What’s Good at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability?

“There is no other job where I would get to know all of these amazing people.”

In my 12 years working in public schools, I’ve heard lots of descriptions of the work that educators do.  Some people talk about the challenges and the inspiration to be a better person, and model better personhood for young people, every day.  Other people talk about the exhilaration in the moment the “light comes on” for students, or the frustration of a lesson that doesn’t land quite right.  Others still will point to the exhaustion from the long hours or the pressures from every angle.  The work of educating young people, it seems, sparks feelings that run the entire range of the human emotional spectrum.  But amidst all of it, the quote from a Southern School of Energy and Sustainability Teacher above remains one of the clearest expressions of what it means to be an educator that I’ve ever heard.  Our public schools are filled with amazing people, and it was an absolute honor to get to spend some time with the amazing folks at Southern High recently.

My day started with a bit of a reunion.  During my tenure at Hillside High, I had the great pleasure of working with Jerome Leathers as one of the school’s Assistant Principals.  He is now the head Principal at Southern, and I was glad to get the chance to sit down and hear about all of the amazing things the amazing people are doing at this school.  Leathers is at the helm of a school in a great deal of transition, having moved from a traditional high school to one that houses four smaller “academies” under one roof.  The goal of the academies, according to Leathers, is to create a more personalized school experience for Southern’s students.  These magnet programs have been in place for two years as part of a partnership with North Carolina New Schools, an organization that describes itself as a “a professional services agency focused on developing high-performing schools and districts.”

Leathers spent a little bit of time orienting me to the focus of each of the academies.  The school’s Biomedical Technology program allows students the opportunity to study important concepts in the field of medicine that range from genetics to public health and the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of human diseases.  Students in the program can also connect with the BRITE Research Institute at North Carolina Central University and several companies in the Research Triangle Park to take their learning beyond Southern’s walls.  The School of Business Management and Sustainability is in the midst of a makeover, moving beyond the basics in Microsoft classes that students have been offered before.  Next year, there will be 3 pathways within the school that students can choose from:  Marketing, Finance/Investment Banking, and Accounting.  All students will take classes in Economics and Entrepreneurship and then specialize in one of the 3 main areas of focus.  The students in the School of Computer and Technology Engineering are currently working on topics as practical as water filtration and solar energy, and as experimental as trying to power a car engine with water.  And finally, the School of Infrastructure Engineering allows students to study both Drafting and Construction, offering them access to the entire process of putting together a building from start to finish.  In fact, the students in this program recently built an outdoor classroom for the school.  How amazing is that?

Leathers offered that part of the work of these academies is to create spaces where students can feel ownership over the school.  To that end, Southern has also recently created a Freshman Academy to help 9th graders transition from middle school into high school.  All Freshmen are broken into teams with a small group of Teachers who have the opportunity to build deeper and more lasting relationships.

Before we parted, Leathers made sure to highlight several other recent developments in Southern’s transition.  The school’s athletics program, long a pride of the Durham community, has seen a recent spate of students graduating early and modeling the kinds of student behavior that the staff is promoting.  Because many of Southern’s students struggle with poverty, the school has developed a food pantry where neighborhood churches donate food and care packages for students to pick up.  This effort is connected to a revamping of the school’s “Family Team” as Leathers called it.  Here, the school’s nurse, social worker, and student services department are working hard to meet their students’ needs past the classroom, from helping them get eyeglasses to making sure they have the dental care that they need.  We only talked for a half an hour or so, but I left Leathers’ office impressed and ready to check out all of this amazing stuff for myself.

(And, once again, I got so caught up in a conversation with a Principal that I forgot to take a photo.  Sorry Mr. Leathers, this beautiful piece of art in one of your hallways will just have to stand in.)

Simone Ivory and Ashleigh Goode hold down the front desk at the school.  When I asked them what was good at Southern, they talked about the caring staff.  The school’s Teachers, according to Ivory, “always take time to try to help students.”  Goode shared that the staff feels “like a family” because everyone is “comfortable” and can “laugh and talk together” anytime.


Ryann Mitchell is in her first year at the school, but loves the opportunity to usher 9th graders into the culture of high school.  In her Freshmen Career Management classes, she helps students transition from middle school and exposes them to all 4 of the school’s academies, setting them off on a course towards choosing a learning environment that will work best for them.


Caitlin Miller is another of the school’s many new Teachers that Leathers said are “bringing really high energy and changing the building.”  She loves her students, sharing that they are “always willing to speak up” and get engaged in class discussions.  She also highlighted the supportive members of the staff, saying that “anytime you have a question, everyone is willing to help.”


Kendrick Hall is no newcomer to Southern, but he also spoke about the school’s family atmosphere.  He’s been coaching basketball and working in the Occupational Course of Study program at Southern for 5 years, and loves the communication between the students and staff.


The OCS program that Hall works in is also home to some pretty amazing people and things happening at Southern.  Amy Jenkins is a Teacher in the program, and she talked me through a program that Leathers told me was another high water mark at the school.  We couldn’t talk long because the students were getting ready to head out on a field trip to plant azaleas at DPS’s Bacon Street building, but Jenkins walked me around the outside of her classroom and told me about the rain garden business that the program runs.  Since it began, the students have built 20 rain gardens and brought in $14,000 worth of revenue for the school.  The city, county, and school board have all put money into a program that provides her students with paid internships over the summer, which Jenkins mentioned as she talked about the collaboration and support that her students have gotten from a variety of sources.  While we talked, she showed me the garden beds that grew plants watered by a filtration system that her students both built and installed.  Amazing.



Len Curington has been teaching in the OCS department with Jenkins (who I got so caught up talking to I forgot to take a picture of) for years.  For him, Southern is “home,” and he feels good going to work every day because he can depend on what the staff is doing there to “make a difference.”


Across the hallway, Construction Teacher Don Ramsey is in his 19th year at the school he agreed to work at for 3 years.  He keeps coming back because he loves having the “chance to make a difference in the lives of kids.”  The young folks he works with “need more adults providing input to help them make good decisions,” and he’s glad to provide that support.  That, he shared, “is more my job than teaching construction is.  If we teach kids, the subject will handle itself.”  It is clear from watching them work together that Ramsey has built special relationships with his students, and I hung around a bit and got the chance to ask them what they liked about the school’s construction program.  These students are in Ramsey’s advanced class and did the work to build the outdoor classroom.  They started it last year and many of them came to the school to work on it over the summer.  They told me that they love the hands on learning that the class provides, offering that it is “way better than learning from books.”  Several of them are looking to go into careers in construction, and all of them looked proud when they talked about the work that they do in the course.


While I was in Ramsey’s classroom, I also got the chance to talk with Rebecca Barnes, a staff person for the local Habitat for Humanity that has had a partnership with Southern for several years.  Ramsey’s students build bird house kits that are used as presents for churches that Habitat partners with, and they have also worked to help build a nearby Habitat house for a family.  She seemed as much a part of the Southern family as Ramsey, and it was great to see the support that the students clearly feel that they have in the school’s construction program and its partners.


That same hallway houses the other half of the Infrastructure Engineering program–Drafting.  James Lee is in his 3rd year teaching the course at Southern and talked me through the program that he runs.  In Drafting 1, students learn sketching, oblique sketching, and basic AutoCAD programming.  In Drafting 2, they use AutoCAD to draw foundations, floor plans, and roofing plans.  In Drafting 3, they take the skills further to build models that they design with the computer programs.  When students go through the program, according to Lee, they are “functional” in AutoCAD design and have a leg up on other students interested in architectural design.  After we talked, I got a chance to check out the work of some of his past students, and, as you can probably guess, I was amazed.  Check them out for yourself.


IMG_1275[1] IMG_1276[1] IMG_1272[1]

After I was all filled up with the amazingness of the OCS and Infrastructure Engineering hallway, I got a chance to speak to several of the school’s foreign language Teachers.  David Hance teaches Spanish at Southern and loves all of the personality that his kids bring to the classroom.  He also loves his co-workers, who he said, “see thing the same way that I do and relate to each other really well.”  “We are all here for good reasons,” he added.


Stephanie Straubel teaches French at Southern, and added to the chorus of praise for the school’s staff.  She offered that “it’s nice to have people who know what you’re going through every day.”  Her highest praise, however, was for her students.  “I love the kids,” she shared, offering that they have “great energy” and are “funny and fun” every day.  “I’m excited over the fact that they get excited,” to learn French.  Hearing her talk about her students made me miss mine, and I walked out of her room convinced that she must be doing some really solid work.


Long-term substitute Michael Jones also loves the students.  He’s been subbing at the school for a month and a half, but is in his 8th year as a coach at the school.  Both of these jobs are tough, but it’s clear from Jones’ demeanor that he loves working with young people and gets energy from interacting with them.


Shante Stewart hasn’t been at Southern long, but she loves the “group effort and support” that she’s received from her co-workers.  She spoke highly of the school’s Administration, saying that they are clearly “invested in giving people a chance” to succeed.

IMG_1279[1]Shellena Atlas is also focused on success.  She’s in her 3rd year at Southern and shared that her favorite part of teaching is that she likes “being in able to be in a place where I can literally discover potential and play a small part in the success of some students who have been counted out.”  She sees Juniors in the building that she taught as 9th graders and gets excited because they are “owning their own education and making the right choices,” adding that she loves being “able to say ‘I was a part of that.'”

IMG_1280[1]History Teacher Benton Wise feels like he’s part of something at Southern too:  a team.  He spoke highly of his students, lauding the “tons of personality” that they bring to the classroom.  His highest praise, however, was reserved for his co-workers, who he called, you guessed it, “amazing.”  When I asked him why, he shared that they “understand the challenges and keep a positive focus at the same time.”


For Damien Smith, in his 10th year at the school, the energy comes from his kids.  When I asked him why he loves them so much, he shared that they always “try really really hard.”  In return, he and his co-workers help them get “where they want to go.”

IMG_1282[1]Those co-workers, according to Adina Amoako, are the highlight of the school.  She called the staff “supportive and patient,” adding that they are always reaching out to one another.


Randy Grissom and I closed out my day with a long conversation in the hallway.  He’s been at Southern in one capacity or another since 2007, and we bonded over the strategies that we both used to reach hard-to-reach kids.  For Grissom, connecting with kids who struggle is natural because he’s “been through what some of the kids here have been through,” and “wants to help expose kids to a different way.”  There’s always “a story behind the story,” with kids who are into trouble, and he works hard to “find out what’s going on at home and in the community” as he works to support kids.  We probably talked for 20 minutes in the hallway, and I walked away grateful that Southern students have someone as amazing as this guy around.  I was so amazed, in fact, that I forgot to take his picture.  So here, standing in instead, I’ll put the most amazing piece of art that I saw in a building filled with beautiful murals.


To end this post, I’ve got to go back to the beginning.  The quote that started my day off right at Southern belongs to Lisa McCool-Grime, a Math Teacher in her 2nd year at Southern.  She set the tone for the day by telling me that she loves “teaching with the people here because of their sense of humor and all of the passion” that they bring to the table.  Her praise was not reserved just for her co-workers though, and she added that she always feels “privileged to get to know my students.”  For McCool-Grime, the struggle to succeed at a job that sometimes feels like a set up is balanced out by all of the amazing people doing all of the amazing things that they do together.


Thank you Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.  You are, simply, amazing, and I can’t wait to come back and absorb as much of it as I can.


Post-Script Disclaimer:

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. 

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