[Note: The following post is taken from the blog of the Durham Association of Educators. Click HERE to read the post and see the photographs.]
It’s been a long time.
For those who don’t know, the Durham Association of Educators set out on a mission last year. The goal was this: 53 public schools in Durham, 53 blog posts about what is good in each of them. Every day, the people trying to privatize our schools tell us lies about them, even though few of those folks have ever stepped into one. They say that they are failing. They say that teachers are lazy. They say that certain kids (Black, Brown, poor, kids with disabilities, etc.) can’t learn and should just get the minimum required. Anyone who has ever been in a school knows that none of this is true, but we need more people saying it in more places. So we set out to tell our stories and create more tools in the fight to DEFEND and TRANSFORM public schools.
We visited 50 of 53 schools, and wrote blog posts about 40 of them. This year, then, we are out to highlight the rest. And we start that process with the Pearsontown Magnet Elementary Pandas.
Pearsontown, one of DPS’s 5 year-round schools (3 elementary, 1 middle, and 1 secondary), was getting ready to go on their first break of the year by the time I visited with them last week. It is understandable, then, that they were firing on all cylinders when other schools are just getting warmed up. I have a feeling, though, that this school stays firing on all cylinders.
My day began with a conversation with Pearsontown’s unofficial mayor. Custodian Gerald Snipes has been working at the school for 41 years. Before that, he attended the school. He offered, simply that “everybody likes this school” when I asked him why he loved the place so much. That love, clearly, is mutual, as most people that I spoke with in the school suggested that I talk to him and get his perspective.
I also got to start my day with the perspective of a student. Nakesha Smith is new to teaching Kindergarten teacher at the school, but she’s been in schools for 14 years. When I asked her if she’d share what she likes about the school, her daughter Juelz enthusiastically jumped in. Asked about her teachers, Juelz replied, “oh they’re lovely.” “The principal is great.” She also loves the pandas, and the fact that the bathrooms all have mirrors. <3
Her mother went further, saying that the place had been very welcoming, like a family. The administration at Pearsontown doesn’t micromanage, and the parents have been very supportive, according to Smith. The smiles in this picture tell it all, but Ms. Smith asserted that she feels “free here–I don’t have any worries, the kids are happy, everybody’s happy.” Wow. We should bottle what these Pandas are producing every day.
Teresa Moore continued the lovefest when I spoke with her in the car line. She’s been at the school for 8 years, is an Instructional Assistant, and works before/after school with Pearsontown students. According to her, “the kids are glad to be here. They love coming here.” Obviously, that reality is due, in large part, to the staff. But Ms. Moore continued, saying that the staff can only do this well with the support of such an active parent base and PTA. “The parents really look out for us,” she noted, “not only do they tell us that they appreciate us, they show it.” A great school requires active students, a committed and talented staff, and parents that stay engaged. Pearsontown was starting to feel like a dream.
That family base, I soon realized, though, is multi-faceted. Back on the 1st grade hallway, I met Christy Hall, who like Mr. Snipes, attended Pearsontown herself. This kind of connection to the school can only deepen ones commitment, and Hall pointed out that there are several staff people who taught her that are now her colleagues. Not only, then, are students, parents, and staff integrated on a daily basis, but there is a multi-generational depth to this integration, and the stability it brings is palpable in the Pearsontown hallways.
I soon realized that Ms. Smith was not alone in sending her children to the school. 1st grade teacher Meghan Wilder noted that several other staff members have or had their kids at Pearsontown. “Our own kids go here,” she shared, saying that “nothing is comparable” to the kind of support and connection that educators have to one another when they care for and teach one another’s children. Like everyone I talked to, she used the word family to describe the school after I asked her to elaborate on the “everything” that she told me she liked about the place. “We light the fire,” and then send the kids out into the world.
Dean of Students John Brown also has that fire. He doesn’t have that generational connection to the school, but he has clearly found a home at Pearsontown. Brown came to education as a second career, and he couldn’t say enough good things about what he is doing with his life now, and where he is doing it. He pointed to the family atmosphere at the school and noted that he, “looks forward to coming to work every day,” something that wasn’t always the case in his previous career. In his 5th year in education, this former IT Manager looked like he’s been doing this work his whole life. He was everywhere in the building throughout the day, checking on students and teachers to make sure that they had everything that they needed. It was early in the day, however, that Brown won my heart over. Midway through a sentence in our conversation, he saw a young boy walking down the hallways towards the classroom next to us. He dropped everything he was doing and pretended that he was racing to the class. The boy took off running, away from his dad, and towards the open classroom door to beat Brown. When the student was safely in the room, Brown smiled and told me that that same kid had been refusing to leave his father’s side only a few weeks earlier, and that Brown had been “racing” him for weeks as a way to distract him. Dad was happy. The student was happy. And Brown was obviously and deeply happy at the place that he has found for himself at Pearsontown. I was nearly moved to tears. This is what a school is supposed to be.
Sometimes “what a school should be” can be articulated very simply. Computer Teacher Teresa Jones also called the school a family and offered praise for the ways that educators have the support of the parents and administration. That sounds like way over half the battle.
Sometimes your soldiers take a hit in a battle, and Pearsontown seems to be on top of that too. EC Teacher Lisa Barbour shared stories with me about the staff rallying around each other in times of need. Barbour has been in schools for 21 years and feels clear that the Pearsontown family is special in this regard.
Pre-Kindergarten Teaching Assistant Tianna Kemp repeated the chorus of praise for administrative support and the family nature of her colleagues. She spent more time talking about her students though, and was excited to talk about how smart they are. “They are so eager to learn. They want to know EVERYTHING.” She smiled as she spoke and her energy said it all. Good educators like a challenge, and Kemp seems thrilled that her challenge comes from her curious kids.
Parent Nakia Hester was delivering one of those curious kids and couldn’t say enough good things about both the educators at Pearsontown and the year-round schedule that allows her 6-year-old to learn all throughout the year. This schedule, according to Hester, is ideal for her student.
Art Teacher Bryan Woolard also noted that the year-round schedule was a strength when we talked. He has been at Pearsontown for 20 of the 28 years he has taught and loves the friendly staff in the building. His highest praise, however, was reserved for his students. They are “awesome” he argued, and followed by sharing that they are “very creative, smart, imaginative, and they like to think outside of the box.” What more could you ask for?
Julia Hart hasn’t been around quite as long as Woolard, but she feels right at home in her first year at the school. “Everybody welcomed me; everybody supports each other,” she shared when asked to elaborate on her comments that Pearsontown is “a big family.”
Danielle Credell pointed towards the family nature of the school too, and she has clearly had something to do with the community’s character. She’s been a Teaching Assistant at the school for all 18 of her 18 years in education. “It’s a family,” she said, “it’s home. I would hate to have to go somewhere else.” I hope you never do Danielle. Pearsontown clearly benefits from what you bring to the table.
Deborah Tart is Credell’s colleague on the 2nd grade team, and she’s been at Pearsontown even longer. She’s in her 30th year at the school, and carries the energy and enthusiasm of a true believer. “I make a difference in kids lives. When they learn to read, I know that I helped with that. I just love to help them learn.” Just wow. Thank you Ms. Tart.
Bookkeeper Latonia Carter hasn’t been at Pearsontown for 30 years, but she pointed towards the stability of the staff as the school’s strength. She’s been a Panda for 10 years, and said simply, “I love it.”
Principal Intern Sherrod Laws also loves Pearsontown. He’s not always been in elementary schools during his 10 years in education, and he’s really enjoying the eagerness of his new students. They “don’t have a judgment about each other like older kids do,” he asserted. The school, he shared, has great “spirit” and “everybody gets along with each other” at Pearsontown. Again and again, it’s clear that the Pearsontown family is committed to doing things differently.
One of the things I watched the Pandas do differently was the Brother to Brother program that Principal Rod Teal has initiated to provide extra support and mentoring for a targeted group of boys. I had the great privilege to sit in while a guest speaker talked to the students about self-discipline and watched the volunteer mentors, many of them fathers of students at the school, prepare to lead small groups of students through discussions. These kind of targeted interventions can make a world a difference, and it was a treat to watch as the boys committed themselves to being positive leaders in the building and taking on the responsibility of holding themselves to a higher standard. There are lots of ways to differentiate learning, and this program, with its focused support, is one more tool that the Pearsontown team brings to the table.
I got to talk with Mr. Teal more about this program and the state of the school in general, and I couldn’t have been more impressed. He is in his 6th year as Principal of the school, but he has a resume that pretty closely matches the entire breadth of the DPS experience, having taught in or been an administrator at nearly every type of school this district has to offer in his 25 years. It’s a busy school, he said, “but good busy.” He had high praise for the hard work of his staff and shared that their constant communication is “almost textbook.”
The praise he offered for his staff, however, needs to be reflected back at him here. I have met and worked with dozens of Principals in my 13 years of education, and the best ones always have the humility and focus on staff support at the center of their worldview. On this point, Teal offered that “if you don’t have a happy teacher, you won’t have any learning.” He is well-versed in the attacks on public schools, and has worked hard to mitigate the morale-killing hits that his folks feel from the state legislature and the enemies of public schools every day. The family atmosphere clearly starts with him, and it was just a treat to talk with him about the centrality of care and love and support in building the kind of school where kids can thrive.
He’s also clearly found the right Assistant Principal in Andrea Petifer. It was so sweet to have a reunion with the former Durham Association of Educators President and see that every bit of fight that she brought to her work in defending and transforming public schools from that position is showing up in her work as an administrator. While we talked, she had students in two separate spaces of the office–one was getting space to do some work that he hadn’t found the motivation to do in class, and the other was reflecting on a conflict she had been in earlier in the day and what she could have done differently. Petifer’s approach with both of these kids was refreshing and far from the “write them up” approach that far too many school leaders lean on when things get tough. Petifer raved about her job at Pearsontown, noting that “every day is something new. There’s always a problem to solve. There’s always a sense of helping and serving.” She proved to be my most quotable conversation, and later went on to say that, “these are the best darn kids in Durham. They want to learn. And they have the best staff in Durham.” Petifer and Teal together make a solid team, and the staff and students are lucky to have such a humble and service-centered leadership team.
Debra Harris in the front office is also a part of that service-centered team. She’s only been at the school since April, but she couldn’t stop raving about the Panda family. She called the staff the most “loving, giving, caring group of people that she’s ever been around,” noting that they are “passionate about their work.” She continued, offering that they are “close knit and have each other’s backs,” and that it was a building full of “good listeners” who made her feel so welcome when she transitioned there in the Spring. She finished by telling me that it was “brightest, sweetest job” that she’s ever had and that there is “never a dull moment.”
I ended my tour talking with Carnette Debela, who works in the school’s program for kids with autism. She, like so many others that I talked to, has been at the school for a long time–18 years. She has “seen the school evolve” and really feels strongly that it’s a great place for kids to be. For Debela, the commitment of the school’s teachers makes all of the difference.
This place is special y’all. I only spent a few hours there, but I couldn’t help but walk around smiling as I saw a stable, creative, and committed staff; kids who exuded a sense of purpose, whether they were walking from room to room on their own or sprawled out in groups in the hallway, voraciously reading books; and a leadership team that is committed to everyone feeling heard and valued. I missed the Pearsontown Pandas on my school tour last year, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be acquainted with such an awesome place. I’ll be back as soon and as often as they’ll have me. Thanks for all that you do Pearsontown.