Before I get into the specifics of the 30th public school that I’ve visited in Durham this year, I just want to go on record and say that our schools are so awesome. Each one of them is filled with loving, committed, and creative staff who go to the mat for their kids and each other. Each one bustles with young people working hard to learn more about themselves and the world. And each one has its own unique flavor and character. I’m enjoying every minute of this tour, and I consider it a great honor to get to write about these precious places of learning, loving, and growing.
I’m especially excited to share about Lucas Middle School because this place had me smiling from the moment I walked in the door to the moment my car pulled away.
The first thing worth noting is the beauty of the facility. The school opened a little over 3 years ago and is a feat of creativity and design beauty. While the culture of the people differs dramatically from school to school, the truth is that many schools look and feel the same aesthetically. The design at Lucas leaves behind the cookie-cutters and combines bright open spaces with lots of common areas to create a welcoming quality that is difficult to describe. The building, despite its newness, has a character typically devoid in newer buildings, and it was a lot of fun to explore. In fact, Mr. Cason was so excited by the state-of-the-art theater that he couldn’t help but jump on stage and play a few notes on the piano before we took off.
Band Director Allen Amos has no doubt spent some time in the theater. He’s been at the school since it opened and named the beauty of the facility as a highlight. He added that, as an Arts Teacher, he feels valued and supported at the school. That support extends beyond the arts, however, and Amos mentioned the collaborative spirit among the entire staff as a quality that expands the potential of students to learn and grow at Lucas.
Michael Smith concurs. He’s in his 1st year as an Instructional Assistant at Lucas, but loves the positive attitude that he feels among the school’s staff, from the administration to the custodians. Lucas Teachers, according to Smith, are always working with each other and always working with kids to facilitate the growth that they are capable of.
Dawn Tucker added to the chorus praising the supportive atmosphere at Lucas. As a Teacher working with students who have moderate intellectual disabilities, Tucker has struggled with feeling isolated in other settings. At Lucas, however, she has what she needs to serve her students, and her kids feel clear that they are as much of a part of the school’s culture as anyone else.
The students at Lucas, according to Drama and Dance Teacher Vera Bennett-Allen, never let you have a dull moment. She’s been teaching for over 20 years and feels like she’s found a family at Lucas. In particular, she noted the “cool” and “easy” atmosphere established by the school’s administration. She called the school’s Principal “awesome,” and added that, “if you do your job, they don’t bother you.” Bennett-Allen must be getting the job done because she seemed fairly stress free as she offered, “it’s fun, I would never want to do anything else.”
Bob Wilke has never taught anywhere but Lucas. He’s in his 4th year teaching Science at the school and had nothing but good things to say about the facility, the staff, the administration, and the students.
CTE Teacher Jameya Green has also only taught at Lucas, but that didn’t stop her from calling the school’s Administration “the best in DPS.” She added that she loves “the people” at Lucas because they have a good work ethic, collaborate well, and “look out for each other.”
Next door, Technology Teacher Steven Woodard echoed the praise for the school’s Administration. He was specific in his affirmation, offering that they are “consistent, jump on stuff very quickly, and show no favoritism whatsoever.” Clearly the school’s leadership must be on to something.
After hearing all of this, I was looking forward to talking with Principal Thomas Seckler, who didn’t disappoint. Seckler, who started off in business before realizing that, “it wasn’t doing anything for me,” spent 12 years in the classroom as a Special Education Teacher before becoming an Administrator. The insights he gained in the classroom compelled him to develop a project-based learning model as the focus for Lucas’s students. The idea, according to Seckler, is that a Teacher never talks for more than 20% of a class period, and students take responsibility for their own learning through inquiry and creation of products that demonstrate their learning. These projects are interdisciplinary and originate in the school’s Project Based Learning staff committee, who collaborate to generate curriculum that will push students to grow in multiple ways. Since it was the week in which some people celebrate Columbus Day, the students had engaged in a product evaluating his impact on the world from several angles, and their products filled the hallway.
Beyond the project focus, Lucas also promotes smart use of technology through their Bring Your Device to School (BYDS) program. Rather than forcing students to put their devices away, the school has created a culture of conversation and engagement with technology, allowing for its use in circumstances in which it can enhance student learning, and creating a structure in which students can make better, more focused choices about their phones, tablets, etc. Since not all students own technology at home, the school has also created Project Z. Named for a student who was kicked out of another school but blossomed at Lucas, the program is designed to put a computer and internet hot spot in the homes of students who don’t have access. This year, 26 students/families are participating, and all of the students attend the school’s after-school program, where they receive extra support in using the technology to improve their academic performance.
Before we left his office, Seckler added that he’s excited to see the school’s staff stabilize. Because project-based learning isn’t for everyone, 10-15 staff members left the school after each of its first few years. This year, however, all but 3 staff members returned, lending stability to a foundation Seckler and his team are in their 4th year building. To punctuate his point, Seckler told us about a teacher who had to go on leave to fight a bout with cancer. Parents and other staff members took over the class, continued to support the students, and finished the year with the entire class passing their final exams. There is a strong sense of teamwork at Lucas, and Seckler has much to be proud about.
Receptionist Pamela Barnes is also proud to be at Lucas. She’s been at the school since it opened and loves the way that the staff, students, administration, and parents all pull together to support one another.
That supportive community is incredibly diverse, according to Speech Pathologist Ramonda Horton. She’s only in her 1st year at the school, having worked in a University prior to coming to Lucas. Thus far, she’s been fascinated by the economic, linguistic, and cultural diversity of the students and staff and the challenges and opportunities for deeper learning that the school’s community offers.
For PE Teacher and Athletic Director Mike Germino, both diversity and sameness are strengths of the school. He’s in his first year back from a mostly white charter school, and has appreciated the racial and ethnic diversity of the Lucas student body. On the other hand, however, Lucas has offered him the opportunity to teach all-boys PE classes, and he’s really embraced the advantages of this approach.
8th grade Science Teacher/PTO Rep/PBIS Chair/Step Team Sponsor Samantha Stancil has also clearly embraced the culture at Lucas. In her 3rd year in the school, she called the Lucas team a family, offering that the staff hangs out together and enjoys each other both in and outside of school. We caught Stancil in a class with Stephanie Halpin and Brian Whyte. Whyte is Stancil’s 8th grade partner and he noted the high morale and strong support that the Lucas community offers to one another. Halpin is the school’s Instructional Facilitator and also mentioned her co-workers at the top of her list. She went further, though, and noted that she loves getting the opportunity to grow professionally and to “do the job the way that I see it needs to be done.” After a good bit of cajoling, Whyte relented and let us take a group photo that demonstrated the team’s love for one another.
Jason Hatfield was in a different room, but he is another member of the 8th grade team, which he described as “proactive” and oriented towards understanding and better utilizing one another’s strengths. He taught in private school prior to his 2 years at Lucas, and said that the support from the Administration at Lucas is unlike anything he’s ever seen. He loves the diversity of the student body and the ways that the students share the breadth of their experiences with one another as they learn together.
When we got to the school, Art Teacher Elizabeth Wright invited us to come check out her classroom. I’m so glad that we did. Wright moved to Durham specifically to work in the project-based learning program at Lucas. She’s in her 4th year at the school and has clearly found a niche. We got the chance to observe and talk to her students as they worked on the products from their expansive multidisciplinary pottery unit. The unit connects with the social studies department’s study of North Carolina history through lessons on various forms of folk art in the state. When the students’ work is complete, they will sell it to raise money for a class trip to an artist community called Sea Grove. There, the students will connect with working potters to learn about the entrepreneurial and artistic skills necessary to make a living as an artist. They will also take a trip to the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, where one of the curators will teach them how to choose pieces for an exhibit. Then, at the school’s Project Based Learning Night on December 10th, the art students will curate their own show and present it to the whole school community. This whole series of tasks felt very advanced to Mr. Cason and I, and our interactions with the students left us confident that they are up to the task. We were mesmerized by the maturity and sophistication with which they talked about their work, and we left the classroom with huge smiles on our faces, ready to come back for the students’ showcase on December 10.
Counselor Monique Bostic also had a smile on her face as she talked about the Lucas experience. She’s in her 2nd year of what she called a “perfect storm,” with teachers, students, administrators, and parents all collaborating to support one another and help each other grow. She “always gets access to the kids when she needs them,” and she “always has someone else to team with” to support her students better.
Thanks for making us feel so good about teaching and learning Lucas. I can’t wait to come back and smile with y’all some 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.