What's good at Middle College High School

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

One of the biggest critiques that the proponents of privatization and charter-ization make of traditional public school systems is that they are unable to innovate, specialize, or create flexible options for students on non-traditional paths to be successful. They sell themselves as the only places where students can have autonomy and choice, and the only places where teachers can think and teach outside of the box. They rely on the widespread narrative about failing public schools and assume that most people won’t do the research of visiting schools themselves.

Well, I’ve visited most of the schools in Durham, and I see innovation and flexibility and choices and provocative pedagogy in all of them. But putting that aside for a second, we can’t have a real conversation about flexibility and innovation without acknowledging that Durham Public Schools is littered with specialized schools that stand directly in the face of the privatizers’ arguments about inflexibility. Today, I had the great pleasure of visiting Middle College High School on the campus of Durham Technical Community College, and I can’t wait to share this school’s special story.

I began my day with an extended conversation with Dr. Charles Nolan. Nolan opened the school 10 years ago and has been the only Principal it’s had. The school, according to its mission statement, exists to “expand learning opportunities for highly motivated students to earn a high school diploma while acquiring college credits toward an associate degree, a four-year college, or an industry certification credential.” Students can apply to the school after their sophomore year as long as they have 2.3 GPA, are scheduled to graduate on time, and have completed several courses that serve as prerequisites for the school’s curriculum. They take high school core classes from 11 to 3:30 and schedule their college courses as electives during other times. Each student meets regularly with Counselors and the school’s Dean of Students to develop a plan that will allow them to maximize their experience. Most students emerge with abundant courses towards their future college degree (for free), and some even leave with a full Associates degree and/or a professional certification in one of the dozens of programs that Durham Tech offers. Nolan, who is deservedly proud of the school’s accomplishments, shared that 1 student last year graduated with a full Associate Degree, and 8 more are on track to get those degrees this year. When I asked Nolan for other highlights, he shared that he loves the fact that “every teacher knows every kid,” and that weekly staff meetings involve an assessment of every student’s progress among the entire faculty. If a student is struggling, this team will catch it. In addition to this kind of support, Nolan made sure I noted that students can still play sports and participate in clubs and take advantage of any extra programming that the comprehensive high schools that they are zoned for offer. After we talked for a few minutes, Nolan walked me over to meet the school’s Teachers, all of whom work out of one office and share a 2 hour planning block every morning to hold office hours for students, collaborate, and get their planning and grading work done.

IMG_13841

Jackie Turnwald is in her 1st year at the school, but has taught much longer in both Durham and South Korea. She loves working at Middle College because her students “come here ready to learn.” She shared a story from the beginning of the semester in which her students chose The Scarlet Letter from among 10 books she laid out as options for them to read. She was surprised with their choice but impressed with their engagement with it, and felt like the unorthodox pick by the group signaled just how deep their investment in learning is.

IMG_13851

Across the office, Lori Khan sat working on her science curriculum. Khan is in her 3rd year at the school, but 11th in education. For her, academics are the school’s strength. When I asked her to elaborate, she shared that she has the “freedom to try new things” like flipping her classroom, and that access to Durham Tech’s lab equipment and resources allows her to expose students to more than she ever could at a traditional school. She also noted that the small size of the school’s student population (currently around 160 students) promotes a family atmosphere where students support one another easily and frequently.

IMG_13861

Patrick Sturdivant is Khan’s Student Teacher from N.C. State. He also mentioned the community feel and the small class sizes as the school’s main selling points. Because classes are so small and the teachers know all of the students, problems like behavior management that distract from instruction disappear. While we talked, he met with a student who came in early to get support for his coursework, and the seriousness of the interaction belied a commitment from both parties to master the course content.

IMG_13871

Joe Parrish also used the word serious to describe both his students and his colleagues. He and Nolan are the only remaining staff from the school’s opening, and he feels very strongly about the education that the school offers its students. “If a student graduates from here,” he offered, “they have really accomplished something. Kids work really hard to finish here and deserve a pat on the back.” In his 10 years at the school, Parrish has no doubt offered both his share of seriousness and pats on the back.

IMG_13891

I rounded out my interview with Amanda Massey, the school’s Math Teacher in her 1st year at the school. Massey echoed her colleagues’ sentiments about the small class sizes, but also talked about the advantages of a small faculty. Because the school only has 4.5 teachers (there’s someone who teaches an extra section of English), they all work together closely and regularly. Massey shared that she likes having access to her mentor every morning, and relishes the weekly staff meeting where the whole team works together to support each other and each of their students.

IMG_13881

Since I couldn’t catch the Counselor, Dean of Students, and Administrative Assistant/Data Manager, the interactions with Nolan and the 5 teachers in their office covered the duration of my visit and nearly the entire staff. Given the high stakes job that teaching can be, it was comforting to know that the Middle College staff starts their day, every day, sharing space, sharing strategies, and sharing smiles with each other and their students. As I walked out of the office, I caught a flyer that proclaimed Khan the Durham Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year for 2016. When I went to the DPS website to confirm, I also noted that Jackie Turnwald was a finalist (final 5) last year as well, in her role as a teacher at the School for Creative Studies. That means that half of the school’s full-time Teachers were in the final 5 for last year’s Teacher of the Year award in Durham County. If you throw that fact in the mix with a long-term committed Principal, small class sizes, and a motivated group of students who walk out the door with a free college education in their pocket, all signs point towards this school being a success story of innovation and flexibility right here in the midst of Durham’s traditional public school system.

So you see then, it is possible. Traditional public school systems can be creative, and the brilliant and committed folks out at Middle College High School are leading the way towards a 21st Century school system that meets the unique needs of all of its students.

Thanks for letting me debunk some myths with you Middle College High, I can’t wait to come back to dispel some more.

from Bryan Proffitt on Monday, November 9, 2015

More stories from