What’s Good at Hope Valley Elementary?

A quick look at the news these days can get a little upsetting.  Civil Wars.  Natural disasters.  Climate change.  Political rancor.  Things can get to feeling a little bit bleak.

One of the great things about being an educator, though, is that, in the midst of, all of the troubles in the world, you get to walk into work every day with beaming young people brimming with possibility.  When I’m not having a good day, I figure out a way to get to an elementary school for a quick visit, and I usually leave filled with something that much of the rest of the world rarely offers–hope.  Those young folks, with their missing teeth and oversized backpacks, are going to lead us out of all of these messes, and sometimes it’s enough to just to be around for a bit.

I was not surprised, then, when I found myself smiling broadly throughout my entire visit to Hope Valley Elementary.  These kids and the adults that work with them left me feeling energized.  They left me feeling happy.  They left me feeling, yes, hopeful.

I started my day with Titus Pollard, an interventionist in his 19th year as an educator.  When asked what was good about Hope Valley, Mr. Pollard pointed to an administration focused on the best outcomes for kids, a high level of collaboration among the staff, and a lot of parental support.  He also noted that the kids at Hope Valley really enjoy coming to the school and that they are always eager to learn something new.


A few doors down, I ran into Morghean McPhail, a 15th year educator in her first year at the school.  She quickly ran down how positively she has felt about the school’s administration, asserting that they “take student growth very seriously” and provide “so many levels of intervention and support.”  “They surround every child with support,” she shared, adding “it’s not just about testing–it’s a whole-child approach.”  Her co-workers have been friendly and collegial, and she was particularly thrilled with her 4th grade cohort, saying that she “couldn’t have a better team.”


A little further down the hall, Bree MacIver also shouted out the “supportive, collaborative staff” at the school, noting that they all “care about kids.”  She saved her highest praise, however, for her students.  According to MacIver, her 3rd graders are “fun, like to learn, and are excited to be here every day.”  This kind of enthusiasm really matters.


All the way at the end of the hall, 3rd grade teacher and DAE Treasurer John Davis raved about the school.  He opened by discussing the great wealth of diversity that exists among the student body.  In my conversation with Davis and his coworkers, this theme emerged again and again, and it’s clear that the staff collectively values embracing the unique character of each of its students as a strength.  The school’s motto, “every child, every day,” isn’t just a slogan says Davis.  He shared that the school’s administration lives up to it, and the school’s teachers and counselors practice it every day.  “Our kids are doing great things that are not measured on tests,” he noted, adding that “the kids feel seen here.”


The school’s Social Worker, Layla Martin, echoed Davis’s praise, saying that the school’s “culture feels like a family.”  The whole staff, “comes together for our kids,” according to Martin, who’s in her first year in the school and the profession, and has clearly landed in a place that will nurture her.


Records and Registration Manager Ricky Simpson is also relatively new to the school.  He’s  only been there for a year and a half, but he has carved out spaces to spend time with students in the midst of his other responsibilities.  He shared that he loves being able to mentor kids, and that students are in his office on a regular basis, trying to get candy or eat lunch, but always sitting down to talk and build positive relationships.  He exuded enthusiasm while we talked, and it was clear why Hope Valley students are drawn to his warm and friendly nature.


Shandra Blount is not new to the school or the profession, but she carried as much enthusiasm as Simpson while we talked.  The Hope Valley counselor is in her 15th year at the school and 23rd year in education overall.  She raved about the staff, saying that, “the teacher are wonderful.  They want to make sure that the academic AND emotional needs of the kids are met.”  She had equally high praise for the school’s students, noting that the school is filled with”caring kids” who go out of their way to support newcomers to the school, especially those that don’t speak English.


Abby Martin spends her days with kids who are learning English.  She’s in her 10th year in the game, and her 3rd year at Hope Valley.  So many of the school’s recent transfers, she noted, are refugees from wars in the Congo, Syria, and Afghanistan.  The news, then, is not just on TV and in the papers, but in the hallways and classrooms of Hope Valley every day, as her kids bring their experiences and share them with their empathetic classmates.  Given how much room for misunderstanding and hostility that the current social and political climate has in store for these kids, it is beautiful to see this school community rallying to envelope these young folks with love.


When I stepped into Jacinta Adams’ Kindergarten class, I got to see firsthand how the Hope Valley staff creates that kind of climate.  When I walked in, they were beginning their morning routine, and I stood smiling in the back as they sang their “good morning” song and greeted each other individually with high fives and hellos as they went around the morning circle.  This morning circle, part of the Responsive Classroom methodology that the school’s staff is beginning to integrate, sets the tone for the whole day.  The goal of the model is to build the classroom as a community, and to support students as they learn to encourage and respect one another.  The Kindergarten team has apparently been working together to study and implement this model for quite some time, and Adams is a big fan.  Watching her engaged and happy kids at the beginning of the day made me a fan too, of both Adams and her approach to teaching and learning.


Katie Devlin’s work at the school depends a great deal on building this same kind of positive and supportive community.  Devllin teaches students who are deaf or hard of hearing.  She’s been at the school for 6 years and really appreciates how communicative and supportive the school’s administration is.  The best part of the job for her, though, is the fact that she gets to work with her students from Kindergarten through the 5th grade.  She gets to know them deeply and work with their families during some of the most formative years of their lives, and she clearly loves what she does.


Chasskita Brooks also obviously loves her job.  She’s in her 4th year as an Instructional Assistant in the school’s Exceptional Children’s program and she answered “everything,” when I asked her what was good about Hope Valley.  She went on to note that her coworkers are friendly and familial and that the administration is caring and works hard to meet the needs of the school’s staff and students.


When I stopped in to chat with Music Teacher Katie Smith, she pointed towards the same diversity that so many others had marked as the school’s strength.  She’s in her 1st year at Hope Valley, and pointed out how powerful it is that the kids embrace the diversity of the school while so many of the grown ups in their communities struggle to.  Smith also shared that the Hope Valley team had really supported her in her transition from high school to elementary school, and that she loves the staff and the camaraderie of the culture.


Front office Secretary Maria Iguirre is also new to Hope Valley.  I caught her in her first week at the school, but she had figured things out pretty quickly.  She “loves the diversity” and the fact that “there are all types of kids from all over the world.”  The staff is “hands on, into kids, and work hard” to be welcoming, friendly, and helpful to her as she learns the ropes at a new job.


Assistant Principal Jed Miller is new to both Hope Valley and school administration.  He had been a counselor for 12 years, and I got a chance to walk around the school and talk with him for a bit about his new home and his new gig.  What he loves most about what he’s seen at Hope Valley is the “passion for education” at the school.  We talked about the difficult political and economic landscape that public school educators are working on right now, and how unfair it is, especially to a group of people as dedicated as the school’s staff.  As an administrator, then, he believes that the task is to create a school community that takes care of the staff in ways that counter the very public attacks and disrespect they face every day.  Sounds really great to me.  And though I didn’t get to spend time with her on this visit, Principal Kristin Tate has demonstrated the same approach every time I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with her.  Miller noted that working with her is a “privilege,” and it seems like these two are a really great fit for the school.  Like nearly everyone else, Miller also noted the schools diversity as a strength.  He added that the school also boasts a really supportive and engaged base of parents, and that strengthens the whole team.  All in all, Miller sounds like he’s landed in the right place, and it sounds like the Hope Valley community is better for it.


As it turns out, a visit to Hope Valley was exactly the antidote I needed.  An enthusiastic and passionate staff.  A present, caring, and communicative administration.  Parents who bring their children from all over the world and show up to support the school.  And most importantly, some hilarious and brilliant kids who have infinite potential and a whole team of loving adults to help get them there.  Thanks Hope Valley.  I can’t wait to visit again soon.


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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