October feels like an appropriate month to talk about spirits. The ghosts of Halloween will soon descend upon us, giving physical form to the intangible supernatural that many believe we live in the midst of every day. Whether or not I believe in those specters is another post for another blog, but I will say here unequivocally that I believe in school spirit.
And so does the staff at Carrington Middle School.
For the staff at Carrington Middle School, school spirit symbolizes a deep love for each other; a commitment to, and belief in, their students; and a palpable joy for the job they do every day. These folks, as I heard multiple times throughout my stay, “bleed orange and black,” and carry the essence of the Cougars with them wherever they go.
I felt most moved by the spirit of the school when I lucked into an impromptu gathering in Alicia Jones’ choir class. She’s been teaching at Carrington for 10 of her 15 years in education, and she was joined by Derek Dickerson and Chris Wagner. The love that the 3 of them share for each other is profound and tested, and it was awe-inspiring to revel in their connection. All of them mentioned teaching one another’s children, and they shared stories of the school’s staff bringing their families out for Saturday kickball/dodgeball games, weekly dinners, and an upcoming trip to a pumpkin patch. Lots of schools I’ve been to have Friday Happy Hours or other social gatherings, but the Carrington crew has made connecting outside of work a family affair, and their bonds with one another are like few I’ve ever seen.
Jones, like many teachers that I talk to, called the school a home and the staff a family. She went further though, sharing that her daughter had gone to the school, and that she “wouldn’t change anything I’ve gone through here.” She specifically mentioned the school’s leadership and the “awesome students” she gets to teach. In the most quotable moment of the day, Jones offered that, “When everything else in the world is going crazy, we have our own oasis, a safe haven.”
For Dickerson, that oasis includes a lot of joy. He gets to teach P.E. with his best friend and watching the two of them move through the hallway together had me smiling before I even knew the backstory. He and Wagner have been friends since the 7th grade and have taught together at Carrington for over 20 years. When they say family, they really mean it. My smile got even bigger, however, when Dickerson talked about his own son. “He comes home excited every day,” he noted, and it was obvious how happy saying that made him feel.
Wagner also mentioned his own kids, who left Carrington playing more musical instruments than I could keep count of. He said that he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, and joked (though not really, I think) that he planned, “to be buried somewhere by the gym.”
Principal Holly Emmanuel didn’t go that far, but her love for the school is obvious. She’s been at Carrington since 2007 and said that the spirit at the school feels “like college.” The ubiquity of the school colors on the staff confirmed that feeling, and Emmanuel told me it looks like that on most days. The spirit, thus, extends beyond sports, and Emmanuel ran down some of the school’s other strengths. She was proud as she talked about the school’s arts programs, and hoped I might hear the chorus practicing in the hallway that day (I didn’t get to). I did, however, see lots of evidence of the school’s global connections focus. The magnet program aims for more globally aware students, and all teachers integrate international themes into their curriculum. The school also has a Global Club to promote travel. Last year, the club went to Costa Rica, and other trips have exposed students to sights in Washington D.C. and New York City. This year, the crew will journey to Iceland, and students and their families are invited.
Assistant Principal Intern Jeffrey Whitt helps to coordinate all of this travel, and I got a chance to hear more about the school he walked me around the facility. He’s been at Carrington for 6 of his 20 years and was named the 2014 Outstanding Teacher of the Gifted by the N.C. Association for the Gifted and Talented. While at Carrington, he’s worked with the CATCH peer mentoring program where students identified as gifted support other students in improving their academic habits. Every Saturday, 140 students participate, and the school picks up students at their homes. The Barriers Down project is about meeting parents where they are, taking meetings about IEPs and 504 plans into the community so that all parents can participate. The school also has 3 summer camps, one each for students who are struggling, gifted, or somewhere in between. Past the programs, however, Whitt raved about the people. The Carrington staff, he said, “stay here through the thick of things.” And because there are mechanisms for people to resolve issues in respectful ways, there isn’t much gossip among the grown folks. His highest praise, however, was reserved for Emmanuel, who he says is the reason that he’s going into administration. “She wants to see research,” that a program will work, he noted, but once she’s convinced that a program is worth exploring, “she all in with resources.”
One of those programs is the school’s PBIS program. 7th grade Social Studies Teacher Shamia Truitt explained how “Cougar Mountain” works. Each grade level team in the school competes in its efforts to practice and reinforce positive academic and social behaviors. One result of these efforts, according to Truitt, is that students are now bringing problems that they are having to the teachers proactively instead of waiting for conflicts to explode.
Counselor Rasheeda Omoti is the Chair of that PBIS program, and she mentioned the administration in her highlights. In her role, she regularly comes up with “outside of the box” ideas to improve the school’s climate, and the leadership team always “gets behind her.” According to Omoti, the staff is “caring and passionate” and one of the reasons why she loves her job.
Omoti is the main reason that Counselor intern Hunter Lancaster is enjoying Carrington. He said that she’s offered him tremendous support, and that she and the rest of the Carrington team feel like a family to him.
7th Grade Math Teacher Jennifer Burton has been at the school for 5 of her 15 years in education, and said that the staff’s camaraderie is the best part of the school.
Kathy Dulaney, the School Psychologist, agreed, saying that the staff is “wonderful.” According to her, they are constantly trying new things to better meet the needs of the students that they care about.
Custodian Chaka Watson also loves her co-workers. “Everybody’s like family,” she offered. “New teachers get taken in, and there are no cliques.” That sounded pretty rare and pretty wonderful.
Jonathan Ziemba has benefited from this nurturing environment. He’s been at the school since August, and offered that the staff has been helpful and created a strong support system for him.
Candace Odell agreed about the school’s staff, and added that the students keep her coming back. She’s been at Carrington for 25 years and currently serves as the Band Director, Athletic Director, Assistant Football Coach, Assistant Cheer Coach, and Fine Arts Department Chair. She loves getting to teach music and shared that there is nothing more gratifying than hearing the beautiful music that her 8th graders make 3 years after walking into her class “honking and squawking.”
Beth Wickham is Odell’s Arts Department colleague and said that the students are “incredible,” and, “keep her going.” Teaching middle school is challenging, but for Wickham, getting to see her students adapt to the diversity of the school’s population makes it worth it.
Assistant Principal Anthony White also referenced the diversity of the student body, pointing out that “all different kinds of kids all mesh together.”
26-year-veteran Pat Porcelli called the Carrington kids “accepting and willing to learn.” The veterans on the staff are always learning too, she added, pointing out they work hard to support new staff at the school.
EC Teacher Barrett Mardre said that this learning includes high-quality professional development. The teachers at the school “always support each other,” and help one another meet the needs of the students. Past the classroom, Mardre loves the school spirit among the students and staff.
Those students and the staff, according to 7th grade Social Studies Teacher David Miller, create a school community that is caring, understanding, and respectful. He’s been at the school for 18 years and enjoys getting to work closely on teams with his co-workers.
Assistant Principal Regina Greene summed up that team spirit by saying that staff members operate from a, “if I have it, I’m going to give it to you” mindset. She’s worked in schools for 22 years and said that Carrington feels especially warm for staff, students, and parents.
Patrice Fletcher is new to Carrington and has felt that warmth. She loves working with teachers that care about kids and kids that care about learning. “This is exactly what teaching is supposed to be like,” she gushed, adding that the administration is very supportive of the staff. She and her own children will be joining the trip to Iceland this year, and it’s clear that Fletcher has found a home at Carrington.
Ray Cordova also feels at home at the school. He specifically spoke of the supportive administration, saying that he loves having the freedom to run his class how he wants to, “as long as they kids are learning.”
That kind of autonomy came up again when I talked with Special Education Teacher Felicia Thornton. She’s in her 2nd year at Carrington and loves getting the chance to shape the future of the school’s autism program. She called her team one of the best around, and looked really happy to be a Cougar.
I felt that kind of happiness coursing through the building all day long. It wore orange and black, bounced around smiling, and buzzed with excitement for teaching and learning. It may not have been a ghost, but it was certainly intangible enough to avoid detection on the any standardized test that the state could create. It was the essence of a school that nurtures the minds, bodies, and souls of its students and staff, and it’s the kind of spirit that all of us can, and should, believe in.
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.