What's good at Easley

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

So far this semester, I have visited 18 of Durham’s 54 schools. When I left the classroom to help lead DAE full-time, I worried about the sadness that the new school year might bring. How much would I miss being with young folks as they learn new and exciting things that change their lives? How could I replace the support I felt in my daily interactions with my beloved co-workers? Who would make me laugh as much as my students?

While nothing could possibly fill the spaces in my heart that my students and friends at Hillside occupied, and no one in the world is funnier than high school kids, I have experienced profound joy in my school visits. 1/3 of the way through DPS, I have observed provocative instruction, brilliant and creative students, and child-centered curriculum, support systems, and uses of space. Every school has its own local culture, and seeing how particular each place is is both illuminating and affirming. Our schools are keeping their unique character despite the onslaught of standardization being imposed from the outside. It’s heartening.

IMG_06141One of the clearest signals of a school’s unique culture is the language it uses to describe its purpose and philosophy. At Easley Elementary School, the approach is characterized by the “Ready, Set, Grow” motto I saw throughout the school. According to Principal Jennifer Hauser, the growth mindset at work at Easley stands in stark contrast to the fixed mindset that drives many institutions. For Easley staff, this means that each student’s progress should be marked based on clear assessments of where they come into the class and how well they meet the requirements of an individualized growth plan. Rather than just focusing on standards set by the state, students and staff at the school are encouraged to set their own goals, track their own progress, and acknowledge and reward one another’s hard work and effort.

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As a young Principal, Hauser was worried about the stories that often accompany a move towards a school with a more seasoned staff. Would they be stuck in their ways? Would they resent and reject new ideas? How would they respond to a push? According to Hauser, the Easley family is not only experienced and wise, but filled with drive and passion to constantly improve their craft. Her job, as she sees it, is to support and protect the teachers so that they can do the work that show up every day to do. One way that Hauser has built in that support was happening on the day I visited. At the end of each session (Easley is on a year-round schedule), each grade level team gets a whole day to work together and shape the next track’s curriculum. Instructional Assistants teach all day while the lead teachers get a chance to reflect and plan. Many schools purport to support collaboration, but most don’t build this kind of space into their schedules, forcing faculty to meet together on top of their daily teaching and planning duties. We are asked to grow together, but told that we must work extra hours to do it. By building in this kind of supportive space, Hauser is, indeed, protecting teachers from the expectation of extra unpaid hours. It’s just one way that the Easley family has each other’s backs.

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Another example of the Easley ethic is the active engagement of students’ families in the school. On the morning I visited, over 50 dads filled the school’s cafeteria to share breakfast with their kids as part of the ongoing “All Pro Dads” program at the school. The following week will see the school hosting “Grandfriends Day,” so that students can bring in grandparents or other adult supporters in their lives. On Saturday, the whole school community was gathering for the annual Fall Carnival, where they would play games like “dunk the principal,” share information about students and staff and curriculum, and raise money to supplement the school’s budget. It would also open the school’s Book Fair, which apparently sells more books than any in Durham and doubled the amount of money that the school had to use for books and games last year. Most of the books that parents buy go right back to the school for teachers to use as classroom sets for their students. Clearly, students’ families are at the center of this school community.

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I got a chance to catch up with an Easley mom who frequently volunteers at the school. Michelle Schalliol, who has a 3rd grader, a 4th grader, and another who will soon join the Easley team, has spent countless hours organizing the donated books in the school’s book room. She’s willing to do this work because she loves the family feel of the school, and feels like the teachers not only care, but regularly provide “phenomenal instruction” for her students.

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I got a chance to observe both the care and the phenomenal instruction that Schalliol spoke about in my visit with Cathy Millar. In her 15th year teaching, Millar has found a home in the school that her own children attended. She teaches 3rd grade here because these young people give her a “hope for a brighter future.” That hope, however, is being challenged by the wrong-headed direction of education policy at the state and national levels. The battery of tests that are bludgeoning our students, she told me, are not only developmentally appropriate, but feel abusive to both students and staff. Our conversation was quite emotional, and Millar left me by saying, “I’m frustrated, but I’m going to close this door and love them and they’ll love me.” When I came back to watch her teach later, the love between she and her students was so evident. She was teaching them to think and talk through some complicated arithmetic, and anytime someone made a mistake, she offered, “It’s okay to go down the wrong path, right?” allowing the students space to take risks and learn from their mistakes. In just a few short minutes, it was clear that Millar exemplifies both the growth mindset and the loving atmosphere at the center of Easley Elementary.

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1st grade Teacher Ray Alban stands as a time-tested example of the school’s culture. He has been at there for 25 of his 25 years in the classroom, and he couldn’t say enough about the staff, students, and families who love and support each other at Easley.

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Students in the school’s COPE program need a lot of love and support. As part of a program throughout the district, COPE classes are set up so that students with severe behavioral challenges can get extra support and more adult interactions than they would in a mainstream setting. JoShanda Williams works with the school’s COPE program and obviously brings a great deal of compassion and love to work every day.

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Bobby Renfrow is in his first month as a TA in the COPE program. His children attended Easley and he left his other career to come to the school, “be a part of something, and try to make a difference.”

IMG_05871Next door, Rebecca Brock likes working with kids in COPE because she enjoys both helping them fill in the gaps in their academic progress and supporting them as they learn new ways to relate to themselves and others.

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Rounding out my COPE conversations was Douglas Lawrence. Lawrence is in his 8th year at the school and pointed out that the year-round schedule is perfect for the students and staff in COPE. Because there are breaks built in throughout the year, they can more easily navigate the stress that comes with the hard work they do every day.

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High quality art programs are another way that schools can structure in opportunities to creatively relieve stress, and Easley’s Music Teacher Judy Hilliard brings her A game every day. She was excited to point out the ways that she integrates other disciplines into her curriculum, and her work is being noticed far beyond Easley’s walls. As one of 211 teachers in the country nominated for the Grammy Foundation’s Music Educator Award, Hilliard is keeping Easley’s arts on the map.

IMG_05901Across the hall, I got a chance to ask one of Elizabeth Moorman’s students about her, and the conversation kept me grinning. “Mrs Moo”, as her students sometimes call her, is the “coolest art teacher ever,” according to the eager 5th grader who then detailed the projects that they’ve worked on in her class. She specifically named last year’s Mother’s Day assignment because she was moved by the way that Moorman incorporated the students’ whole lives and families into their classwork. When I got a chance to hear from Moorman herself, she noted that, “when children are given a supportive environment, they soar.” They do indeed, Mrs. Moo, and you’ve no doubt got a classroom filled with high flyers.

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Speech Pathologist Tonda Williams also centered the students when I asked her what “was good” about the school. Apparently, Speech Pathologists are often mistrusted and even disliked by students because of the challenging nature of the pushes that they provide. At Easley, however, Williams feels well liked by the students and supported by the friendly staff.

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It’s also the students that have made Secretary Tanella Privette so happy in her first year at Easley. She has worked at high schools and middle schools before now, and she loves working with students who are the same age as her grandchild. She just wants to enjoy her job, and it was clear from her smiles throughout the day that she’s landed in a good place at Easley.

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Sandy Ebbert offered the same endorsement when she shared that, “these are my people.” She loves the support that she gets from the community, from parents, and from the school’s administration.

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EC Teacher Dana Walker feels so strongly about Easley that she brings her two children to the school with her and feels clear that, “there is no place I’d rather they be.” Recently, a charter school called to offer her a job, and said that she’d have fewer students to support. She happily turned them down and returned for her 10th year at Easley.

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In her 22nd year at Easley, Media Coordinator Beth Hawkey keeps making the choice to return. As she set up for the school’s book fair, Hawkey told me that, “it’s a family place, everybody takes care of everybody.” Before she got her current job, she taught 1st, 2nd, 4th, and a combined kindergarten/1st grade class. Her own child was in the second kindergarten class that ever attended Easley, and she feels a deep connection to the school that sits a half mile from her home.

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Media Coordinator Assistant Tracy Keeler also has deep Easley roots. Both of her children have been students at the school, and she volunteered here before she landed a part-time position. Standing amidst the gorgeous Book Fair decorations that Keeler had arranged, she shared that, “I love seeing the kids’ excitement about books.” Beyond the curriculum, however, Keeler loves how much the school community cares for the whole student.

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Custodian Ruby Ramos is a huge part of the whole-child care at Easley. Without her contributions, the students couldn’t have the healthy and safe space that young people need to thrive. For her, the best part of Easley is the sweetness of the staff. She smiled as she talked about the kindness of her co-workers, another affirmation of the family feel at Easley.

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For the last year and a half, Data Manager Leah Rubow has been at the center of this family environment. When we began our interview, Counselor Lynn Llewellyn jumped in to make sure I knew that Rubow was, “the sunshine of the school and everything else.” For her part, Rubow noted the collaboration with parents and the staff’s commitment to kids, passion for their jobs, and stellar instruction they provide as the sources of her sunniness. I would get to spend a bit more time with Rubow later as she gave me a tour of the school, and every bit of our conversation felt like an affirmation of Llewellyn’s description of her disposition.

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Counselor Llewellyn and 5th grade Teacher Jessica Jakobczyk also clearly keep the place sunny. Llewellyn has been at Easley for 16 years and named the parents, in particular, as such an important part of the school. “If we send out an email needing something, they just show up,” she noted. Those parents, according to Jakobczyk, also bring presents and love for the staff on their birthdays. The two of them raved about the entire support network at Easley before they walked me down the hall to show me the Counselors’ office that Rae Ann Baker (who I didn’t get to speak with) and Llewellyn share. There, I saw the antidote to the cold and bleak spaces that kids needing emotional support often end up in. The whole space was sunny and happy and comfortable, and I had to resist the urge to have a seat and find some peace for a moment. These veteran educators clearly haven’t stopped growing, and I couldn’t help but feel good about the support that Easley students are getting every day.

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I also enjoyed hearing Cindy Melton talk about the 21 hikes that she had taken this week. Since the school borders the Eno River, the 2nd year PE Teacher took every class in the school on a 1.5 mile hike this week, in an exercise that included both learning about the natural environment surrounding the school and the studying the body’s response to increased physical strain. That’s a lot of walking, and Melton solidified her commitment by enduring two bee stings along the way. According to Melton, PE Teachers can sometimes end up isolated at a school. The Easley team, however, has opened their arms to her, and Melton added that she feels like, “she’s in debt to everybody.”

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We all owe a debt to the fabulous work that Easley educators do every day. They are 1 of the 54 school families that nurtures the future of our communities, our city, and our world every day here in Durham. And, like the thousands of other families that they directly impact, they offer something beautiful and unique. Thanks for what you do to grow a better future for all of us Easley. Because of you, it gets a little brighter every day.

from Bryan Proffitt on Sunday, September 20, 2015

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