What's good at Jordan High School

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

Separate? Together? Equal? Unequal?

For as long as there have been taxpayer-funded public schools, questions of racial and economic diversity have shaped the debates that surround them. Many argue that the concentrations of students of color or poor students will inevitably produce a struggling school and low achievement. Others point out that the concentration is not the problem, advocating for the investment of additional resources that will allow all students to thrive. Still others believe that homogeneous grouping is the way to go, and advocate against efforts to mitigate against our still-segregated neighborhoods and the similar schools they produce. School systems create policies; families and communities respond. The battle lines can be fierce.

But for the educators on the front lines, questions of diversity take on a whole new meaning. The adults in a building are obligated to work with whoever walks in their doors, and, policy and justice issues aside, the dedicated staff at Charles E. Jordan High School stated, again and again, that the strength of their school is its racial and economic diversity. The differences that exist at Jordan, they argue, allow students and staff to learn from each other beyond the curriculum. It can take more work to build community among this much difference, but the the folks at Jordan High seem to be figuring it out.

Before I had a chance to meet with the administrative team, I spoke with Robbie Alston, a custodian at the school for six years. Mr. Alston noted that the friendliness of the staff and students kept him coming back to Jordan. And his friendly smile set the tone for my day.

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April Beyah, the school’s attendance technician in her 9th year at Jordan and 17th year overall, echoed Mr. Alston’s assertions about the Jordan team, sharing that the diverse staff got along very well and made the work easier on each other.

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In the front office, Administrative Assistant Eugenia McEntire, who has seen the school through multiple recent leadership transitions, was all smiles as she noted that the new administration has hit the ground running. It’s “all blue skies” from here, according to Mrs. McEntire.

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IMG_01691The new administrative team was my next stop, and Assistant Principal Lesleigh Mausi, Instructional Facilitator Teri Williams, and Principal Kerry Chisnall gave me my orientation for the day. The school has nearly 2000 students, and the racial demographic breaks down at roughly 45% African-American, 30-35% Latino, and the remainder mostly comprised of white students. What they didn’t mention then, but became abundantly clear as I toured the building, that the school has a significant international population. One teacher told me that she teaches students from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Congo, Tanzania, Iraq, Yemen, Thailand, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The school’s Freshmen Academy is one way that the staff is working to build community amidst the diversity. All 9th graders are heterogeneously grouped in teams that spend the entire year together on an A/B day schedule. Working with the same students and the same teachers all year allows for deeper relationships. Additionally, it enables students in the school’s 20 AP courses to have more time to prepare for their Spring exams. Beyond boasting some of the most successful AP scores in the district, Jordan has 26 sports teams, and a ton of pride in the school’s rich history. That recent history includes last year’s production of “The Wiz”, in which the band, the theater program, the dance program, the American Sign Language students, and the school’s autistic population all collaborated to produce the African-American-centered re-telling of The Wizard of Oz. The strength of the school’s theater program results in Jordan theater tech students building sets at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, in addition to a partnership with the Durham Performing Arts Broadway series. All of these components, combined, are redefining “the Jordan Way” that has been a great source of pride for decades.

Shelba Levins, who works in the aforementioned Freshmen Academy, exuded this pride as she discussed the ways that “she gets to learn” through her students’ stories in classes that 50% internationally-born students.

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Maggie Burns teaches science in the Freshmen Academy and talked about the ways that the whole staff works to meet the needs of all kids, no matter how they come into the classroom. IMG_01761

OCS Job Coordinator Lavone Winston has worked at Jordan for 13 years and pointed out that the teamwork that accompanies the great diversity is what keeps her coming back.

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Kelsey Sommerfield, a first year teacher in the school’s Agriscience and Biotechnology program called the staff “super supportive” and shared that she has already felt lots of “good vibes” from the students. This pathway program, like the one we observed at Northern High on Friday, allows students to matriculate into animal science-related schools or careers upon completion, and the students get to take field trips to the veterinary education programs at N.C. A&T State University and N.C. State.

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In the hallway, custodian Tony Cruse said that the staff works as one, and that the teachers and students all seem to get along with each other very well.

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This oneness, however, is rooted in the school’s cultural diversity, and the posters throughout the building revealed that the school does not hide its differences. The messages “Not all Hispanics are Mexican. I’m from El Salvodor,” and “Not all Asians are from China. I am from Thailand,” accompanied by student photos, proudly called attention to the school’s diversity and challenged predominant stereotypes.

Lead teacher Brian O’Keefe and his student teacher Abbie Jenkins talked about all of the different ways that diversity showed up in the school, not just among students. They specifically mentioned the variety of clubs that exist in the school to meet the interests of the diverse array of young folks Jordan draws. While we talked, another teacher-in-training, Tyler Cooper wandered into the room and remarked on the skill that the staff employs in managing a school of Jordan’s size.

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One of the clubs that they mentioned, the Rocketry Club, is coordinated by Physics teacher Jeffrey Lacoste. Students work with the club on multiple levels, and the most advanced students wrote a proposal to NASA last year. They ended up designing and building a rocket that utilizes technology common in satellites. Upon completion, they launched the rocket complete with video cameras on the side to demonstrate that the system that they had developed solved one of the more common problems that rocket launches can face. Lacoste shared that Jordan’s strength is the diversity of opportunity that it presents to its students, and he pointed to his rocketry students’ enthusiasm as an indicator for the ways that the students take up the options.

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As if on cue, Interior Design teacher Kristi Wolff shared that she loves her discipline, but loves her kids even more. The desire to help them become better people is what helps her weather the disrespect heaped on teachers by the state’s politicians in this period. Ms. Wolff has taught for 19 years and brings the perfect mix of enthusiasm for her discipline and a focus on loving and nurturing the young people she is privileged to work with every day.

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I felt the same privilege watching Brendan Murray’s kids discuss the weekend’s news after viewing CNN’s “Student News,” and his department-mate Erik Zakrzewski continued the chorus in sharing that he was “pumped” to get to work in a social studies department that constantly worked to help him get better.

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Social Studies isn’t the only department that seemed worth bragging about, and English teacher Carla Brown loves the collaborative approach of her team. Shortly after she and I talked, the school’s intercom announced meetings of the upcoming study abroad option in England, the meeting for the debate club, and the speculative fiction gathering after school. Again…the diversity.

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First year teacher Alice Griffeth, a member of the growing Duke-to-Jordan pipeline that seems to be funneling high quality educators the Falcon’s way, similarly mentioned the support of the science department. When I asked her how she was holding up so far, she smiled and said, “I’m still alive,” noting that the veteran teachers in the department had helped her to navigate the overwhelming first week of school by sharing that they continued to face many of the same challenges that she was facing. It’s good to know you’re not alone, and the importance of veteran teachers in this regard cannot be overstated.IMG_01871Veterans like Christian Jones, who has taught 14 of his 20 years at Jordan, have clearly provided a great deal of stability and support for newcomers like Alice.

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Career Development Coordinator Melonie Carlton also accesses this support system, noting that the comprehensive high school model allows educators more access to the resources that they need to get students prepared.

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When sports entertainment/marketing teacher Chezere Briggs stopped in her office later, the duo’s playful teasing made it clear that this staff not only cares about what they bring to the table for students, but deeply cares for each other.

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The caring between staff and students was a huge priority for Katie Saveliff, who teaches both AP statistics and ESL Math, giving her access to the full diversity of the student body every single day.

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Andre McEntire, who declined the photo op, also gets excited by the diversity of the staff and students, sharing that he was “having a ball trying to learn how to pronounce last names.”

Phedora Johnson recently relocated to Durham from Eastern, NC in search of the kind of relative diversity that Jordan affords, coaches tennis, and works in schools because she “just wants to be a part of the solution.”

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EC Teachers Angie Vacendak-O’Briant, Ladwaun Harrison, and Michael Mulligan are clearly part of the solution, and each of them has been at the school for at least 13 years, providing stability to a department that, in many schools, is plagued by turnover. Their commitment to challenging the kids and preparing them “for what’s next” reflects the enthusiasm for supporting young people and their journey that the best educators always carry.

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These young people that they work with, according to counseling intern Charles Brinkley, are “ambitious and driven.”

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IMG_01981What Mr. Brinkley didn’t mention, however, is that the drive and ambition of students is supremely impacted by the adults that they have in their lives. The last person I’d like to highlight at Jordan personifies that drive, and her story is worth telling. Treva Haynes comes from a family tree filled with people who have lost their hearing. Because of that fact, she went to Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. This school, with an undergraduate program entirely for deaf students, houses both the counseling for the hard of hearing and education degrees that she has obtained. As she broke down for me the cultural differences and motivations behind the decisions that families make in encouraging young people to sign vs. those that push for a reliance on speech, every bit of Ms. Haynes nearly 40 years in the profession came through. People who are hard of hearing, she’s learned, are “people of the eye,” and people who have “spent lots of time in observation.” Taking cues, she has constructed her pedagogy to engage the students deeply, connecting English curriculum to her students’ whole humanity in a way that was nothing short of inspiring. She shared with me the results of recent lessons where students mirrored the structure of Maya Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me At All,” to name the aspects of Jordan that intimidated them so that they could move past them, and Langston Hughes’, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” to discuss the things that they knew deep in their souls. Brilliance.

And that’s what Jordan High is filled with: brilliant and dedicated educators who take the challenges that can come with such a breadth of diversity, and channel them into creativity and growth and an affirmation of humanity. Educators need to continue to engage in the policy debates that shape the diversity (or lack thereof) of our schools, but in the meantime, I’ll keep pointing at Jordan High for the lessons we can all learn on harnessing the strengths of our differences.

Thanks Jordan family. I’ll be seeing you soon.

from Bryan Proffitt on Monday, August 31, 2015

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