What's Good at Lakewood Elementary

[Note: The following was taken from the blog of the Durham Association of Educators. Click HERE to read the original post and view the photographs.]

The whole point of the Durham Association of Educators’ “What’s Good?” campaign, readers may recall, is to highlight all of the amazing and miraculous things taking place in Durham’s public schools every day, in contrast to the well-coordinated-and-funded narrative that “public schools are failing.” That narrative, of course, is the “air war” component of the strategy to privatize schooling in the U.S. and introduce a profit motive into a part of society that had mostly been off limits to the stock market. The strategy to dismantle our schools is multi-pronged, but is winning largely based on the widespread public acceptance of the “failing” story. Once people believe the narrative, a whole host of problems, from de-funding and under resourcing to “white flight” and the reinforcing of layers of privilege and “choice”, follow. If our schools are failing, after all, why should we send our kids or our money there?

So I set out on this tour to do 2 things:

I wanted to see all of the schools myself. If I felt clear that our schools weren’t failing, then I needed some proof. Otherwise, how could I articulate a perspective without looking silly?
Use the blog posts to share a perspective rooted in an actual experience.
And what I’ve learned, dear readers, is simple–the best way to decide whether or not a school is failing is to go to it. That’s all. Just spend a day in a school. Don’t look at their test scores. Don’t look at the letter grade that the state created to shame it and set it up for takeover. Don’t talk to your friends who have also never been there. Go there yourself.

And when you’re there, look for the following:

Is it bright and colorful? Do you see student work and art on the walls?
Do the people in the building look happy and healthy? Are they friendly and welcoming?
Are the classrooms filled with students learning and laughing and loving and being loved?
Are staff members respected and treated as the experts that they are? Does the leadership have a vision and a strategy to achieve it?
Does it feel orderly and safe without being restrictive and punishing?
If you can answer yes to these questions, then the school isn’t failing. In fact, if you look even more closely, you’ll probably even see a miracle or two.

I had the great pleasure of spending a morning at Lakewood Elementary School last week, and I am happy to report that I caught more than a couple of miracles.

The first miracle I caught was Instructional Facilitator Farrah Boggan talking to me about how wonderful the staff is. It reminded me that every interview I have with educators starts off this way. With all of the pressure, and all of the emotional and intellectual chaos that working with kids can create, educators love our jobs and we love each other. Boggan, in her 17th year in schools, shared that the staff, unequivocally, is “here for our students.” “Everybody, ” she added, is “trying to do what needs to be done to benefit students and meet their needs.” She pointed towards the diversity of the student body as a strength of the school, and noted that the students, “learn a lot from each other,” and “are happy to be here.” Finally, she lauded the school’s administration, offering that they are always “open to trying new things.”

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Science/Technology Teacher Darleen Bates reiterated Boggan’s love for the school’s student body. She raved about their love of learning, and how much “they appreciate what you do.” Ultimately, she declared with a huge smile, the “kids are just so dang good” that it’s hard not to love the job.

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Rebecca Dow, the school’s Art Teacher, called those kids “an open book,” and compared them to sponges because they are so ready to soak up new knowledge. The staff that works with them, she offered in echo of Boggan’s assertion, is a family that loves and supports one another.

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The school’s Media Coordinator, Debbie Darwin, also talked about the sponge-like nature of her students. She offered that the “kids are super eager to learn. Everything is exciting. They are so easily impressed.” Additionally, she noted that the staff really cares about the lives of their students.

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Down the hall, 2nd grade Teacher Ryan Comisky clearly cares. When I asked him what was good about Lakewood, he said simply, “I love the kids.” When pressed to explain, he added that he loves the diversity of backgrounds that they come into the school with. “If you make connections and build trust,” he said, “it’s the most rewarding relationship possible.” To prove his point, he shared that when his kids came back from break, they told him that they had missed him “so much,” and that it had deeply moved him. As someone who has worked with kids for a long time, I know how moments like that feel, and yes, Ryan, they are the most rewarding relationships possible. Soak it up.

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Kimberly MacDonald, a Counselor who is new to Lakewood, but not to schools, also highlighted relationships as the strength of the school. “From the Principal to the TAs to families to cafeteria staff,” she offered, “the people here care about the students.” She’s been excited about the level of parent engagement, and noted that a team of retirees from Duke supplements the efforts of the staff and family by bringing over groceries for the school’s food pantry and volunteering to tutor students 1 on 1. She’s been in schools for 29 years and shared that there is “more community involvement at Lakewood than any school I’ve ever seen.”

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Principal Lakesha Roberts has seen other schools too, but Lakewood is her home, having been a Teacher, Assistant Principal, and Principal at the school. We started off our conversation with a run down of the school’s strengths. She called the families “wonderful,” and pointed out how badly the students want to learn. The school’s staff, she shared, is “hard working,” and “has true passion for children.” She named a variety of other factors that make her love the school, but our conversation veered into miraculous territory when we talked about the attacks on public schools and the roles that we all play in upholding or opposing them. I was so grateful to share such a candid space with a Principal, and I left her office with a tremendous amount of hope for what was possible going forward. This leader feels ready to fight for her staff and her kids in new and different ways, and I didn’t even attempt to contain my excitement at her commitment.

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I didn’t have to walk much further for more evidence of commitment, as the school’s Behavior Support Facilitator Michael Ferguson took a few minutes out of his 32nd year in schools to share his Lakewood story with me. Like so many others, he noted the diversity of the student body as the school’s strength, noting that there are so many different types of learners at the school. The faculty and staff, he shared, “are very caring and supportive of one another,” and “really care about trying to advance students.”

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One of those staff members who cares is Custodian William Massey. He’s been in schools since 1992 and keeps coming back because of the children, who he said he can talk to “about anything and everything.”

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Brittani Davis clearly talks to her kids a lot. The Pre-K Exceptional Children’s Teacher called her kids “hilarious,” adding that they “keep you on your toes” and “give you a reason to wake up in the morning.” In addition to the students and the great family engagement, she said that the school’s administration and staff are the highlight of the school. Claiming that she “gets lots of support from the administration and teachers,” she closed by asserting, “I just love my job.” I mean really, how many people in the world get to say that? Miracles.

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1st grade Instructional Assistant Erica Smith reiterated so many of the same points. She loves the teamwork between she and her co-workers and how focused they all are on learning and teaching. She’s been at Lakewood for 2 of her 11 years teaching, and is still motivated by the smiling faces of her students every day.

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Justin Key, a Playworks employee stationed at the school, can claim responsibility for at least a few of those smiles. He’s in his 1st year at the school, but loves getting to work with “all of the different personalities” and watching how they “gel together.” The kids at the school, he added, “make you smile every day.” He reserved some of his own smiles, however, for the school’s Teachers, who he said “work well with him and sometimes jump in to play the games with the students.” Basically, it sounds like a lot of smiling and a lot of fun to be Justin Key at Lakewood. What more could one want?

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Liah Espinal backed up Key’s assertion, arguing that everybody on staff “works as a team and tries to help each other.” More than a team, sitting in the front office and watching staff member after staff member hug Espinal and congratulate her on getting married over the break, the school feels, like so many others, like a family.

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Speech/Language Pathologist Marla Clayton offered that she loves her co-workers too. She’s been at the school for 4 years, and called it a very positive atmosphere. To elaborate, she pointed out that the people in the building have been supportive of her through family losses and other challenging times. Family indeed.

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2nd grade Instructional Assistant Andrea Resto re-raised a point that Michael Ferguson had brought up earlier. While it isn’t rare for a school to have racial and ethnic diversity (oh wait, actually, it is), the more important consideration is what they do with that fact. According to Resto, the diversity is celebrated at Lakewood, and she loves the opportunity to learn about all of the different cultures in the school. Beyond the diversity of cultures, she pointed to the different learning styles of her students, and how much she loves to see lessons that utilize all of them in one 30 minute block.

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Those 30 minute blocks are filled with so much learning, according to 1st grade Teacher Cara Casey, because the students are always so enthusiastic. That enthusiasm, she offered, extends to the staff, who she referred to as “passionate, intelligent, and hard-working” before adding that they always support each other.

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I was lucky enough to see that support first hand in my last conversation of the day. Maria Diboh and Ann Madden are teammates in the school’s EC department. Diboh offered praise for the school’s administration, sharing that they “stay on top of everything and make sure that people do things right.” Madden agreed and added that the staff is highly qualified and really values collaboration in order to “empower students while giving them the necessities.” Those necessities, she elaborated, often include free backpacks, food, and clothing when and if the students are struggling. The Lakewood staff doesn’t just meet their needs, though. Madden ticked off a number of Awards Days and the “celebration of me” efforts that involved parent collaboration, as examples of the ways that the school showers praise and love on their students. The Madden/Diboh duo, as Diboh said, is a “good team,” and watching them work together was a lovely way to end my day at Lakewood.

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So yes, Lakewood Elementary School has one of those low grades on the state report card. And all that really means is that the Lakewood students, parents, and staff are on the front lines in the fight against poverty and racism that most of the rest of our society abandoned a long time ago. And despite fighting that war every day, the folks at Lakewood still manage to create the kind of atmosphere that just feels good to walk around in. The hallways are bright and beautiful and clean and orderly, the students and staff are happy and respect each other, and I saw learning and loving everywhere I looked. In the face of the immense challenges these folks are facing, there is no shortage of adjectives I could use to describe their efforts. Heroic. Inspiring. Miraculous.

Never, however, would I entertain the use of the word failure. It just doesn’t stick.

But please, don’t believe me. Go check it out for yourself.

Thanks for all of your daily miracles Lakewood. I can’t wait to come back for more.

from Bryan Proffitt on Tuesday, January 12, 2016

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