What's good at Lakeview

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

Since the early 1970s, the United States government has embarked on a project of mass incarceration unlike any other in the world. At the time, the population of people locked up in the U.S. was roughly 300,000 on any given day. Today, that number is somewhere between 2 and 2.5 million people behind bars, which makes the U.S. the keeper of 1/4 of the world’s prisoners. There are lots of ways to analyze this situation, and that’s not the purpose of this post, but it feels worth pointing out two truths: that the overwhelming majority of the people incarcerated in the U.S. are locked up for non-violent offenses, and that there has been a shift from a rehabilitation-based approach towards one that largely results in human warehousing. It is also worth noting that it is incredibly difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to find employment, and that one stint in jail or prison often results in one being locked out of opportunities to support oneself with meaningful work.

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In short, the culture of the United States has shifted towards one that is much less interested in second chances. This fact makes Lakeview Secondary School a special place, and one that deserves to be elevated and respected for the critical role it plays. And Lakeview teachers deserve to be lauded as the heroes that they are.

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Mr. Cason and I began our day at Lakeview with a general orientation from Instructional Facilitator Dr. Michele Hicks. Hicks explained to us that students come to the school as a result of a long-term suspension from another school in the DPS system. Students are assigned to Lakeview for a period of anywhere from 10 to 365 days. That’s right, anywhere from 10 to 365 days. While other schools design curriculum and programs at the beginning of the year based on their allotment of students, the Lakeview staff never actually knows what their attendance will be from one week to the next. Because we visited at the beginning of the year, the number of students was relatively low, but Hicks stated that the school usually functions somewhere between 80 and 120 students between the 6th and 12th grades. Thus, there is one teacher for each subject in the middle and high schools (i.e. there is a high school social studies teacher who is responsible for World History, Civics and Economics, AND American History and every student is in her/his class at some point during the day). In addition to the core subjects and the school’s Occupational Course of Study classes, students take Art, Physical Education (high), Reading (Middle), an online program called Edmentum to recover lost credits, and CTE electives like Foods 1 and 2, Principles of Business, Career Management, and Finance. Additionally, the school has a support team of counselors, a school psychologist, a behavior support specialist, and a parent outreach coordinator.

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Beyond just the details, Hicks shared with us her sense of how challenging of a job this is and how special Lakeview teachers are for stepping up to the plate every day. Kids come to Lakeview for short and variable periods of time, often nowhere near grade level in terms of their skills, so the team of teachers has to be both skilled at assessing what a student’s needs are and flexible enough to meet them. Teachers in any school must learn to juggle their students’ academic growth with the emotional and physical needs they have, but at Lakeview, that act is much more intense. To their credit, says Hicks, the Lakeview teachers never shame students for the troubles that they’ve had, and they work hard to build an environment where the students can grow and learn from their mistakes. Sometimes students even cry when they are sent back to their base schools, according to Hicks, because of the power of the connections that they’ve built at Lakeview.

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Braima Moiwai, or “Brother B” as he is known at the school, exemplified the approach that Hicks laid out perfectly. Amidst a room made gorgeous with student creations, Brother B shared the perspective that he has brought to the school for the last 15 years as a contractor with the Durham Arts Council. He likes tough kids because he believes that they are the smartest. A lot of the problems that they bring, according to Brother B, are rooted in the differences that they see between their lives and the stories that they are told about what their lives and communities “should” look like. They are children who have made mistakes, and he believes in creating an environment where they will do meaningful work, are shown and must show respect, and have their problematic behaviors “killed with love.” Discipline, but forgiveness, he stressed. Moiwai clearly feels a great love for the young folks he works with, and he talked passionately about his desire to take them to South Carolina’s Sea Islands, or anywhere out of Durham, so that they can be exposed to the breadth of what the world has to offer. “I’m going to love to love you like you are my own child,” he shared, and that energy was clear as we saw him working with his students throughout the day.

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When we spoke with Momolu Murray-Kamara, he offered a very similar perspective. He sees his role at the school to love the kids in a way that helps them to realize how much potential that they have. The law may define these kids in one way, but the job of the staff at Lakeview, according to Murray-Kamara, is to help them see what is possible outside of the limits that have been imposed upon them.

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In his 12th year at Lakeview, James Bacon reiterated the “2nd chance” line that we heard over and over throughout the day. He used to be a juvenile probation counselor and moved to the schools in order to try to work with kids before they got into the kinds of situations he knew too well in his other role. Here, it’s not “one strike and your out” in the way that it is for many of these students outside of the school’s walls.

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EC Teacher Tiffany Parker, in her fifth year at Lakeview, talked about the difference that can be made at a school like this. She has had students come back to thank her for her work with them, and she loves working with a staff who is equipped to “work with what we have to work with.”

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Lakeview students, according to English Teacher Shirley Hamilton, are “one step away from something totally serious,” and the staff is always working to do or say something that will make a difference. This work, she remarked, does not get enough recognition. We agree Shirley.

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So does Behavior Program Manager Anthony Rouse. Like Mr. Bacon, Rouse also worked on the criminal justice side of the system. He sees working at Lakeview as an “opportunity to change someone’s life and help them get back on track.” “There’s not much I could do once they were in prison,” he said when I asked him why he changed career paths. This is the kind of story that makes Lakeview so special. Everyone seems to have come there with a sense of purpose.

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Stacey Satterwhite coordinates the school’s Admentum program, which is designed to move students through classes in online modules to ensure that they make progress towards graduation while they are at the school. She has been at Lakeview since 2005 and really enjoys the direction that the school’s administration is taking the school in and the flexibility of the online learning program.

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Even though we could only catch him for a short chat before we had to leave, Principal Jefferey Dockery named flexibility as one of the three best things about the school. The staff’s dedication and teamwork were the others, and the trio of traits clearly come together to create a cohesive culture among the Lakeview crew. I’m planning to go back and catch up with Mr. Dockery in a moment when he’s not so busy, though I can’t imagine there are lot of them.

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Flexibility also came up in our conversation with EC Teacher Letitia Boone. Boone relishes the opportunity to meet new students all of the time, pointing that out that it’s exciting that, “every day is different”.

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Custodian Coley Harris has seen a lot of days at Lakeview. He’s been at the school for 12 years and loves the teamwork that the staff uses to handle every situation. He also loves the opportunity to help a lot of kids, which he also does outside of work as a foster parent.

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Cassie Baird compared the staff to a family, sharing that she has been offered a lot of support and community at the school. She feels needed here, and feels clear that the staff shares the same goals and the same caring approach to their work every day.

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That caring approach means recognizing that students’ basic needs and emotional needs must be met before the staff can even begin to address academic content. First year Assistant Principal Lori Bruce-Jawo trusts that the staff is on the same page on this point. She pointed specifically towards the strong collaboration between staff and parents that is a part of the culture of Lakeview as evidence. IMG_04311

One of the reasons that this level of connection is possible, according to Assistant Principal Kadeidra Carr, is the small student body, the small staff, and the family atmosphere at Lakeview. There is a level of cohesiveness between the middle and high schools that allows the staff to work as an “intertwined” unit to support the students.

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Administrative Assistant/Miracle Worker Michelle Smith is a big part of the glue that ensures the cohesion of Lakeview. She shares her co-workers’ perspectives about their students. She remarked that they are, “strong, smart, and persistent,” and that that makes them “appear tough.” “At the end of the day though,” she added, “they’re still just children.” This perspective allows the Lakeview staff to focus on a more corrective approach than the frequently-punitive style with which their kids are treated outside of the school.

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Occupational Course of Study Teacher William Sanders spoke of this approach as “vision.” This vision, Sanders said, starts with the school’s Principal, Dockery, and emanates through the staff’s ranks.

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Even with the whole team on board, this work, according to counselor Kimberly Alston, can be hard on the body and spirit of the staff members. She’s working on bringing in yoga instructors and meditation leaders to help support the staff. These kids, she said, “need consistency,” and the staff needs to be mentally and physically healthy in order to provide it. We spent quite a bit of time with Alston, and learned a lot about the daunting task that counselors have of supporting students who come to the school for short stretches of time.

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After we talked to Alston, OCS Job Coach Gregory Lewis told us that he loves serving as a role model for a group of students in such need of them. It’s the work he claims he “was built to do,” even though many would shy away from the task.

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Social Studies Teacher Benjamin Jackson isn’t shy either, and he was excited to talk to us about what was good at Lakeview. He named the small class sizes and the ability to individualize instruction and build relationships as his favorite parts of the school. The kids often come here, he said, “not feeling like they belong in schools and can’t connect with educators.” Because the classes are small, the staff at Lakeview can develop deeper bonds in a short period of time and offer students what they haven’t gotten in other environments.

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A new addition to the Lakeview environment is the greenhouse that Jackson wrote a grant for last year. The greenhouse sits next to the school’s garden plots and is meant to allow the students to continue to grow food and conduct science experiments into the cold months.

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Lakeview is a special place y’all. There, students have an opportunity that an increasingly punishment-centered culture rarely affords them elsewhere: a second chance. These students struggle in their home schools, get locked out of most charters, and face circumstances that most adults would find impossible to manage. But at Lakeview, they are loved by a staff that works hard every day to believe in them, pushes them to believe in themselves, and offers them the support and guidance that they need to get their lives back on track.

There is much to learn from Lakeview, and I’m grateful to have gotten to spend some time with its gifted and committed staff. Thanks for offering a model for forgiveness and second chances Lakeview. I can’t wait to come check you out again soon.

from Bryan Proffitt on Tuesday, September 15, 2015

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