For those who are new to this blog, its purpose is to tell a different version of the story of Durham’s public schools than you often hear in the media, in hopes that we can begin to tell a different story about public schools across the county. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education issued the “A National At Risk” report in 1983, the dominant narrative about public schools in the U.S. is that they are failing. This argument is then used to break up our democratically-controlled public school systems with charters and private schools that can’t be held accountable by voters. There are a million and one different ways to approach this question, but after touring 35 of Durham’s 54 schools, I will continue to argue that our schools are teaching young people more, and earlier in their lives, than they ever have.
And there isn’t a better example of that than what’s going on at City of Medicine Academy Magnet School. I keep saying that any doubters just need to go and check out our schools for themselves, and I challenge anyone to step foot into this place and leave unaffected.
City of Medicine Academy began as a program inside of Southern High School, but has since moved to a gorgeous state-of-the-art building on Durham Regional Hospital’s campus. According to the school’s profile that Principal Jackie Tobias shared with me, it is the only “free-standing magnet school with a health care concentration” in the state of North Carolina, and was ranked as one of the most challenging high schools in America by the Washington Post in 2014. The school’s list of honors and on-paper achievements seems endless, but the real success of this school is evident as soon as one arrives on campus and sees hundreds of students, clad in scrubs, arriving early to dig into their studies with their committed teachers.
The first person I had the chance to speak to was CTE Teacher Alicia Ali, who was preparing to take the 9th grade class to Durham Tech for field trip focused on exploring health-related careers. She told me that she likes “everything” about the school and that it is a “relational place” with a great staff that “likes to laugh.” Ali proved to be one of the more quotable teachers of the day, offering that “we don’t teach widgets, we teach humans,” and that “if I leave CMA, I’m leaving education.” This passion and commitment to the school’s vision was evident throughout the day, and Ali’s insights prepared me for a visit filled with inspiration and awe.
Ali and I were joined by Science Teacher Laura Clarke who offered a nearly identical endorsement of the school. She mentioned the school’s small class sizes as a highlight, and reiterated Ali’s praise of the staff, highlighting the teamwork and collaboration among them in particular. She talked about a culture where the staff “covers for each other and takes care of each other,” and noted that it goes from the bottom to the top of the building. Clarke pointed to the Principal’s weekly messages that always include funny or inspirational YouTube clips, noting that Tobias’s commitment to encouraging laughter makes City of Medicine a great place to be. The place is so great, in fact, that Clarke echoed Ali, saying “I plan to retire here.”
I don’t know if Jackie Tobias plans to retire at CMA, but she’s certainly made a home here in her 3rd year at the school. She made sure to start our conversation off giving props to Elizabeth Shearer, who was the school’s founding Principal, for so many of the innovative features of the school’s success. From there, she ran down the schedule the school uses to move students through a curriculum that covers all basic high school classes while concentrating electives in health-related studies. 9th graders are introduced to a breadth of health care careers, learn basic terminology, and have the opportunity to explore the day-to-day life of health care professionals. They also focus a lot on collaboration, team building, presentations, technology, and group projects so that students learn the kinds of cooperation and communication skills that they will need later in the school and in the field. As 10th graders, they take basic Anatomy and Physiology from a professional nurse who instructs the course as though it was offered at a nursing school. In the 11th grade, students learn public health law and basic patient care. Additionally, students are offered opportunities for internships at local hospitals during the school year and over the summer. And finally, in the 12th grade, the students spend weeks at the VA hospital, participating in actual patient care. As Seniors, they have the choice between taking classes at Durham Tech or staying at CMA for courses in nursing or EMT training. In both of those classes, they acquire the skills they would need to take the state’s certification exams and leave the school qualified to practice immediately. Tobias shared stories of several students who have passed their exams and immediately got jobs working at Duke. Over 90% of the school’s graduates last year now attend a 2 or 4 year college.
Because the school has such a high rate of achievement in a number of measures, according to Tobias, there is a perception that CMA is “skimming off the cream” of the district. As she ran down an account of the school’s demographics, she assured me that the school’s student body looks like nearly every other school in the district, with over 50% of her students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. It is the culture of the school, she offered, that creates an environment for success. CMA only has about 300 students, which allows the school’s Teachers an opportunity to have smaller class sizes and build more personal relationships. All 9th and 10th graders share the same Teachers, which means that parent conferences happen in groups, and the school has a very few serious discipline issues preventing students and staff from focusing on growth and learning. “The kids know that they can’t get away” from the staff, Tobias offered. She had high praise for that staff, saying that they “try really hard, are not stuck in their ways, desire to become better, and desire to do what is right for kids.” In another effort to dispel myths, Tobias shared that her staff is very young, with over 50% in their 3rd year of teaching or less, noting that even though experience matters, her young Teachers are already playing key leadership roles in the building. When she hires people, Tobias says that she focuses on creativity, and getting people with a “little bit of rebelliousness” in them to the school. I left our conversation with a smile on my face, having heard, for the first time, a Principal use the word rebellious with a positive tone. I couldn’t wait to see more.
Veronica Brooks is the school’s Secretary and called CMA “amazing.” She described it as a “different world,” because “at some high schools, you have to go. Students come here because they want to be here.” She offered this as a reason for the school’s lack of discipline problems, saying that “everybody is driven, focused on what they’re here for.”
What they’re all here for, according to Instructional Facilitator Syreeta Mason, is “students first.” She loves the creativity of the school, sharing that the staff is “flexible” and the students are “open minded.” According to Mason, “I’m excited every day I come here because I get to toy with different ideas and make them fit our needs.” As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there is a notion that charters and private schools have a monopoly on innovation and experimentation. Clearly they are wrong.
Veronica Cotton has been at the school since it opened and loves the small environment because it offers opportunities to know students well and help them with life beyond their school work. Those students, she asserted, are “the best students in Durham.”
Spanish Teacher Nancy O’Malley also shouted out her students, saying that they are always willing to work hard and bring a lot of talent to the table.
Science Teacher Chris Hewitt pointed towards the school’s structure as a reason for the success of those talented students. Starting in the 9th grade, the students have a significant team project every quarter. For these projects, all of the grade’s Teachers work together to help the students both explore the topic at hand and learn valuable teamwork and communication skills. By the time they are Juniors, according to Hewitt, they are used to the team culture and can do things together that students at other schools just aren’t capable of. Hewitt also noted the freedom he has to make curricular choices as a selling point of the school for him.
Natalie Gidney-Cole is a social worker at CMA and shared that the whole staff feels as excited about the school as Hewitt seems to be. The teachers here, she offered, “know their kids, know their subjects, and care about their kids,” more readily because of the smaller, more intimate, classes.
3rd year Math Teacher Melanie Reid offered that the small size of the staff is also an advantage. “Everybody works cohesively,” she shared, describing an attribute that I’ve heard about in lots of schools, and is clearly built into the structure of CMA.
Career Development Coordinator Evelyn DeLoach also talked about the small environment of the school as its biggest strength. Being able to know all of the kids and “call them by their names,” means that staff can meet students’ individualized needs more easily. Additionally, the specialization that the school’s curriculum provides allows students to study what they want to study, a luxury that they aren’t afforded in a lot of other schools.
Another thing that kids don’t get in other schools is the opportunity to learn about a profession from a practicing professional in that field. Down the hall from DeLoach, I poked my head into Melissa Russell’s Nursing class, and was delighted both by what I saw and the conversations that I got to have. Before I spoke with anyone, I wandered around the room listening to Russell’s lecture on digestive problems and marveled at the classroom space itself. The room was filled with actual health care equipment, simulated hospital beds, and mannequins that the students could treat as real life patients.
Russell, who is an ER Nurse by training, came to CMA because she always found herself teaching new nurses. Eventually she was approached to become a Teacher, and she jumped at the opportunity, even though she is still practicing in the field. For her, one of the best parts of the job is the opportunity to “give back to the community.” “I have 10 students in this class this semester,” she elaborated, “if each of them teaches 10 people in their life about common health dilemmas, it will solve a lot of problems in our community.” Russell’s students were slated to begin actual patient care the week after my visit, so she feels committed to keeping her expectations of students high. Those high expectations have resulted in one student getting her EMT certification at the age of 16 (the youngest in the state), 6 students graduating with EMT certifications last year with 4 getting hired right away, and 10 students from last year already practicing in the field as Certified Nurse Assistants.
I had the great privilege of speaking with Russell’s students during a break, and they shared with me what they love about their school. The obviously tight-knit group told me that they love the small size of their classes and the opportunities that it allows them to build better relationships with Teachers. They also have better relationships with each other, they shared, because they have common interests. They can “casually talk about medicine and medical jobs” with each other, they offered, which makes them unique among their peers. They also highlighted the opportunities for internships and learning from Teachers who are practicing in the field. They don’t “watch Grey’s Anatomy” here, they do hands-on work and “get to do actual stuff.” That stuff, they asserted, is the stuff that they want to learn, rather than having to take electives in courses that they aren’t interested in, which they would have to do at a different kind of school. This is, indeed, a different kind of school, and I was blown away by the different kind of maturity that CMA students have the opportunity to develop.
Nicole Kimble asserted that CMA students come in with a level of maturity that sets them apart. “If you’re in the 8th grade, and you have already decided that you want to do something to help people, that makes you different.” Once they’re at CMA, the small setting and global approach allows the students to study History and English to apply a “humanitarian angle” to their Health Sciences concentration. Kimble has been teaching for 15 years, but easily declared that CMA is “the best school I’ve ever taught at. Ever.”
Media Coordinator Sonya Terry backed up Kimble’s declaration, offering that “this is an awesome place to work. It’s the best school in Durham.” She called the school’s culture “dynamic,” and said that at CMA, “it’s all about relationships.” “Once you’ve built with teachers, families, and students, you get results,” she shared.
Results indeed. I am so excited to share the story of City of Medicine Academy with the world precisely because of the school’s results. Despite what so many are saying about our schools, I watched students mastering topics that I didn’t have the opportunity to study until I was a Sophomore and Junior at NC State University. Our Teachers are teaching, and our students are learning, and at City of Medicine Academy, they are walking out of the doors ready to make a valuable contribution to the health and well-being of their communities. We can’t ask any more of our schools. But we can, and should, keep asking that our schools be recognized for the awe-generating work that is happening in them every day.
Thanks for inspiring me City of Medicine Academy. I can’t wait to come back and learn more from you.
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.