[NOTE: This article originally appeared in the blog of the Durham Association of Educators. Click HERE to read it and view the photographs.]
Read all the way to the bottom–this post contains a personal challenge to Superintendent Bert L’Homme
If you live in a community long enough, you slowly learn its secrets. There’s the alleyway that connects two major streets and saves you 4 minutes on your drive to work. The magnolias bloom at this time of the year and fill the air with syrupy sweetness. There’s a cool little playground tucked behind these trees at the end of a cul-de-sac. Every place I’ve ever lived has hidden wonders to discover if you’re willing to go out looking.
The more I poke around Durham’s public schools, the more wonders I find. With each new hidden gem, I get more excited to expose all of the amazing things Durham’s educators and students are working on. And today I have the great pleasure of sharing the story of PLC/Holton, the two-schools-in-one secret that serves as one more argument against the inflexibility of democratically-controlled public school systems.
Mr. Cason and I were lucky to start the day with Dan Gilfort, the Principal who comes to PLC/Holton with a background in marriage/family therapy and stops at Southern, Northern, and Hillside High Schools before landing at his school home in East Durham. Since he’s led PLC as long as it has existed, we couldn’t have started off our day with a better historical tour guide.
The Performance Learning Center was born in the basement of Northgate Mall in the Fall of 2007. DPS created the school as a place for students who were struggling with the traditional curriculum and teaching methods in their high schools. At PLC, the pedagogical role of teachers is largely facilitative, as students work their way through online modules at their own speed. Because the school is self-paced, students can finish their coursework quickly if they stay focused. Gilfort shared stories of students earning 15-18 credits in one year. Sometimes, he noted, students come to the school a year behind and finish a year early.
Students typically end up at the school through a counselor or principal, but increasingly, parents are asking about the program as word-of-mouth is spreading. PLC students, many of whom come to the school on the verge of dropping out, receive individualized support from a talented staff of teachers, counselors, social workers, and administrators who meet daily to discuss their students’ needs. From there, the school’s motto “Every Child, Every Day, Any Way” kicks in, and the staff utilizes a range of tactics from individualized remediation to home visits and popping up on students at their jobs to keep their students from falling behind or quitting school.
Students in the Magic Johnson Bridgescape program at PLC have already dropped out of Durham’s public schools. They end up at PLC because social workers visit their homes and convince the student that a high school degree is possible. Bridgescape students come to the school for 4 hours a day on a modified schedule that allows them more flexibility. These students are often carrying heavy loads at home, and having a more flexible schedule allows them to work, take care of their families, or navigate any number of adult responsibilities that have kept them from focusing on school before.
Because the school, for many, serves as either a 2nd chance or last stop on the path towards leaving school, its culture is one of positivity, possibility, and focus. The staff, according to Gilfort has lots of conversations with students about their goals. If the students’ actions aren’t matching their goals, the school’s teachers, counselors, social workers, and administrators make up an accountability corps that creatively challenges the students to change directions. We got to sit in on meeting of the school’s counselors and social workers, and the safety net that they have built is comprehensive and exciting. Gilfort told us that students, “have to try to fail in order to not succeed here,” and the staff seems to have an infrastructure that matches his words.
A key component in this infrastructure of positivity is Receptionist Saundra Robinson. Ms. Robinson greeted me with a hug in front of the school, and set the tone for the day. She noted that students sometimes come here “guarded and hurt,” but that the staff loves them unrelentingly and “hugs them through” their tough attitudes. After 5 years at the school, Robinson spoke proudly about what the school is doing for the students and what it is doing for Durham.
Jametra Hinton believes in the school that she’s taught at for the last 3 years so much. She loves the fact that kids don’t get bored at PLC. If they get ahead, they can just keep moving and don’t have to wait for a teacher or classmates. She shared the story of a student who came to PLC already married with children and finished the course that she needed to graduate in 3 weeks. In this case, a self-motivated student might languish under the restrictions of the traditional school day and fail to finish the work required for a diploma. PLC then, fills a critical niche. We talked while her students worked individually and silently, and I worried about their social development. Hinton assured me that the students build strong relationships at the school, and that sometimes they even compete with each other to see who can effectively complete their coursework more quickly.
To prove her point about the pace, Hinton walked us across the hall to meet Andre, a PLC student. Rather than waiting for a referral from his base school, Andre began at PLC his freshman year and will finish in January, after only 2.5 years at the school. From here, he will head towards Temple University to study computer science. If the model for corporate reform of our schools is increased standardization, Andre and his classmates offer a powerful counter-narrative about what our schools could be if student-centered goals and strong relationships between kids and staff sat at the center.
The staff also builds strong relationships, according to Biology Teacher Ashley Farlow. They eat lunch together every day and function as a collective team to help their students achieve their goals. In Farlow’s room, we got to witness the advantages of small classes and individualized relationships firsthand as she navigated a complicated conversation with a student in a loving and thoughtful way.
Gilfort had affectionately referred to his staff as the “Navy S.E.A.L.S of educators,” because of their flexibility and jack-of-all-trades orientation. When we spoke with Travis Williams, the metaphor made more sense. In addition to the counseling, calling Uber service to get kids to school, buying alarm clocks and food for kids, and all of the other life support functions that the staff fulfills, they are also often teaching multiple courses at the same time. Williams teaches Physical Science and Earth Science for students new to the class and students repeating it. This means that he’s got 4 courses running at any point in the day, and he has to be able to provide differentiated support for each student.
This model appealed so much to Dr. Gerald Fowler that he left Wake County to teach at PLC after 25 years in education. He teaches 3 different courses at the school, and loves the small class sizes and flexibility that students have to complete their work here or at home.
Wendy Anderson also carries quite a load at PLC. She teaches Spanish and facilitates the Art and Music Appreciation courses, in addition to advising the student leadership program and coordinating graduation. For her, the strong connection to students and their families is the best part of the school. Each teacher at PLC has an advisory class with roughly 15 students in it. They are responsible for making contact with the homes of all 15 of the students every week, and they utilize their lunchroom conversations and notes that the staff keeps on a Google Doc to keep one another abreast of each student’s progress. The small sizes of the class allow for this kind of interaction, and it was great to hear that families receive regular news, both positive and challenging, about their students every week.
This atmosphere, according to Finance and Marketing Teacher Jamal Rolle, allows each teacher to not only know her/his own students very well, but they get to know every student in the school. Coming from a large traditional high school, Mr. Cason and I agreed that this quality of the school was both rare and delightful.
English Teacher Sarah O’Boyle looked delighted too, even as she told us that she’s never worked harder than she does at PLC. In addition to juggling the individualized academic caseload of each student, the staff is essentially on call for their kids every day. This weekend, O’Boyle fielded 3 phone calls from crying students who needed support for life situations. Quality educators know that we can’t teach our students if they are in crisis, and it was heartening to hear the ways that the staff connects with students’ lives outside of the classroom as a part of their effort to support their health, happiness, and growth.
This ethic of whole-student support and a commitment to connecting to their young folks’ lives outside of school allows PLC teachers to reach students that other schools cannot. Assistant Principal Lisa Blair smiled as she shared stories of other schools sending her students with a “good luck with that one” attitude. When other Principals learn that a particularly challenging student has walked across the stage with a PLC diploma, the school’s staff relishes their surprise. PLC teachers are “the hardest working people in Durham,” according to Blair.
According to Testing Coordinator Nicole Riscili, Blair and Gilfort set the tone for the school. She called the administration “wonderful,” and said that no one is every hesitant to bring them a concern. From that center, the staff has built a culture of strong relationships and high level collaboration to meet their students’ needs.
Social Studies Teacher Jennifer Ringer also named the staff’s collaboration as her highlight. There is “no competition” between staff at PLC, and she’s never worked with a set of teachers who were so focused and supportive of each other.
Her Social Studies counterpart Dacia Guffey called PLC “the best place in the whole wide world to work.” To back up her statement, she shared that she drives over an hour from Sanford to work at PLC every day. Supporting students who are carrying so much can be tough she noted, as she talked of students who are here because medical problems set them behind in their base schools, or because one or both of their parents died and they lost ground as they grieved. Many of her students work until late at night and text her at 10:00 P.M. for support with their work. She even shared that she’s fielded calls to support students through assignments on Christmas Day. Because this work can be emotionally taxing, Guffey praised the ways that the staff supports each other, noting that they “laugh a lot together.”
English Teacher Sam Best has no doubt gotten to share in some of those laughs, even though this is his first year at the school. He named the positive and encouraging nature of the staff as his favorite part of the school.
Over at the Bridgescape side of the building, we caught up with Kerry Bacon, who teaches Social Studies at the school. He’s in his first year at the school, but already loves the interactive nature of the curriculum and it strong literacy-building components. Having taught in a project-based learning environment before Bridgescape, he relishes the flexibility that the school allows him. Here, he can plan projects that supplement the curriculum, and he and his students have lots of fun.
Science Teacher James Springer also named the flexibility, and said that the 1 on 1 relationship building that the school environment promotes “makes you teach better.”
My last conversation at PLC/Bridgescape reinforced everything I had heard so far. English Teacher Samantha Mandani said that the school is never boring and appreciates working with such supportive co-workers who love serving students who struggle in other settings. Angela Wiggins, a counselor at the school for 3 years, loves having the autonomy to create programs specific to the needs of her students.
Cafeteria Manager Cheryl McCall has been on the staff for 3 of her 30 years in education, and she is excited to get to see some of the students that she taught in the Head Start program she used to work in. Because the cafeteria serves the whole school, she gets to see students from PLC and Holton, and she credited the good programs for getting kids who had dropped out to reengage with school.
As we made our way across the ground floor, Career Development Coordinator Heather Covington flagged us down in the hallway and pulled us into her office for a lengthy conversation. She’s been at the school since 2008, and now helps each student develop an individualized career development plan to support them in figuring out their options once they finish at the school. Like most of her co-workers, she goes beyond the call of duty and shared several powerful anecdotes that illustrated the special character of the school. One student, whose base school had seemingly written off, was on track to graduate before he was shot in a dispute as the school neared the end of the semester. When the school staff visited him at the hospital, his first words to them were, “when can I take my exams?” Another story involved a recent encounter with a 23 year old former student who she saw working at a fast food restaurant. Though she had been out of school for 5 years, the student was excited to see Covington and asked if she could come over for some career counseling. The last story Covington shared impacted her in a very personal way. The student was having a hard time in school and Covington made a point to regularly and randomly stop by her house. She and the student made a deal that if the student graduated, they would go to get their noses pieced together. 5 years later, Covington wears her nose ring as a badge of honor. Having struggled in school herself, helping students find their path is a passion for Covington, and the PLC students and staff are lucky to have her around.
While PLC students have a Career Development Coordinator, the whole Holton Career and Resource Center is designed to start students down their career path at an early age. The school has programs in Barbering, Public Safety, and Cosmetology and serves 60-70 students a day, with the goal of students graduating ready to enter their field as fully licensed professionals. Historically, students in the programs have started the day at their base schools before being bused to Holton for an afternoon of instruction and practical experience. Now, some students are entering PLC as 9th graders and starting the Holton programs earlier, allowing them time to finish school early and/or take free classes in their field at Durham Tech.
We didn’t get to speak with the Public Safety program teacher, but Principal Gilfort shared the vision of the program aimed towards students entering the workforce as firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and other public service professions. He is currently courting city and county officials to come and share with the students and exploring models pioneered in other counties in North Carolina.
The Barbering program at Holton is its own pioneering effort, and teacher Mario Little left his job at the Park West Barbering Academy to participate. As a product of Durham’s public schools, Little looked forward to a chance to give back. He’s excited to be working with young men who have made some mistakes in their lives, and helping them realize that cutting hair is more than a hustle, it can be a career. Through teaching the history of the barbering, business principles, and the physiology of the head, neck, and face, Little is pushing professionalism in his classes. If they complete the program, students finish fully licensed without having spent the $12,000 it would usually cost in the community. He loves the drive and eagerness to learn that his students bring to the class, and he has clearly found a home at Holton.
Down the hall, Cosmetology Teacher Michelle Evans also feels like she’s at home. She made her way from serving as a liaison to patients at UNC, to become a Cosmetologist, to teaching Cosmetology because she wanted young people to have more opportunities for employment. The program at Holton is 1 of only 10 in the state, and Evans noted that there is “nothing greater than public education.” Her students can also leave the program fully licensed, and she pulled out her phone to call a former student of mine who had just graduated from the program and already works at a high end salon downtown.
Evans then gave me a tour of the facility (even though I’d been before to have students cut my hair). She was proud of the classroom and high quality equipment available to the students and made sure that I noted that the students studied serious science on their way towards certification.
Evans was obviously, and rightly, more proud of her students though, and she made me wait around until they could share their stories with me. They expressed how much they loved making people “feel beautiful and happy.” They made sure I knew that they didn’t just do hair, but that they also gave manicures, pedicures, facials, and massages. One student noted that a Cosmetologist is often a therapist too, as clients share their stories while sitting in the chair. The hands-on learning makes these students want to come to school every day, and the promise of a license at the end of the program, which would take 10s of thousands of dollars elsewhere, is a huge motivation. These students are proud of what they are accomplishing, and I walked away proud of them too.
The proudest moment in the life of any school community, however, is its graduation, and I need to share the story of PLC’s graduations. To emphasize that no student has made this journey alone, all PLC graduates sit with their “Favorite 5,” a collection of supporters that often includes their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, mentors, friends, and children. They choose one supporter to walk across the stage with them, and every staff member that mentioned the graduation shared how emotional the ceremony is for all involved.
Apparently, Superintendent Bert L’Homme was quite moved when he attended the PLC graduation last year, so I’d like to end this post with a challenge. To highlight how awesome this place is, and how its flexibility flies in the face of the story of failing public schools, I’d like to ask Dr. L’Homme to join me at the Holton Barbering program for a haircut. I used to go there quite often, but it’s been a few years and I’m anxious to get back. Let’s meet up at Driver Street for a trim Dr. L’Homme, and we can encourage all of Durham to share in one our most exciting little secrets.
Thanks for the incredible morning PLC/Holton, I can’t wait to come back.