It’s the new year, and as DAE digs back in to its exploration of all of the best that Durham’s public schools have to offer, I’m delighted to start with a school that nurtures and highlights its students’ creativity. Sandy Ridge Visual and Performing Arts Elementary School is a relatively new addition to the Durham landscape, but its spirit feels solid, and the coherence of its culture is immediately evident.
Sara Howell is an ESL Teacher in her 4th year at the school. She raved about the support that her students get every day. According to Howell, the school’s Spanish-speaking parents are real partners in the day-to-day life of the school, with a strong community network of support that is frequently engaged. School staff regularly reaches out and supports parents in organizing events, in addition to working hard to get bilingual supplies so that students can learn in both of their languages. Howell added that Sandy Ridge Teachers are committed to integrating bilingual activities in their classrooms too. From my very first conversation, it felt clear that the school’s staff takes pride in the place that they have helped to build.
Shamekia Harris, an Instructional Assistant in the school’s Kindergarten, reinforced that notion by adding, simply, “I just enjoy being here.” She’s been at Sandy Ridge for 3 years and loves the unique personalities she gets to work with every day.
1st Grade Teacher Erin Wallace is in her 1st year at the school, but already feels at home. She specifically mentioned the strong support that Teachers get from the school’s parents. As a Teacher, though, Wallace added that she also feels supported by the staff and knows that she can reach out to anyone around her and get the help that she needs.
I began to hear an echo as Kindergarten Teacher Adrienne Mewborn reiterated much that her colleagues had already offered. She named the supportive families and staff as highlights, noting that the school has abundant resources for educators to access in support of student learning. This support, she added, is facilitated by the strength and support of the school’s administration.
Instructional Assistant Kristine Herring backed up Mewborn’s assertion, sharing that the “administration really comes in to see what we’re doing and what we need.” She also mentioned the great parents at the school. Having worked in schools for 16 years, Herring has undoubtedly developed a deep understanding of how schools work, so when she offered that Sandy Ridge is “trying something new,” it felt worth noting.
Bria Moseby is newer to the game, teaching 1st Grade in her 2nd year as an educator. She loves the collaboration among the teams of Teachers and all that it allows them to provide for their students.
Instructional Assistant Cindy Gongs called the faculty a family when I asked her what was good about her school. She added that the integration of visual and performing arts is a strength of the school, but made sure I knew that her favorite part was all of the hugs she gets from the young people that she works with every day.
Sheila Graham and Kasandra Moore were hugging while we talked, and even though they haven’t known each other long, they exuded a loving spirit that felt characteristic of what I saw throughout the day. Graham is a retired educator serving as a mentor for 10 new Teachers. She loves the students and the atmosphere, adding that “everyone is helpful.” Moore is in her 18th year teaching and 2nd year at Sandy Ridge. She said that the school is “cool” and that the staff is really friendly and supportive.
Exceptional Children’s Teacher Melissa Schultze, in her 1st year at Sandy Ridge and 13th year overall, said that she likes “everything” about the school. She made sure to highlight, though, the supportive and loving relationships among the staff.
That staff, in addition to supporting each other, is strongly “child-focused,” according to Instructional Assistant Katrina Swann. She asserted that Sandy Ridge has “a lot to offer the children,” and called it “a great school.”
A lot of what Sandy Ridge offers, it seems, is the opportunity for students to take ownership over their own learning. In my brief conversation with 5th Grade Teacher Simone Brackett, she shared some of the ways that this shows up. Her students had just finished a Hispanic Heritage Month project where they engaged in extensive research and made portraits of influential individuals. The students then got to choose which of the projects was their favorite and offer meaningful support and critique of each other’s work. She feels “a lot of potential” every time she walks into the school, and the smile on her face belied her love for her students and for the work.
Assistant Principal Robert Richmond was also all smiles when we sat down for an extensive chat in his office. Like Brackett, he shared that Sandy Ridge has “more potential than any place I’ve ever been to.” While he was preparing to leave the school soon due to life logistics, it is clear that this place has won his heart. Sandy Ridge students, according to Richmond, are “some of the most caring, sweetest children,” adding that they come from so many different walks of life. He went further, noting that while Sandy Ridge students come from a great diversity of class backgrounds, they are getting “not just an education that they can survive on, but an education that they can thrive on,” despite the state’s efforts to dismantle public schools. When I asked him about the school’s focus on visual and performing arts, his eyes lit up. Every 4 weeks, the students complete and perform a stage production, choosing from a variety of roles that include speaking, dancing, set design, stage crew, and the recording of the performances. These performances “validate certain kids who may not feel as good” in certain areas Richmond shared, adding that “they may not always do the best in the class on a test, but they get on stage and they shine.” Richmond was all kinds of shiny about Sandy Ridge, and I hope that he loves his next school as much as he clearly loved being here.
Custodian Jacqueline Rangel also loves Sandy Ridge. She’s in her 1st year at the school, but said that “everyone here is a good person,” adding that, “they are always willing to talk to you.”
One of those good people I met is Media Coordinator Vanessa Calhoun. She’s in her 5th year at the school, and she specifically came to Sandy Ridge because of the arts program. According to Calhoun, that focus is facilitated by the school’s enrichment team, which works to develop curriculum and support Teachers in integrating the arts into their classrooms every day. In the Media Center, students have the opportunity to work at the “Maker’s Space,” a scrap exchange for projects that allow students to think creatively and work cooperatively. Recently, students assigned to the space were prompted to work in teams of 3 to take apart a coffee machine. Calhoun clearly loves her job, and it was a treat to watch her co-workers read to their students in the midst of the bright and inspired space Calhoun has helped to create for their kids.
My visit to the Media Center allowed me the chance to watch Derrick Hicks Jr. work with his students. He’s in his 2nd year teaching at Sandy Ridge and had a whole list of favorites that he wanted to share. Having spent high school in a science and math focused magnet, he appreciates the visual and performing arts focus of Sandy Ridge and looks forward to the new performance every month. He also loves the support that he’s received from Sandy Ridge parents. Even though he’s new to the school and the profession, his students’ parents have embraced him and expressed confidence in and support for his efforts. Hicks has replicated a family structure in his room, creating a rotating schedule for students to take on a variety of leadership roles each week, allowing everyone to learn new skills and new ways of relating to one another. Watching Hicks’ students helps me believe that his approach is working, and I can’t wait to get back to Sandy Ridge and spend some time in his classroom.
My last conversation of the day was also a treat, as Theater Teacher Emily Wike led me through the school’s process for the monthly productions. Because there is always another performance coming up that requires students to play such diverse roles, students are allowed access to a wider variety of specials than just music and art. Every student, for example, writes at least one 10-minute play before they leave the school, and the 5th graders at Sandy Ridge were in the midst of their playwriting unit when Wike and I spoke. Those 5th graders were also hard at work on their upcoming performance of The Lion King. Meanwhile, the 4th graders were working on a Thanksgiving-themed show that would “bust myths” about American Indians. Wike’s pride and enthusiasm were evident, and I also can’t wait to return to the school to catch one of their monthly performances.
Beyond the clear brilliance of the Sandy Ridge faculty and staff, the school’s physical atmosphere lends much to the vibrancy and excitement I read on the faces and bodies of the students who bounded past me in the hallways. The school is filled with natural light, and bright and colorful art adorns every wall. There are a lot of factors that go into making a school feel like a home that one wants to work in and send their children to every day, and I could feel nearly every one of them in place from the second I walked through Sandy Ridge’s doors.
Thanks for sharing your shine with me Sandy Ridge. I can’t wait to come back and catch some more 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.