My interviews with educators on this DAE school tour are usually pretty short. I ask for their name, their role in the school, how long they’ve been there/been in education, and “what’s good?” about their school. Not infrequently, the first words out of someone’s mouth are “everything” or “OMG…so much,” and then I’m forced to ask them for specifics so that I have something interesting to write about.
After a long morning at Club Blvd Humanities Magnet Elementary School, I couldn’t start my answer to anyone’s “what’s good?” question about this school anywhere other than:
I have to admit that I was already pretty in love with this place before my visit. A few weeks back, I was invited to speak to a packed-house PTA meeting to discuss the effort to privatize public schools, the ways we could fight back, and the importance of parents and teachers uniting to win. At the close of the meeting, the PTA voted to pay the DAE dues for a new teacher at the school, in an unprecedented move that I can only hope spreads across the district like wildfire So before I even spent a morning at Club, I knew it was a place I would love.
The day at Club started off with an incredibly sweet going-away breakfast for veteran ESL Teacher Cassie Rodriguez. The building was abuzz with loving gifts of food and a sense of camaraderie that all people should get to start their day with. As the hallways filled with laughter and the smells of home, I perused the abundance of student work in the hallways, and my lips curled into a smile that stayed through the duration of my visit. Here, I saw students asked to contemplate, write about, and produce art that symbolized the meaning of friendship in their lives. I saw explorations of the works of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. I saw a gorgeous mural depicting Durham’s history. Everywhere I turned, there was art that not only demonstrated student learning, but made the walls come to life and gave the school an infectious vibrancy.
I followed Physical Education Teacher Gary Krieger through the halls on his way out to set up a morning activity station for students who arrived at school early. Last week was Wellness Week at the school, and Krieger’s leadership was evident throughout the whole day. As he set up Hula Hoops and jump ropes, I asked him what has kept him coming back to the school after 17 years. The answer was simple: students. “They have lots of energy and lots of spunk,” Krieger noted, sharing a story about a recent relay activity in which he felt sure that his students would run “for the whole period” if he didn’t stop them. Because it was Wellness Week, Krieger later came over the school’s intercom and led the entire campus through stretches, jumping jacks, and other morning calisthenics. At 10:15, a song came over the loudspeaker and the whole school stopped and danced together. Krieger had highlighted the students’ energy in our conversation, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the building with more spunk than this guy.
A close contender for “Spunkiest Club Teacher,” though, would be AIG Teacher Bobbie Leguire. She moved through the halls at near-sprint pace, and I had to follow her for a minute just to see what gave her so much energy. Again, the answer was students. Leguire specifically mentioned the school’s Humanities theme, listing “kids playing violins, dancing, acting, and making artwork everywhere” as the result of the magnet program’s focus. “You don’t get that at public schools,” she shared, “and this is a public school.”
Dance Teacher Marie Hopkins said something similar. At Club, she shared, “I get to teach something like dance to kids who wouldn’t get access to it unless they went to a private studio. Here, they are exposed to things that they don’t get elsewhere. And it’s free here.” She said that her students are, “very imaginative and open to learning new things,” adding that it is “exciting to see kids’ faces when they learn a new thing.”
Adding to the chorus of “this school isn’t like all public schools” endorsements, Alexa Goff mentioned that the racial demographic mix of students at Club is identical to the mix of people who live in Durham, something that doesn’t exist at most DPS schools. Here, “everybody plays with everybody,” she shared. She’s also a fan of the Humanities program because it allows Teachers to “integrate arts across the curriculum,” and see how “excited students get with visual arts and dance.” With her final point, she added that the families at Club are “really involved,” and don’t just fight for “what’s good for this school, but what is good for ALL public schools.”
Art is good for all students, and all public schools need lots of it. Tokay Allen has taught music at Club for the last 11 years and loves the opportunity to provide an “artistic outlet for kids to explore their talents.” She is glad that she gets to help them find their hidden gifts and looked both excited and proud when she proclaimed, “I’m doing what I was meant to do.”
Pearly Barrow is in her 2nd year as a staff member at the school, but her kids have been at Club for 4. She was drawn to the school because of the integration of the arts, and has found a home with a staff that she called “dedicated and committed” and always willing to “step outside of the box.”
2nd grade Teacher Xavier Wallace student taught at Club last year and was excited to rejoin the team as a full-time Teacher, working alongside his former mentor. He mentioned the “really great” families, and the students who pull on his heart as his favorite parts of the school. While we talked, every student that walked in got a handshake or a pound, and it was clear that Wallace has built a safe and inviting space in which his students can grow.
In her 29th year in education and 18th year at Club, Elizabeth Wintermute loves the community at Club. She referenced the ways that the staff works together to solve problems and celebrates each other, and with each other, on a regular basis.
Brandy Collins said simply, “it’s a cool school.” When I asked her to elaborate, she shared that she’s only been at the school 9 weeks but has already felt an abundance of caring and kindness from her co-workers. The school’s administration, which is also new, is “open to ideas, compassionate, supportive,” adding, “the don’t yell.” That’s a pretty good sign.
I got a lot more good signs when I had the chance to sit down and talk with Principal Terry Phillips and Assistant Principal Greg Mitchell. Phillips explained to me that I was lucky to come to the school on a Friday because it was “Club Day.” Students would have extended time in clubs of their choosing, while staff would collaborate with one another and a Humanities integration specialist to develop better and more provocative lessons. Setting aside this amount of time for Teachers to collaborate every week is rare, and it was exciting to pop in and out of their meetings and watch how generative the sessions were. Phillips also told me that I should make sure I came back for a Showcase Day. Every 8 weeks, any class and/or club has the opportunity to present something that they’ve been working on to the whole school community, parents included. How cool is that?
As we talked further, Phillips shared that she had gotten into education because of a bullying Teacher in high school, and became an administrator because of a bullying Principal she worked with. Clearly, then, the lack of yelling that Collins mentioned is intentional, as is Phillips’ commitment to maintaining the school’s family-centered culture. Many of that staff members at the school are, “friends with the parents,” adding that lots of the families that attend the school are “multi-generational,” sending multiple siblings through the building in a way that creates a sense of stability and continuity. Adding to that continuity, many of the staff members did their Student Teaching at the school and have been there their entire teaching career.
Greg Mitchell is in his 1st full year as an Assistant Principal at the school, but his child was here before he got here, adding some “coherence to his life.” I got to watch him sit in on a club with his daughter later in the day, and was nearly overwhelmed by the sweetness of the scene. In addition to getting to spend more time with his daughter, he loves the joy that he feels in working with younger students and an elementary school staff. That staff, he wanted to make sure I noted because he had been so moved, gave both he and Phillips $100 gift certificates for dinner on “Bosses Day,” a holiday I had never heard of in my life, in an act that clearly reflects an affection hard to find in any workplace.
District Behavior Support Specialist Tyson Watson has not been in the building long, but he had high praise for the Club team’s leadership. He works 1 on 1 with a student who needs a little extra, and has really enjoyed the supportive staff and the tone that the leadership sets every day.
Taylor Hedrick is one of the Club staff members who student taught at the school and stayed. She started our conversation by saying, “I really love it here,” specifically mentioning getting to work with Laura Overby, her mentor in the previous year, as a highlight of her transition. We had to have a talk about the 12 hour days that she’s working, but I couldn’t begrudge her a minute of it when she offered, “I love my kids, and I want them to have everything.” I know it’s my job to encourage self-care and all, but I understand that this is who teachers are, and I had to offer Hedrick love for the passion she brings to the table.
I was in the midst of watching Media Coordinator Elizabeth Husketh read to her I Read I Connect club (more on this in a minute) when someone fetched me to check out Denise Baynham’s 3rd grade class. Baynham’s students are studying Durham history (again, more on this in a minute), and she sent the students home with an assignment to ask their parents and adults in their community for some names of people who are leaders in the city. One name that came up several times was Rev. Michael Page, Chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners. When Baynham reached out to Page, he agreed to come to the class, and I had the great privilege of watching students pepper him with questions like:
- How do you get sleep with all the work that you have to do?
- What character traits do leaders need to have?
- What do you enjoy about leading in Durham?
- What do you do in your free time?
- How did 3rd grade prepare you to lead?
- Have you ever been to Carowinds?
- Follow up–is it crazy?
- Have you ever talked to the President?
- Have you ever been to Portland?
In the midst of the question-and-answer, Page threw questions back towards the students and every adult in the room was awed by the clarity and sophistication with which the students answered. One student laid out his whole life’s plan, including the Bachelor’s degree in Economics he plans to acquire at Stanford University. It was one of the most fun conversations I’ve ever seen in a school, and I have to offer props to Rev. Page for his humility and sense of humor, in addition to the seriousness with which he took these bright young folks.
While I’m doling out props, I need to stay with Baynham and the 3rd grade team at Club. I went back and talked to her later, and she blew my mind again. This time, she shared the story of the beautiful mural I had marveled over in the hallway. Last year, the 3rd grade students at Club were studying Durham’s history and used the archives at the county courthouse to pull out bits that they wanted to know more about. When the study was complete, they worked with a local artist, who helped the students create sketches of the elements that they wanted in the painting and use technology to increase their size. When the outlines had been rendered, the students then painted a gorgeous mural that depicts stories of this city that few adults I know could retell. There’s the “secret game” between the all-white Duke basketball team and their Black counterparts at NCCU in the 1940s, the Royal Ice Cream sit-ins and protests in the 50s, and the inclusion of modern elements like the American Dance Festival and Merge Records. It is one of the best pieces of art I’ve seen in a school, and I’m proud to admit that I learned more about the city I live in from a 3rd grade filled with fantastic teachers. Thanks y’all.
From there, I was ushered back to the Media Center, where Ms. Husketh’s students had been joined by a class from Michigan over Skype. As part of the Global Read Along, Husketh’s students were engaged in a multi-week book study of works by Amy Krouse Rosenthol. Each week, they find another class somewhere in the world that is reading the same book, get on Skype, and let the students interact with others from across the globe. “Sometimes we talk about the book, and sometimes we just get to know each other.” Since the class they usually work with in Toronto had to cancel, this week’s discussion was largely a get-to-know-each-other exercise, but it was a treat to watch the students use technology to shrink the planet.
Husketh is another Club Teacher who student taught at the school. She’s in her 10th year in the building, and loves the community and family support there. Because she doesn’t have her own classes, she gets to work with every Teacher in the building, and loves the ways that they are “not afraid to try new things” or “speak up for best practices, whether it’s what ‘DPS does’ or not.” In another telling statement, Husketh offered that she feels lucky to “get to learn from every staff member, kid, and family in this school.”
School Secretary Millie Gonzalez gets to connect with everyone in the school community nearly every day. She’s in her 1st year at the school, but already had lots to say about its goodness. She praised the patience and compassion of the staff in the ways that they support the students and one another. The students, she shared, “like coming to school, and they like their Teachers.” “When you ask them how they feel about their Teachers,” she added, “you can tell there’s good rapport.”
Kindergarten Teacher Kenneth Nicholson clearly has good rapport with his kids, and I caught up with him while he ate his lunch amidst his students in the cafeteria. He also student taught at Club, and feels glad that he gets to contribute to the city that he grew up in. The school’s staff is filled with “good mentors and good peers,” according to Nicholson.
In her 22 years at the school, Cassie Rodriguez has undoubtedly mentored more than a few Club Teachers. She taught Spanish before the district offered ESL classes, and has used her language skills to build relationships with Latino parents, who rarely have bilingual staff members that they can talk to. She’s conducted workshops for parents to better understand the school system, and has helped to build an ESL program that has a history of moving kids in and out of it in a shorter time span than most schools can.
Unfortunately, my conversation with Rodriguez ended on a sad note, as she explained to me that she was leaving Club because of the “punishing” and “brutal” treatment of the North Carolina General Assembly, who is working hard to “drive people out of the profession.” She teared up as we talked about how hard it has been to navigate this mistreatment on top of the already difficult job of teaching, and she closed our conversation by saying that “this is just wrong.”
What is not wrong, however, is the love that her co-workers offered her on the way out. In conversations with several of them, I heard that:
- She is wonderful
- She impresses people with the level of parent involvement she’s managed to foster
- She helps her kids learn valuable tools like code-switching that will help them navigate the world better
- She serves as an important liaison between parents, kids, and teachers
- She is a great friend
- She is a good comrade
- She is a great person to talk to
I walked away from Club Blvd. Elementary proud to know such an amazing group of people, and proud of the ways that they love and celebrate each other. There is so much good at this school, and spending a day with them deepened my commitment to build the fight that will allow all kids to have a school like this, a school they deserve.
Thank you for your goodness Club Blvd. I’ll be seeing you soon.
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.