[NOTE: This article was originally published on the blog of the Durham Association of Educators. Click HERE to read it and view the photographs.]
It’s really hard to walk around an elementary school and not think about the future. It’s also hard to think about the future without this happening in my head, but I digress…
One of the most exciting aspects of this DAE tour is getting to think about the public schools in Durham as a system, not just an collection of individual schools. While no one says it out loud, one impact of the imposed standardized testing regime and the corresponding school report cards is that schools in a system get isolated from each other and end up competing. Yes, the students at School A are a reflection of the school, but they don’t live in A-land, they live in Durham, and the outcome of their education doesn’t impact just that school or its attendance zone, but our entire city, and our whole world.
Thus, it was refreshing to arrive at Eastway Elementary School last Friday and see that the school’s new motto is “Growing Durham’s Future” plastered throughout the building. A long conversation with Principal Shayla Holeman, chats with the school’s staff, and a tour of the building left me even more excited about what’s going on at Eastway, and what the future holds for our city, state, and world.
In her 3rd year as the school’s Principal, Ms. Holeman is focused on improving the school’s climate and culture. Over the summer, she and her staff came up with a 3 year strategic plan based on a variety of data, and they landed on a 4-pronged approach to the challenges that Eastway faces, using leaves on a tree as a metaphor for the kinds of growth needed:
Growing readers and writers–>the school will be entering the Battle of Books in Durham for the first time
Growing mathematicians–> regular “number talks” in classrooms will help to build math literacy
Growing our community–> each day starts with a morning meeting in every classroom so that relationships and community building are at the center of the day
Growing our knowledge–> The staff is mining the data on every student and using professional learning community meetings every Tuesday and Thursday to generate the tools that they need to understand where each student is and how the adults can best help kids grow
Beyond the growth focus for students, however, Holeman is encouraging a culture of growth for the adults at Eastway. Staff members are constantly working on getting new skills and bettering themselves, and Holeman herself works hard to reflect on and improve her leadership practice. This kind of humility is refreshing, and it serves as a model for the school’s students to follow.
Lynette Fain, an Instructional Facilitator in the school, praised Holeman’s openness as a key factor in the school’s success. Calling her “amazing,” Fain noted that she has frequently heard Holeman say that she “doesn’t have all the answers,” as she supports and coaches her staff through the challenges that they face. That humble nature cascades down through the staff as the teachers spend long hours after school and on weekends working to continually improve the support that they provide for students.
That same humility and eagerness to learn emerged when we talked to the school’s Secretary/Receptionist Miranda Bethune. She has been at the school for 16 years and watched the racial demographics of the student body change dramatically. For her, the curiosity that the students have for one another’s cultures is another sign of growth. The African-American and Latino students, she said, work hard to share their respective languages with one another, and she loves to see the growth that comes out of the school’s diversity.
Family Facilitator Eduardo Perez is certainly one factor in promoting the school’s cross-cultural growth. He has been at Eastway for 16 years and has watched the school’s population shift dramatically. When he got to the school, it’s population was 10% Latino. Now it’s 50%, and his relationship building in 2 languages has allowed him to connect with students and their families in ways that last long past their tenure at Eastway. He frequently receives invitations to graduations of former students and still has parents who call him for advice.
In addition to the strong relationships with parents, there is also a culture of effective communication between the school’s administration and staff, according to Princess Brickhouse. Everything in the school “runs smoothly,” she said.
Tyrone Champion has seen the school’s efficiency evolve. He’s been substitute teaching in the building regularly over the last 5 years, and he also had great things to say about the administration and the staff. He named virtually everything about the school when we asked him what was good, including the clean and quiet hallways, the home-like feeling he gets in the building, and the professional and supportive team of adults.
Cynthia Bynum-Raines has been an important part of the Eastway team for the last 4 years, which brings her to over 30 in her career in education. She loves the energetic and caring teachers who share resources with each other to meet the needs of kids who show up with a lot of challenges.
Despite the challenges, Music Teacher Mike Truzy loves teaching the arts at Eastway. According to Truzy, his students show up eager to learn and get excited by the extracurricular programming that the school community creates. Hispanic Heritage Month, African-American history programs, and the new school-wide trivia contest are among the most popular for students and parents alike. Truzy’s story is more evidence that the kind of growth that Eastway promotes is way past the 3 Rs.
But if students are struggling with those Rs, Interventionist Daniel Keegan is around to support them. In his 7th year in education, Keegan works with students in small groups to improve their math and reading skills. For Keegan, the growth of Durham is important and he specifically mentioned his love for the city as a reason why he loves teaching at Eastway.
Assistant Principal Wallace Sellars also used the word love to describe his feelings for Eastway. In fact, he said that he, “love, love, loves this school.” After cajoling him past, “there’s too much to say,” he shared that he believes that Eastway is “the most important school in Durham” because no other school works to support their students and parents in so many ways. He specifically named the layers of academic support, the food sent home with children, the clothing provided for students, and the mental health care that the school’s social worker and nurse connect students and parents to as a few of the key services the school offers. All of this, he said, is made possible by the myriad relationships that Eastway has with community organizations, county agencies, and local businesses. There isn’t a stronger advocate for this school than Wallace, and though he declined a photo for the blog, we needed to include his story because it helped make both Mr. Cason and I believers.
Turquoise Parker’s students also made us believers. In her first year at the school, Parker has created a culture where her young “professors,” as she calls them, are thinking about big questions. We walked in on her morning meeting just in time to catch them discussing the question: if you were President of the U.S., what is one thing that you would change? Fortunately, children’s imaginations work way beyond those of adults, and Mr. Cason and I are really hoping that Durham’s future holds: free ice cream and balloons, riding on dinosaurs, and a fun party that goes all around the world. When we asked them what they liked about Parker, they said that she was nice, funny, helpful, and “fluffy like a warm pillow.” Our time in Parker’s room was lots of fun, and she is growing Durham a polite future where the answer to the question, “how do we treat people?” is always, “the way I want to be treated.” Thanks Turquoise. And yes, we’ll include both of your poses.
Jessica Hane teachers 3rd grade at the school and noted the ways that Eastway’s environment is improving. “People are happier,” she offered, in a sign that always points towards positive. After all, we want Durham’s future to be filled with the smiles and “good morning” acknowledgments that Hane says fills the school’s hallways.
Happy smiles are surely a sign of good health, and school nurse Quinlan Morgan is a smile-facilitator. She is one of the few full-time nurses in a public school in Durham, and she’s impressed with the services that the school provides. Having come from a rural school with fewer resources, Morgan is excited about the child family support team, the bilingual parent involvement coordinator, and the before and after school care at Eastway.
Principal Intern Julie Malcolm noted the kindness of her co-workers as a strength of the school. In her first year at the school, she’s received a very warm welcome, and repeated her praise of the school’s smiles as we followed her quick movements through the hallway.
The hallways were abuzz at Eastway all morning, actually, and Instructional Assistant Jeremy Smith was constantly on the move. While we walked along quickly, we asked him what was good about the school. He responded by saying that he loves his colleagues and the opportunity to shape the minds of young people.
No one in the school, however, moves more quickly through the hallway than Social Worker Genee Murray-Maddox. She pointed towards many of the same programs that Sellars had noted, reiterating that the school is resource-rich when it comes to community support. The kids, she said, are beginning to internalize that they are “Durham’s future” because of the ways that the broader community is supporting them.
In her 3rd year at the school, Instructional Assistant Erica Manning similarly pointed out the ability to influence young people’s perspectives on the world as her favorite part of the job.
Quanita Avery also mentioned the students as her favorite part of the work. Because they come in needing a lot of support, the staff works extra hard both to support them and each other. They are “like family,” according to Avery, all working to support student growth.
Part of that growth, according to MTSS Facilitator Pamela White, is feeling safe and cared for. The staff works hard to provide that space for their students because they are “so bubbly and want to get everything that you have to give.” The students, according to White, are so eager to learn and the staff gives everything that they have to help the students succeed.
One way the staff is supporting student success is through experimental teaching methods. 1st grade Teacher Marlo Barfield is one of two certified teachers in her class, and she loves the opportunities to work with students in small groups, planning with a partner, and building off of one another’s strengths. We haven’t seen this approach in other schools yet, and we’re excited to see how it turns out.
For PE Teacher Nisha Watson, it’s not the new strategies, but the school’s neighborhood status that keeps her coming back after 16 years. Because community schools are so rare in these days of magnets, busing, and increasingly un-walkable cities, it’s uncommon for teachers to spend much time in their students’ neighborhoods. Watson loves the fact that all of her students live within a 2 mile radius of the school. She also named her students’ eagerness to learn as a highlight, saying that they are regularly pushing her to push them in new ways. A kid told her that day that, “we’ve already done this,” and she knew she’d have to raise the bar even higher.
Eastway Elementary School is not just raising the bar for its students. It is raising the bar for Durham, North Carolina, and the world. Our students are, after all, our future, and I invite each of you to take a walk through the school’s hallways to see how bright the future is. And don’t forget to wear shades.
Thanks for letting me watch you grow Eastway. I can’t wait to come back and catch another glimpse of the future.