What's good at Brogden

[NOTE: This article was originally published in the Durham Association of Educators’s blog. Click HERE to read it and view the photographs.]

There are, apparently, a lot of ways to tell the story of a school. Today, I’m going to talk about Brogden Middle School through the perspective of a teacher showing up for her second day in the building, during the 4th week of school. I can’t really remember my Day 2 anymore, but I can imagine that it felt like: nervous, excited, terrified, anxious, and wide open. And I didn’t start one month into school, when so many relationships have already been built, procedures set, and norms established. I would surely be freaking out.

If I did find myself in that kind of a situation, though, there are few schools I’d rather be than Brogden.

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First, I’d be hoping for some order and safety in the school space. Brogden has that in spades. Throughout the day, the bells rang on time, the students moved smoothly, and the hallways stayed clear. Students were clearly in the classrooms, engaged in their lessons.

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Speaking with custodian Donald Amos would surely bring me some peace. He’s been at the school seven years and had a really great rapport with the students. According to him, he calls the students “sir” and “ma’am” and they return the respect. The hallway, says Amos, is filled with the smiles of the students and staff.

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The smiling staff also helps to provide structure in the cafeteria. There, manager Deneen Cherry lauded the staff for working with the students to make the lunch lines move quietly and efficiently. She’s been at the school for ten of her twenty years in education, and she provides stability that students and staff can rely on.

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That sense of stability would certainly add to the feeling of safety and order. And, funny as it may sound, the substitute teachers at Brogden would help me feel more stable. At many schools, the substitute teaching corps can be transient, serving in the school once or twice a year and never really understanding its culture. Anyone who’s ever been in a school knows that this can mean chaos. Two different substitutes in the building have been working there regularly for years. Bettie Darden has been steadily subbing at the school for five years. Timothy Jackson has been in the school every day since December and has worked in multiple departments. This consistency makes Jackson a member of the Brogden team in a different kind of way, and he loves being a part of the “kids’ educational journey, seeing them grow, and being a part of something bigger than myself.”

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I would also appreciate the way that the school is clear about the big world outside of itself. As I walked into the building, I’d be excited to see the flags in the front lobby, each one representing the home country of a student who attends the school.

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I would also be heartened by ESL teacher Wendi Love’s story about the conversation on September 11 in her class. For one of her Iraqi students, there are challenging feelings about the day because of the impact that the U.S. military campaigns that followed had on her country. The fact that Love is learning every day, just like her students, would make help me approach my kids with humility.

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ESL teacher Christina Livingstone may be humble, but the way that her colleagues bragged about her would make me feel good to be a part of such a loving team. That team, according to Livingstone, consists of a solid mix of newcomers, veterans, and the people in the middle (is there a word for that?), in addition to bringing a diverse array of skills to the table.

IMG_04841Among the skills that Livingstone offers is the ability to write and facilitate the writing of boatloads of Donor’s Choose grants. For those not in the school system, Donor’s Choose is a system that allows teachers the opportunity to crowd-source funding of projects to fill in gaps in money that prevent schools from getting the resources that they need. I would feel grateful to have such a wonderful resource around, and a walk through Livingstone’s room would reveal the bounty of a recent grant: carnivorous plants and books about them that her students are learning about and from.

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I would also note her “I Am Malala” project. Her students have created art that reflects Malala’s powerful story, and Livingstone has gotten books for the school in multiple languages. I would be thrilled to know that, so early in my teaching tenure, I’d be getting to take my students on a field trip to see the film. Livingstone, her kids, and her colleagues have gotten tens of thousands of dollars in Donor’s Choose grants, and the outing to the film was paid for through the website. As were free eye exams and eye glasses, the 3D printer, outdoor playground equipment, and trip to the tiger refuge center that students have taken in the past.

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I also would have loved to hear Ms. Livingstone talk about the neighborhood character of the school and how easy it is to build connections with the students. She lives near the school too, and the walkability of the district would help me feel more confident about opportunities for relationships with parents. Social Studies Teacher/Lacrosse Coach/Soccer Coach James mills reiterated the relationship line, stating that parent involvement in the school is strong.

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Those parent relationships, however, don’t come easy, and I would be glad to learn from people like EC Teacher Shane Marcus. Mills spent quite a bit of time in the morning calling his parents, and even utilizing his Spanish skills, to try to get them out for the school’s parent night.

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That night was being organized by Abby Exum, and I’d get strength from watching her buzz around the building making things happen. Clearly, she is committed to getting parents to come out, and I’d try to gain insight from her approach.

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Hearing about how active Brogden parents are in PTA is from Math Teacher Shakir Brooks would reassure me that parent investment past Parent Night would be strong.

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Watching those parents come and sit in on classes, as Assistant Principal Jerry Griffith told me they sometimes do, would make me feel so supported.

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Hearing Deborah Crump talk about feeling supported by the administration would certainly sound good also.

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As would a conversation with Principal LaTonya Smith. Smith, who has worked in nearly every middle school in the county, has been at Brogden for three years. In that short period of time, a lot has changed. The school is utilizing data and both intervention classes and 2x/month club days as a way to engage students in individualized ways, and I’d be excited about the possibilities that offered. I’d be beyond excited to hear Smith talk about visiting other schools to learn from their approaches, because I’d know that a leader like that would encourage me to grow. One thing that Smith has been working on incorporating is a restorative justice model for dealing with conflict, and I’d be thrilled to find out that the school’s new approach to discipline has resulted in not one single student being assigned to In School Suspension all year.

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That fact would make me wonder why ISS Coordinator Carla Kirkland looked so busy. As it turns out, she’s working with businesses to get incentives for the school’s PBIS program. She’s been at Brogden for 27 years and claims that the staff is so dedicated, she wonders if they sleep at the school. I’d look forward to hearing about the school’s new behavior plan from one of these committed co-workers.

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One person who could tell me a lot would be counselor Leslie Brown, who has been in that department since 2006. Under the new program, the counselors are called in much earlier in the process, and I’d be happy to hear that they were actively engaged in the students’ daily lives.

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Brown’s fellow Counselor Shea Neville would give me hope. He came to the school from a job at Duke Hospital, and his smile matches his claim that, “I love it here.” Last year, according to Neville,the school had a more punitive approach to behavior, and it actually increased tensions among students. Hearing Neville note that the new model is already shifting the culture of the school would give me faith that the leadership was open to new ideas.

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And the chorus beautifully singing “Happy Birthday” to the School Resource Officer, would have put a smile on my face for the rest of the day. Undoubtedly, this ensemble was one of the six that Chorus Teacher Corinne Huber works with. I’d grin along with Huber as she talked about her students expressions when they realize that they’ve accomplished something special.

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According to Media Coordinator Chandra Cook, it doesn’t take a special occasion for the building to be filled with smiles, and I would always grin walking in and out of the media center with my students.

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For Instructional Facilitator Christine Blystand, the main source of her smiles is her goofy and silly students, and her love for middle schoolers would get me past my apprehensions.

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I’d probably be anxious about the task of protecting kids who didn’t fit in from the bullying they often face from other students. Thus, hearing from Heidi Fromm and Shanice Turner that their students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities get love from other students in the hallway would put my mind at ease.

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As would the words of Math Teacher Alexandria Langer. She’s never seen such a supportive staff, and her sharing with me the ways that the staff had invited her onto the team would reassure me.

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Hearing Language Arts Teacher Lloyd Nixon similarly talking about the supportive staff would just provide that much more reassuring evidence.

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When fellow Brogden rookie Yasmine Manning said the same thing, I’d know that three times was a charm and I could trust this place to take care of me.

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So that’s how I’m hoping Kennese Bass got to feel on her second day at Brogden. Stick with it Ms. Bass, I think you’ve found a place that has everything you need.

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Thanks for opening your doors for me Brogden. I’m grateful that you welcomed me in and I can’t wait to come back for the next Parent Night.

from Bryan Proffitt on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

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