What's good at Northern High School

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

Dear Northern High School,

I don’t normally do this kind of thing, but it’s Friday and you’ve moved me, so here goes…I’m in love with you.

No kidding, I really am.

Northern High, you’ve been over there in the corner of the county all of these years, quietly creating a center of teacher innovation and boundary-pushing learning, and I never noticed you. Your school’s staff has silently weathered staggering transitions and emerged steady and stable, and I slept. You’ve become the kind of a place where no one wants to leave, and not whispered a word to any of the rest of us about it.

Well, I’m sorry if you were trying to keep it a secret. We have to let everyone know.

Assistant Principal Alicia Stevenson, who worked with my tour-mate Mr. Cason and I at Hillside High for years, started off our day with you by praising the commitment of your staff. “They are dedicated, almost to a fault,” she declared, noting that teachers know no limits when it comes to showing up for student success. “We don’t take ‘I can’t’ as an answer,” as she described mechanisms like the 2x weekly after school buses that stay so that students can receive extra support, and the teachers that sign extra duty contacts to provide it.


Administrative intern Lindsey Faraone, given the choice of any school in which she could train, studied all of her options and chose you because of the quality of your administrative team. One week in, she proudly proclaimed that she’s “so lucky to be here.”


IMG_01231It was fitting that we started the day off with your administrators, because we would be hearing about them all day. After leaving Ms. Stevenson, we got the tour of your expansive grounds from Principal Matt Hunt. In his 3rd year as Principal, Mr. Hunt is the rare school leader that emerged from the ranks of the school staff. In fact, he noted, “I’d still be teaching here if the opportunity to be an AP hadn’t opened up.” He knows your history, Northern High, and he knows you’ve had challenges. In fact, the recent drop in student population and demographic shift due to the emergence of a charter school mirrors some of the same contradictions you faced when the city and county merged in the 1990s. Lured away from you by the charter’s promise, many of those same students are returning when they conclude that the quality of your education is superior. Not only are students returning to you, but 92% of your staff came back this year. That kind of stability matters, and your staff clearly loves you too.

(I’m going to drop this 2nd person narrative for a while because it’s getting quite challenging, but I’ll come back to it–and I think y’all get the point)

IMG_01261On our tour, Hunt highlighted a few of the special programs Northern has incubated over the years. We stopped into the classroom of Sean Mournighan, a 6th year teacher who works in the High School Seminar course for 9th graders. The semester-long course is intended to orient freshmen to the high school environment and help them build relationships and set the tone for the entire year. Mr. Mournighan’s enthusiastic instruction was captivating, and his students energetically engaged in a discussion about the challenges of transitioning to high school. Often, because there is no state-mandated test associated with them, these courses are treated lightly by both staff and students. At Northern, the curriculum is internally generated by a team of five teachers and focuses on planning for the future, study skills, and math and reading fluency support. All of that is very cool, and really seems to build a sense of community and connection to the school’s vision among the students. But the best part is the senior students who sign up as co-teachers and help lead the program as mentors/instructors. After applying and being accepted, the students spend time in the summer at the Duke Master of Arts in Teaching program and earn elective credit for not only supporting the classroom teachers, but eventually developing some of the course’s curriculum and facilitating pull-out groups to support students who need extra resources in reading and math. These mentors are modeling the kinds of students that Northern needs, and the freshmen already seem to be getting the message.

Down the hall, we stepped into Devin Aucoin’s class of students in the Young Men of Progress program. Created several years ago with NEA grant money, the program focuses on leadership development for Black males with the intention of “reversing the achievement gap.” Students in the program were identified as needing extra support coming out of middle schools, and already, some of them are jumping into AP classes after their first year at Northern. Aucoin’s rapport with her guys was evident, and it is clear that the students are buying into the program’s vision and arrive ready to learn.


Other English team members, Savannah Windham and Catherine Baker, reinforced what we had seen in the students when they beamed about Northern students being the best in the county. The kids, coupled with the “eclectic” staff, comprise a community that they believe is truly as “uKnighted” as the school’s slogan proclaims.


We couldn’t get enough of the English team, and I went back later to talk to 29-year Northern veteran Nancy Duffner, who argued that Northern teachers “couldn’t care less about the rankings” of test scores and performance measures that don’t speak to the complexity of their kids’ lives. They are committed to loving and teaching their students as whole people, and while Duffner’s legacy at Northern speaks volumes for itself, my interactions with a student of hers made it clear that this near-retiree is nowhere near done with the work.


Outside of the English building, I ran into counselor Matt Harkey who noted that, “everyone here is on the same page.”


Math teacher Blake Rahn echoed the faculty/staff love-fest, saying that the community of educators were “fabulous people who are all really interesting and support each other.”


Kay Mabe has taught math at Northern for 29 years because the school feels like a family.IMG_01301

In his first year teaching in the U.S., Mexican-transplant Melesio Bustamante has felt the support of this family, getting great advice from his colleagues as he’s navigated his first few weeks at the school.


His mentor, Jeannine Hemstead, shared that everyone in the school “is on the same page.”


Career Development Coordinator Sharon Johnson stated similarly that the principal, the support staff, and the teachers all work well together and go far beyond what is expected of them.


10th year teacher Lindsey Lester shared that the administration “doesn’t make you feel intimidated” and loves being able to watch her kids grow over multiple years in the social studies department.


This continuity, according to OCS teacher Keith Sumter, extends to the students, who know that they can “rely on adults for acceptance, validation, trust, and support.”


Art teacher James Hensley gave us an earful, starting first with the fact that his students are “exceptionally talented, and exceptionally focused.” He noted that Northern’s administration has been leading a school-wide culture shift, and echoed Nancy Duffner’s praise of the way that Hunt and his team model the kind of teaching that they expect from the staff. Because students come to school with so much instability in their lives, Hensley pointed out what all of us in the profession know, “we do as much mentoring and counseling as we do teaching,” reinforcing the clear ethic of caring that sits at the center of the daily lives of all teachers.


Across the art hall, chorus teacher Rachel Spencer raved about the talent and sweetness of her students before shocking both Mr. Cason and I with her proclamation that, “when you go to a faculty meeting, you leave feeling better.” For those readers who have never taught before, let me be clear that this represents the highest praise a school’s administration can receive. Throughout the day, it was abundantly clear that the administrative team of Mr. Hunt, Ms. Boyd, Mr. Russell, Mr. Furguson, and Ms. Stevenson have all worked hard to create an atmosphere where teachers, according to Mr. Mournighan, “feel like they have a voice.”


As if to one up her, veteran social studies teacher Pete Mabie told us that, “my wife’s retired and lives at the beach and I’m still doing this,” even though he doesn’t have to. Again, Mr. Cason and I were floored.


But nothing that we saw impressed us more than the OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD CTE department housed at Northern. Our first taste came in Andrew Somers’ culinary arts program. The decade-old program is a model for the kinds of hands-on education that our STEM-obsessed schools are tragically leaving behind. After growing up in his family’s restaurants, Somers became a chef himself and landed at Northern High in 2007. He has brought on two other teachers, and the program now teaches 10% of the students at the school. While we were there, Somers’ students were preparing chicken, cookies, and fruit to feed the JV football team for tonight’s game, and he proudly boasted that they regularly cook for school and district functions, and have even catered the wedding of a Northern faculty member. At Northern, he noted, “a teacher can take an idea or concept and take it as far as they can run with it.” Clearly, the program is a model for the ways that a career-oriented course can lead to overall academic success, as 100% of the students who take his Culinary Arts 2 class graduate with a degree from the school. Past that, his students are heavily recruited by the industry and technical schools and frequently leave Northern with a job or thousands of dollars of scholarships waiting for them. Mr. Cason and I could only muster awestruck head shaking as his students busily ran the kitchen on their own, one week into the school year.

Next door, Elvis Woody has held down the Automotive Services program for the last seventeen years, rebuilding a program that he came to with a toolbox and a vacuum cleaner. His students also emerge from the program with an invaluable set of skills, graduating from four semesters with the certification required to work in a quick-lube shop and prepared to move on towards careers in the industry. He is “half a step behind a dealership” in terms of his equipment, and a quick tour of the shop and adjacent yard revealed just how practical the experience is, as his students regularly maintain the cars of Northern’s staff for donations. His program is nationally certified every five years, and, as we talked, Mr. Somers walked over to discuss the work that the students had performed on his car.




IMG_01501A little further down a clearly magical hallway led us to the Outdoor Education program, where George Tilley was leading his class in some end-of-the-week team-building exercises. This series of classes sees students learning kayaking, canoeing, “leave no trace” camping, rock-climbing, and hiking. Tilley and his predecessors have developed partnerships with local businesses like Frog Hollow Outdoors and Triangle Rock Club, and works with the Duke Outdoor Education program to take overnight camping trips to Pisgah National Forest, Hanging Rock, and Pilot Mountain. Additionally, the course utilizes the proximity to the Eno River and 30 acre outdoor learning lab that is the Durham Public Schools’ “Hub Farm.” There are three full sections of the class, and once students pass the first, they can take an Adventure Education class in the spring to learn advanced survival skills and first aid. Students who do well in the first course can also apply to be a TA and develop a leadership project in addition to supporting Tilley in running the initial class every day. While all of this experience is obviously practical and fun, the course is really aimed at helping students to communicate well, work in teams, lead, and develop a project and see it through to its end. It is the only class of its kind in Durham, and one of only five in the state. The enthusiastic participation of all of the students that we observed was evidence enough that this class is providing students with a holistic education that motivates them to succeed beyond Northern’s halls.



And last, but most certainly not least, was Demikia Taylor’s Animal Science program. The 3rd year teacher, who grew up on a farm herself, runs the course for students who are interested in animal-related fields, and the numbers of students grows every year. Students take 2-3 field trips throughout the duration of the semester, but are required to fulfill 20 hours of hands-on experience. They frequently walk to the Hub Farm, where they can work with chickens and share lessons with the school’s Horticulture program. In fact, the teachers regularly trade classes, and Taylor even works with the Earth Science instructors to integrate the curriculum across disciplines. In the building itself, students have access to two rabbits, one guinea pig, one rat, and a hedgehog. They have raised 20 chickens on site and hope to get some ducks soon. Tying it all together, Taylor mentioned that some of the products from the Animal Science and Horticulture programs often end up as ingredients in Somers’ Culinary Arts classes. Wow.


In short, Northern (back to my love letter voice), you are nothing short of amazing. You demonstrate, daily, a commitment to a whole-child focused education that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Feel free to improve your scores on state-mandated tests, but please know that I, just like your staff and students, loathe the limitations of those measures and love you just the way you are.


Bryan Proffitt

from Bryan Proffitt on Saturday, August 29, 2015

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