be kind of hard to walk around the world these days as someone who knows a thing or two about education. For those of us that have chosen (or been chosen by) the profession/art of teaching, it can get tiresome to listen to the politicians and business people talk about what “our schools need to do.” Our students are used like cheap tricks to win votes, and the people who love and nurture them daily have our craft disrespected by those who have never tried it. Again and again, I find myself consoling expert practitioners who just want to be, at the very least, spoken about with dignity. No one challenges the American Medical Association’s right to set the standard for their profession, but when it comes to decisions about our schools, teachers and our unions are somehow expendable.
Well guess what world? We know a thing or two.
And one of the things that we know is that smaller class sizes really matter. Researchers can squabble over numbers all day, but anyone who has ever taught knows that fewer students means more opportunities to develop meaningful relationships and more opportunities to understand and meet their personalized strengths and needs. It just makes sense, and our experiences prove it true over and over.
Which is one of the reasons why I’m so excited about James E. Shepard Magnet Middle School. With one of the smallest middle school populations in the district, the Shepard team has the opportunity to know and love their students with more precise attention. Spending Monday morning with this gifted and passionate group of teachers started my week off right, and I’m excited to tell the world about the great things that they’re doing.
I started my day off reuniting with a former Hillside colleague Yolanda Reilly, who’s been teaching PE at Shepard for 6 years. Reilly was the first to talk to me about the small size of the school. She told me that it allowed her to know all of the students’ names, and she proved it as she greeted her kids one by one as they walked up to the building. “The students and parents know that they’re cared about,” she noted, adding that, “the teachers go above and beyond.” Those teachers, according to Reilly, are constantly working on ways to improve their craft, even if they are in their last years before retirement.
Counselor Angela Teal doesn’t look to be retiring anytime soon, though she’s certainly paid her dues. She’s been holding down the counseling department at the school for 21 years, many of them on her own. She also mentioned the small size of the school, and how it allows the staff to provide more personalized support and catch problems that can often get overlooked in a larger setting.
After staffing the department on her own for years, Teal finally has a teammate in Sam Perkins. Perkins is in his 2nd year as a Counselor at the school and loves the way that the department collaborates with the faculty and administration. At Shepard, according to Perkins, the administration takes an active interest in what the counselors do and supports the initiatives that the guidance team creates to meet student needs.
Another factor that allows the Shepard staff to better support students is strong teamwork. Magnet/Testing Coordinator Tanisa Rucker pointed out that Shepard is “not as compartmentalized as other schools.” Rucker coordinates the school’s International Baccalaureate program, which pulls students from all over the county and exposes them to a globally-recognized and rigorous curriculum. Having the IB curriculum necessitates strong connections across different subject areas, and the Shepard staff is clearly committed to collaborating to provide the best for their students.
Those students, according to 6th grade Math Teacher Christine Johnson, are the best part of working at Shepard. She’s been working at Shepard for 3 years and called her kids “boldly honest,” funny, and hard-working.
Getting to chat with Dr. Delores Paylor was one of my favorite parts of the day. Paylor is a retired Principal serving as an Instructional Facilitator, and she moved through the building with an infectiously positive presence. She said that the kids at Shepard love coming to school, and pointed out that they have one of the highest daily attendance rates in the district. The teachers, according to Paylor, are the most obvious reason. They “want to do well,” she noted, and pointed out that they love to show off for her when she observes their classes. It is clear that Paylor has earned the respect of her colleagues, and the staff is lucky to have her support and expertise around.
Principal Ericka Boone also brings a great deal of experience to the table. After teaching at both elementary and middle school levels, Boone chose middle because she believes it’s the best place to make a difference in their development. She mentioned the whole-child approach of the IB program as a strength of the school, but offered that many parents apply for the magnet program because they trust that their students will be better served in the smaller setting. Those parents then send their siblings behind them, and the school has developed a family feel over the years.
Boone also highlighted the community service focus of the school. Over the years, the students have engaged in efforts to raise money for cancer research, organized food drives, participated in a program to send nets to malaria-riddled parts of the world, and are currently participating in the Malala project to raise awareness about the education of girls all over the world.
Assistant Principal Duane Roberts joined us, and he raved about Shepard’s students. “I wouldn’t trade them for anybody in the district,” he offered, adding that they are “always trying.” He also noted the school’s smallness as a huge factor in its “community feel.” We ended up having a lively discussion about the politics and economics of corporate education reform, and I walked away even clearer that educators know what we’re talking about and ought to be creating the policies that govern our schools.
Band Director Antwann Smith pointed at Boone and Roberts as two of the main reasons that Shepard is strong. He’s in his 1st year at the school and has benefited from their support. Additionally, he noted that he’s gotten a great deal from the culture of collaboration among the school’s art teachers.
Chorus Teacher Adia Ledbetter is one of those teammates and named the staff’s collaboration as a highlight as well. Beyond just teaming up with the adults, Ledbetter has organized a student-centered chorus class that creates space for her kids to shape the course material. They recently reworked a J Cole song and are singing a tune by Sam Smith in an upcoming concert. This kind of flexibility no doubt allows students to feel more ownership and investment in the class and the school, and it’s allowed Ledbetter to learn new things herself.
CTE/Computer Skills/Business Teacher Kiera Hinton also learns a lot from her students. She originally intended to go into a career in business, but ended up at Shepard and loves the unique personalities and energy that her kids bring into her life.
I was feeling pretty excited about Shepard at this point, but the school’s law classroom absolutely knocked my socks off. Right there, in the middle of a public school, I found myself in a legitimate court room talking to a teacher whose students are learning tort, criminal, and constitutional law through mock trials and school-wide simulations. Tondra Manning worked in the prison system before coming to Shepard 14 years ago and loves working to help young people better understand the law and the legal system. I didn’t get to catch her class, but I’m excited to come back and check out the work that they’re doing together in this gorgeous space.
I’d also love to watch Reggie Gilliam teach kids about health and exercise in other parts of the world. Because the school has an international focus, the PE department pushes itself to incorporate cross-cultural understanding into its lessons and Gilliam clearly brings a lot of energy to the task.
I ended up hanging out with 8th grade English and Language Arts Teacher Linda Mitchell for about a half an hour. In her 30th year in the classroom, Mitchell is not lacking for energy, and she excitedly told me about her Panther of the Week recognitions and the thrill she gets from facilitating the learning of young people. She beamed when she told me about all the students who ran to the library to check out a particular book after reading a chapter of it in her class together recently. They are “like diamonds in the rough,” she told me, and it’s clear to this educator that her kids will emerge from her class shining brighter than they ever have.
Media Coordinator Felicia Leggett has been at Shepard for all 10 years of her career in education and raved about the small size of the school and the family atmosphere among the staff. As part of the school’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, I caught Leggett in the library in a sombrero teaching her students a lesson on Latin American culture and couldn’t help but smile at her commitment to the task and her students.
I was also impressed with Harold Simms’ commitment to his students. He’s excited to provide a positive Black male role model for his kids, and loves pushing them to be better than they think that they can be. By making the learning “fun and interesting,” he offered, he can push his students’ limits in ways that will help them grow.
Linda Lanier is no doubt exposing her students to new things every day. She’s in her first year in the classroom, but she brings the experiences of her career as a research chemist with her every day. She’s really enjoying teaching so far, and loves the family atmosphere at Shepard. Like so many others, she mentioned that she feels like she knows everybody in the school and that that familiarity allows the Shepard team to accomplish more than they otherwise could.
I wandered back by Linda Mitchell’s class and realized I should have just stayed there the whole time. This time, I caught Kim Butler James, an 8th grade Math Teacher in her 20th year in the profession. In addition to loving the people that she works with, Butler James also loves teaching at a school with the tradition of Shepard. The school is named, of course, after the founder of North Carolina Central University and had a great reputation as a neighborhood school even before it became an IB magnet.
As a graduate student at NCCU, Andre Fils-Aime loves the proximity of the school to his other school life. He’s in his 2nd year teaching Math at Shepard, but he did his internship here and has seen many of his students for 3 straight years. Like so many others, the crew in Mitchell’s room named the IB program and the small size of the school as their highlights.
So there you have it. It turns out people who commit their lives to learning how to be better teachers know what our schools and our students need, and the teachers at Shepard Magnet Middle are clear that their school’s small setting allows them to accomplish more with their students than they otherwise could. One day, all educational policy decisions will be made by students, educators, and parents together, and all of our school settings will be personalized like the classrooms at Shepard Middle School. Until then, we’ll have to keep highlighting the great things that our teachers and students are doing together and building the power that we need to put the experts in the driver’s seat.
Thanks for teaching me what you know Shepard family, I can’t wait to come back for more lessons.
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.