What's good at Mangum

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

Well team, the good news is that it’s looking like North Carolina’s schools are going to have a budget next year. The bad news is everything about the budget. So far today, I’ve read articles that tout the increase in school spending, the notion that Teaching Assistants were “saved”, and the fiction that educators are getting raises.

Let’s please pause for a second.

North Carolina’s per-pupil-expenditure is lower now than it was in 2008, and it is currently 46th in the country. A higher overall budget means very little if you account for inflation and point towards an ever-increasing student population. Politicians can work numbers however they want, but those of us in schools know that we have less to work with than we ever have.

We also know that we have fewer Teaching Assistants than we have ever had. Thousands were spared from the chopping block this year, not because of the benevolence of the General Assembly, but because of the organizing and activism of TAs throughout the state. No one was “saved” here, people fought for what our students need and deserve, and when we do that, we can win.

And the $750 bonus for educators that won’t go towards our base salary next year is not a raise. It’s a poor attempt to get us to be quiet.

I hadn’t planned on starting my post on Mangum Elementary School with such depressing news, but that’s how I started my day with the Explorers. Principal Karen Kellett invited me to speak with her staff at their morning meeting, and after watching the staff dine on the clearly homemade breakfast, my spirit sank as I watched the heavy faces of a roomful of educators learning about the budget for the first time. We know our worth. Our kids know our worth. Our parents know our worth. But it gets tiresome to spend our lives doing the most difficult and most important job on the planet and be told day after day that we aren’t worth respect.

Mr. Cason and I stayed after the meeting to talk with 4th grade teacher Paula Ray and 5th grade teacher Beverly Clark. They were beside themselves over the budget, and we talked about the impact of these cuts on our spirits, the racism that shapes how people perceive Durham, and the ways that DAE is working to build a fighting organization. It got emotional. But it got even more emotional when I asked them about their school. Both of them have been at Mangum for over fifteen years, and they clearly love each other and this community deeply. Ray called it the “small school with a big heart,” and they both shared that they live out of the county, but drive here to work and bring their own children with them to attend Durham’s public schools. This system and these kids, they argued, are worth it, and they’re looking to join the fight.

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Ms. Kellett also made a series of very intentional choices to work in Durham. Like most educators we meet, she grew up in a family of teachers. After two decades teaching kindergarten, 1st grade, 3rd grade, and middle school in a small town like Bahama (Mangum’s location, in the far Northern reaches of the county), she made her way to Durham to try something new. Here, she worked,and loved working, at Glenn Elementary before she got an interview at Mangum. When she pulled into the parking lot, she “overwhelmingly felt like home” and took the job at the Explorers’ helm. As we’ve learned more acutely during our school visits, the tone and leadership style of a school’s leadership may impact the environment more than any other factor. In one statement that moved Mr. Cason and I profoundly, she noted that she, “hopes she never loses her teacher hat.” It is not uncommon, in this educator’s experience, for people to rise in the ranks and lose touch with the challenges that those of us in the classroom were facing. Kellett’s commitment to not doing that speaks volumes. It also speaks volumes that this summer, she sat down, in groups of six, with every parent that was sending their student to kindergarten at Mangum. This is the kind of relationship building strategy that will pay off for years. We got to spend most of our time at the school with Ms. Kellett, and her positive energy, loving warmth, and willingness to hustle and fight for her staff and students was nothing short of inspiring.

On the tour she gave us, Kellett made sure to steer us towards the cafeteria, where Dona Gates and Ruth Porter have prepared food for the students and staff for years. Porter professed a deep love for young people, and Gates is as committed to Mangum as anyone else in the building. She worked here when her children were here, followed them to middle school, and then came back because she felt so loved here. “We’re never left out,” she offered, “and everybody is loving.”

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That loving atmosphere kept Mr. Cason and I smiling so big all day. I was so excited about what I saw that I forgot to take a picture of our tour guide (sorry Ms. Kellett). I did, however, snap a shot of the “sails” model that she uses to explain the components of the school. Each is essential, she argued, and talked about the ways that she has fought to keep arts programs in the school, even if she couldn’t keep the school’s veteran music teacher. In another real-life example of the impact of budget cuts, the teacher left because he couldn’t afford to sustain the career when his second child was born.

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We found his obviously talented replacement, 20-year veteran Dr. John Sokar, down the hall holding auditions for the school’s spring musical, Aladdin. While we listened to the singing, we wandered around the room and checked out the abundance of instruments Dr. Sokar’s room boasted.

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The annual musical has a run of 4 shows, each of which sells out in the school’s 350-seat auditorium, demonstrating both the community’s support for the school and the quality of the arts programming. Of 330 students in the school, 110 want to be in Aladdin. Mangum students were paid to perform at Centrefest last year. The marimba group meets an hour before school on Fridays for practice, and students must try out and train in the summer. At this point in the visit, Mr. Cason and I began to realize just how special Mangum really is.

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Any doubts about how special this school is disappeared in a conversation with Counselor Kevin McKee. According to McKee, the culture of Mangum is familial, and he clearly plays a key role in shaping that culture. At the end of last year, McKee asked students to apply to be peer mediators. The 16 who were chosen trained last year and over the summer and meet for an hour before school one day per week. They will be practicing their skills with adults soon, and they will eventually have regular hours and a protocol for working with students to help them productively navigate conflict. Kids need, and so rarely get, these kinds of opportunities to settle disputes among themselves. The principles that the students are learning are so solid that I plan to send several adults I know over to McKee for training. The Mangum staff looks at the students as whole humans, and it is so refreshing to see.

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In addition to navigating conflict, whole humans also sometimes grieve. Here, Mangum has one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen at a school. On the side of the back building, Kellett took us to the school’s Memory Garden. Here, students who have lost someone close to them can make a flag and hang it in the garden, and the space is used to allow the kids quiet time to remember their loved ones. This kind of commitment to the spirits of their students is so special, and it truly sets Mangum apart.

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What also sets this school apart is the communal aspect of this whole-person orientation. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the Mangum track is filled with students and parents participating in the walk/run club. The community truly owns this school, and parents will be coming out this weekend to widen the track with gravel that they have bought and a Bobcat that one of them owns. Instead of candy-selling fundraisers, the school has organized a Fun Run, where friends, family, and community members are helping to raise money for the school by pledging laps. Rather than contract this kind of work out to companies who take a percentage, the Mangum team has organized this effort themselves and will keep all of the proceeds.

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Throughout the day, we witnessed several examples of this kind of hustle from Kellett. While we watched Instructional Assistant Jenny Sears lead the class through the creation of a fictional narrative, Kellett shared her stop-gap solution to the state’s budget cuts. While the kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade classes have specials, the Assistants assigned to those classes slide over to the other grades to lead classroom instruction in a variety of ways. In fact, said Kellett, all of the Assistants work directly with children every minute of the school day. They get professional development to help them expand their skill sets, and the school maximizes their presence in the building in ways Mr. Cason and I have never seen.

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This flexibility is made possible by another Mangum phenomenon that Mr. Cason and I had never seen. The level of parent and community participation in the school is truly otherworldly. We had a chance to sit down with several of the school’s most frequent volunteers, and we were unprepared for what we were going to hear. Dena Wade, the Mayor (I’m not using quotes because I’m certain it’s universally recognized) of Bahama, started off by bragging that we had “seen the rest, and now you’re at the best,” before she told us that she had been engaged with the school for 58 years. Her children attended Mangum and she worked as a TA at the school for a while. In addition to working with the school’s garden club, she brings over fresh flowers from her church every Monday morning and is responsible for the magnificent Fall decorations that framed the front of the school.

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Darlene Lumpkin (like pumpkin, she asserted) sent her daughter here nine years ago and has a son at the school now. She comes here to “get her hug meter up,” and spends a lot of time in her son’s classroom, not only to know and support his classmates, but so that she can know him better too. The family’s affection for the school runs deep, and her daughter sometimes chooses Friday night functions at her former school over other social opportunities in the town. Lumpkin’s commitment to public schools, however, is not limited to Mangum, and she is proud that she has kept her kids in Durham’s public schools, saying that they will benefit from the diversity that exists outside of Bahama. “That is what the world looks like,” she shared, and I was heartened by her commitment to an education that includes more than test scores and growth measurements.

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The third volunteer in the room was Claire Hudzinsky, whose Mangum roots run deep. Hudzinsky attended Mangum as a student before going on to open a successful dance studio in town (the Mayor bragged about her), and her mom was the Media Coordinator until recently. While we talked, Hudzinsky shared that she always feels welcome in Mangum classrooms, and she also helps with the school’s massive musicals. “It’s hard to say no because we know what teachers go through,” she offered, and to illustrate the point, she spent the rest of the morning running copies for teachers and stuffing mailboxes. These tasks, which often fall on TAs, allow the Assistants to play leading roles in the classroom and amplify the educational outcomes for Mangum students.

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Another volunteer, retired Duke pharmacist Becky Pratt, spends the entire day at the school every single day. She helps students to run the multiple gardens the school has created, and we got to watch her work first hand. The kids were having a ball while they learned about not only gardening, but practiced their reading and science skills in the midst of the project. Pratt calls Ms. Kellett to let her know if she is ever going to miss a day with the kids. Neither Mr. Cason nor I had ever heard of anything like that level of commitment from a school volunteer.

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We had also never heard anything like the story of the school’s 80-year-old custodian Mr. Joe Venable. Mr. Venable has been at Mangum for twelve years and “loves everything” about the school. “If I had to go to another school, I’d go home,” he shared. And the school’s commitment to him is equally clear. Years ago, a survey taken by many of the students and staff asked the question, “if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” When the students heard that Mr. Venable named San Francisco, and revealed that he had never been there, they RAISED FUNDS ON THEIR OWN TO SEND HIM AND HIS WIFE THERE FOR A WEEK!!! The students did this! On their own! Mr. Venable beamed when he told us about the all-expenses-paid trip that included limousine service.

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Just like Lisa King beamed when she talked about the Mangum community. It’s not just the school sitting there on its own, according to King, it’s the church, the fire department, the local civic organizations–everybody is asking, “what can we do for each other?”

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This is the kind of environment that Kellett is helping to lead, and obviously existed long before she arrived. But it is an environment that is at risk. Beverly DeLuca, who has taught for over twenty years, is a highly trained reading specialist. When Darlene Lumpkin talked about her daughter’s time in DeLuca’s class, she spoke with a reverence and awe that was inspiring. When Kellett brought us to her class, she ran down the innovative strategies that DeLuca is using to get kids to both grow as readers and learn to love reading in process. Yet, DeLuca can’t focus on reading instruction because the positions that would allow for her to have been cut.

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The same holds true for Michelle Crutchfield, in her 27th year of teaching. She loves teaching at Mangum, and the staff there is the most supportive that she’s ever seen. They are constantly sharing innovative strategies with each other to learn and grow as educators. But the state’s policies are so discouraging that she’s not sure how much longer she’ll stay in the classroom.

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Mangum Elementary school is a beautiful place filled with talented people and a powerful tradition. It’s legacy stands strong like “the tree” that everyone made sure I saw and photographed as a symbol of the rootedness of the school in the community.

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And to keep that legacy, this school community and the town that loves it may have to start some new traditions. No one should ever have to fight to save a school, but if the state’s relentless attacks on public education continue, this school, like all public schools, is in danger and will need some different kinds of support. This is a scary proposition.

But if our morning at Mangum Elementary School proves anything, it’s that the educators, parents, and students who proudly call themselves Explorers are capable of learning new tricks and charting new paths. We believe in you Mangum Elementary, and we’re looking forward to standing alongside you and your loving community for a long time to come.

from Bryan Proffitt on Wednesday, September 16, 2015

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