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Lakewood and Mangum: Comparing Durham’s worst and best performing schools

Lakewood Elementary School, nestled in a neighborhood adjacent to Duke Forest, has a relatively new principal. James Hopkins has been principal for a little more than a year.

So does Mangum Elementary, the northernmost K-5 school in the county. Gwendolyn Dorman took over in April.

But the two schools are miles apart, not just geographically, but also in test scores.

By state standards, Mangum is the highest-performing elementary school in Durham County. In 2017-18, it exceeded growth status and received an “A” for school performance. But Lakewood is one of the district’s lowest performers, having received an “F” last year.

Related story: How reliable are the state’s performance grades?

In 2017, Lakewood was one of the final six schools considered for state takeover by the North Carolina Innovative School District, an intervention program for low-performing schools.

It was ultimately dropped from the state’s final list. Now, with a year under his belt, Hopkins said his school could be trending up. He’s hired five new teachers and is excited for the future.

Meanwhile, Dorman hopes to keep Mangum at the top. But the pressure she feels is different.

“The lower-performing schools have a lot of stress coming down from the top, where any stress that we have in our building is created by us ourselves,” she said.

Lakewood Elementary

Lakewood has about 470 students and is tucked in a neighborhood of homes and apartment complexes near Duke Forest. But many wealthy families in that area have sent their children to private schools.

Lakewood Elementary School received an “F” for school performance in 2017-18. (Photo: Bill McCarthy)

According to data compiled by ProPublica in 2017, the student body is about 54 percent Hispanic and 37 percent are black, with 100 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. That makes it one of the state’s poorest and most diverse schools.

The school has long been among the district’s lowest performers, having also received an “F” in 2016-17. In 2017, it was one of two Durham public schools assigned to the state’s Restart program, an experimental effort which gives struggling schools charter-like flexibilities.

That means Hopkins has freedom to use the school’s money however he sees fit. While other principals are hamstrung by specific teaching allotments, Lakewood gets more of a lump sum.

“It has been a huge blessing,” Hopkins said.

One benefit has been the ability to control class sizes. If not for the Restart program, Lakewood would have had to put teachers in trailers to keep class sizes below the state cap, Hopkins said.

“All of my teachers are in the building this year because we don’t have to subscribe to the class size limits,” he said.

The flexibility has also helped Hopkins make accommodations for Lakewood’s large Hispanic population. He’s been working to purchase translation headphones so he can communicate more easily with Spanish-speaking parents.

“I’m a rhythm speaker,” he said. “I hate having to stop and give you the microphone to interpret to Spanish. So we would not have been able to do that if we were not a Restart school.”

Since taking over, Hopkins and his staff have set their sights on bumping proficiency to 50 percent, up from the 37 percent that earned an “F” score in 2017-18. In addition the five new teachers, Hopkins said he hired a specially-trained teacher to work with struggling students.

“This year, with the team that I brought on board and the support that the district has provided us, there is no doubt that we are going to meet growth and we stand a very, very good chance of exceeding growth,” Hopkins said. “But there’s also no doubt in my mind, and I can almost guarantee this, that we will not be an ‘F’ school next year. We’ll be ‘D’ or a ‘C.’”

Hopkins said he’s optimistic that others in the area will notice the changes he’s put in place.

“Parents are coming back to Lakewood from charter schools and from private schools,” he said. “My goal is for Lakewood to reflect the demographics of its community, and right now it doesn’t. The goal is obviously to make sure that our school looks like our community, but we’re on our way there.”

Mangum Elementary

Mangum Elementary School received an “A” for school performance in 2017-18. (Photo: Katie Nelson)

Mangum is the northernmost elementary school in Durham County, with about 320 students from the community of Bahama and the surrounding area. The campus is rural, its main entrance tucked behind a giant oak tree and its water flowing from a well out back.

The school’s student body is about 82 percent white, according to ProPublica, and only 23 percent get free or reduced-priced lunches. It’s not a magnet school, but it does have several students transfer in from neighboring communities each year, Dorman said.

Mangum is also one of few Durham public schools that doesn’t receive Title I funding — money given to schools with high numbers of children from low-income families — so Dorman said it leans on community partnerships and its parent-teacher organization for support.

Parent volunteers are always willing to help, she explained. Some parents like to come in before school to make copies of worksheets so teachers don’t have to. Others build stage decorations for the school play.

Dorman said the teachers are just as invested, as well.

Gwendolyn Dorman took over as principal of Mangum Elementary School in April. (Photo: Katie Nelson)

“We’re a community-based school,” she said. “Our teachers who teach here went to school here. They live in Bahama. Their children went here.”

The music teacher runs a music club for fifth grade students, for example, and the physical education teacher puts on a run-walk club on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for students and community members.

“Parents, grandparents, all kinds of people are out there on the track in the morning,” Dorman said.

“One thing the teachers do really well here is they provide students with a wide range of opportunities and they build background knowledge in a lot of different areas that they might not experience outside of school,” added assistant principal Tyler Steketee.

Inside the classroom, teachers balance preparation for the state’s year-end exams with engaging lesson plans. Dorman said Mangum’s is distinct from other elementary schools because it treats the fourth and fifth grades like middle school.

“We departmentalize our fourth and fifth grades,” Dorman said. “So if you’re a fourth-grade teacher, your job might be to teach math. You have three different classes that come to you for fourth-grade math.”

Other teachers specialize in English language acquisition and STEM, she said.

Dorman said departmentalization — a practice the school first tried out four years ago — lets teachers specialize in the subjects they’re most passionate about. It also gives them the chance to share the tactics and teaching styles that work for specific students.

For students, the practice limits the chance of having to spend all day with a teacher they don’t like.

“You get to go and you have to focus for an hour and a half, and then you get to change classes and go on to your next subject, Dorman said. “It very much prepares you for middle school.”

Cocoa Cinnamon and the art of the coffee shop

During a recent visit to Cocoa Cinnamon’s Geer Street cafe for my customary rose petal-garnished latte, a woman came in, got in line, and after a moment, whispered to me, “What is this?” I told her it was a coffee shop, and she nodded, ordered a pastry, and left.

It’s not clear what she was expecting when she walked in, but I can understand the confusion. Even Cocoa Cinnamon’s owners approach their shops more as art projects than just another place to get coffee.

“We are artists,” Areli Barrera de Grodski told me recently at a table at the Lakewood location. “Leon was an installation artist before this, and a lot of his artist friends were like, ‘Why did you stop making art?’ And he’s like, ‘I haven’t.’ This is an installation, and this is very much all of our energy and our selves are being poured into these shops. Roasting coffee is an art in itself.”

Barrera de Grodski looks the part of an artist: she wears a pink biker jacket over a black shirt, statement earrings, a bunch of rings and a button with a little drawing of a hand giving a middle finger on it. If you drink coffee in Durham, you’ll likely recognize Barrera de Grodski from a visit to Cocoa Cinnamon, one of the city’s most recognizable and ubiquitous local coffee businesses. She and her husband, Leon Barrera de Grodski, co-own the business, which has grown to three coffee shops and a roastery, which resides behind glass at Cocoa Cinnamon’s most recent location in the Lakewood neighborhood.

The name, Areli Barrera de Grodski explained, came to her husband in a dream.

I call it the beta waves right before you’re awake and still kind of asleep,” Barrera de Grodski said, laughing a little. “I also call it the god mind—it’s where all the creative juices come and it’s just like you’re not even in your own body, everything’s just flowing. ‘Cocoa Cinnamon’ came to him in that state.”

The counter at Cocoa Cinnamon Lakewood (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Neither of the Barrera de Grodskis have any business schooling, and Areli’s discussions of the business focus more on aesthetics and experiences. She described the concept behind a series of paintings she plans on adding to the Lakewood location once they have enough to pay a local muralist, a history of coffee from two perspectives: indigenous people and Westerners.

“The name was inspired by the spice trade routes and the history of human migration,” Barrera de Grodski said. “It’s just looking at everything we work with and looking at its origins and its history and the cultures and the people that are involved in all of this. That’s what inspires our menu, and I think the idea of stories and relationships and coffee being this catalyst for conversation is what drives our business.”

Despite scrappy origins as a bicycle-borne coffee cart, the business now employs at least 38 employees—a few new hires are so new they aren’t in the shop’s system yet. And Barrera de Grodski said she wants the shop to start careers for their employees, not just jobs.

The couple’s journey in business began shortly after they were married in 2010, when they began selling chocolates that were made in Barrera de Grodski’s mother’s kitchen in Cherokee, N.C., but inspired by her native Tijuana, Mexico.

That was really fun for me to learn the history of chocolate and find out where it actually came from,” Barrera de Grodski said. “It just really rooted me in my own identity and culture.”

When the couple decided to move to Durham in 2011, they knew they wanted to open a coffee shop, but that they wanted to have a “genuine relationship” with the community around Geer Street before opening. The words “bike coffee” came to Leon Barrera de Grodski in a dream, too. So, with $75 in their bank account and no credit but a drive to succeed, they bought a rickshaw, went to Seven Star Cycles downtown and got help from friends and community members to engineer a bike, christened bikeCOFFEE, that could carry an espresso machine. Their first model didn’t exactly work out.

“The bike is built, and it’s like 400 pounds by itself,” Barrera de Grodski said. “Leon starts riding it around and like, flips it. He was like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to add a 500-pound espresso machine on the back of this.’”

Instead, they settled on serving pour-overs and iced coffee instead of espresso. The Barrera de Grodskis ran bikeCOFFEE for a year, selling outside of Fullsteam Brewery and Motorco just as Durham’s food-truck scene was exploding. They then started a Kickstarter for their first shop. The Kickstarter netted 640 backers, exceeding their goal, and got a city grant. The first location opened in 2013 in a former garage on Geer Street after help from neighbors and a lot of elbow grease.

“I miss that era… it was very bootstrappy, And we’re still bootstrapping it, I’m not going to lie,”  Barrera de Grodski said. “During that time, though, there was a different excitement in Durham. As soon as we opened the Geer Street location downtown, literally a year later all these development things started happening. There was a boom, Durham started getting all this attention and then all of a sudden all these investors are interested in changing up the scene.”

Barrera de Grodski knows that the city changing can also be labeled gentrification. Even in their early days, they tried to make sure they weren’t just catering to the burgeoning hipster-yuppie population.They would do tastings around town, in particular attempting to reach out to the Latino population in honor of Areli Barrera de Grodski’s heritage and the demographics of the neighborhood into which they and their business had moved.

“I tried to do a tasting in Spanish… that didn’t go so well,” she said. “People were just looking at us like, ‘What are you doing?’ The concept of having a tasting… also like, who are you? Even though we lived in the same apartment complex. They saw us, and they always saw us toting shit up and down the stairs, and they were all friendly, but when we invited them to come taste hot chocolate and coffee and tea… maybe like one or two people came.”

Cocoa Cinnamon has struggled with the same tensions, on a bigger scale, as the business grows. The Lakewood location was previously a “quinceañera hotspot,” and the storefronts around Cocoa Cinnamon have turned over rapidly.

“I know that in this neighborhood has changed drastically over the past two years. And I know that opening up a coffee shop is like the first sign of gentrification,” Barrera de Grodski said. “We’re aware of our role in that, and it’s really important to us to create as much of a positive impact as possible in the neighborhoods that we’re moving into, trying to undo that negative impact.”

Areli Barrera de Grodski poses with 4th Dimension’s coffee roaster, which she calls her “baby.” (Photo by Katie Nelson)

With that in mind, Barrera de Grodski hired mostly Lakewood residents to work at the location, including some staff who speak mostly Spanish. The business pays a living wage, $13.35 an hour. The shop also accepts requests for donations of gift cards or drinks to support Durham non-profit work, which they distribute by committee once a month.

Meanwhile, the business continues to grow. The couple’s newest project is 4th Dimension Coffee, which supplies the cafes and others nationwide with roasted coffee beans. The Barrera de Grodskis trade off responsibilities every so often, so Areli is mostly in charge of 4th Dimension, while Leon manages the shops. The name 4th Dimension is confusing, but Barrera de Grodski notes that they chose a different name so people would understand the coffee isn’t cocoa or cinnamon flavored.

“Leon and I just talked about that this morning. We have our deepest conversations right when we wake up,” Barrera de Grodski said. “He had this dream about how to get people to realize that 4th Dimension Coffee is Cocoa Cinnamon. The reason we named our roastery 4th Dimension is because it’s our approach to coffee. It’s inspired by the Dada movement and surrealism, in terms of being able to see something from different perspectives and different points of view, and needing the information of other things to get the whole picture.”

The whole picture of Cocoa Cinnamon, then, is something like one part world history project, one part art project, and a lot of coffee with a rose-petal garnish—optional, but recommended.

Photo at top by Katie Nelson.

Making a difference in Durham schools, two hours at a time

Every other Saturday, Bull City Classrooms organizes a team of volunteers to help out at a Durham elementary school.

The volunteers do things such as clean classrooms, pick up trash and help with paint.

“We don’t have an agenda,” said Anish Simhal, a Duke University graduate student who founded the project nearly a year ago. “We are just here to help with whatever teachers and principals need. There’s nothing else to it.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kristi Sturgill went along as the group helped out at Lakewood Elementary.  Her report shows how volunteers can make a difference.

(Above, a Bull City Classrooms volunteer paints a stairwell at E.K Powe Elementary School. Photo by Arturo Pérez.)

Bull City Classrooms ushers volunteers to Durham elementary schools

A Bull City Classrooms volunteer paints a stairwell at E.K Powe Elementary School. Photo by Arturo Pérez.

When Lakewood Elementary School Principal James Hopkins unlocked his school over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, he greeted adults, not children.

In another flip, Hopkins asked the group of 33 volunteers to teach him. He wanted their thoughts on what they liked or did not like when they wandered down halls and into classrooms.

State rankings may describe Lakewood as low-performing, but Hopkins stressed that the school has many strengths and is only getting stronger. “Your feedback is going to prove invaluable,” Hopkins told the volunteers.

Bull City Classrooms regularly organizes such volunteer blitz sessions for people eager to help Durham public schools. Every other Saturday, the nonprofit tries to dispatch at least 20 helpers to an elementary school.

At the schools, volunteers tackle whatever those who work there say needs to get done: cleaning closets, picking up trash, painting stairwells or brainstorming.

“We don’t have an agenda,” said Anish Simhal, a Duke University graduate student who founded the project nearly a year ago. “We are just here to help with whatever teachers and principals need. There’s nothing else to it.”

Something new

Simhal, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at Duke, started volunteering in 2016 to help support kids as a little league baseball coach for Durham’s Boys & Girls Club.

With Bull City Classrooms, he is using an “economy-style” approach to help others help kids in short bursts, just two hours at a time.

Duke University graduate student Anish Simhal founded Bull City Classrooms to get more volunteers helping Durham elementary schools. Photo by Katie Nelson

Simhal jumped into this because he considers supporting education a pressing community need and wanted to help address it. His group’s website explains it this way: “We believe education is one of the most important facets of a growing community and that our teachers are overworked and underpaid. We can’t solve the latter of the two, but we can help with the first.”

Simhal came up with Bull City Classrooms after noticing barriers to volunteering in Durham Public Schools, such as registering for time-consuming background checks when working directly with students and the difficulty many people have committing their time during the work day.

“It’s hard for someone who is new to the Durham community to volunteer in a public school because you can’t just show up and knock on an elementary school and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to help’,” Simhal said.

Simhal manages recruitment and sign up online with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Local businesses such as Loaf and Monuts sponsor the work sessions, providing coffee and snacks for volunteers.

At Lakewood, principal Hopkins described the volunteer session last Saturday as “a bit unconventional.” First, he asked volunteers to be his “free focus group” for an hour.

“What I want you to do is to just walk the school and just observe things,” Hopkins instructed. “Look as if it’s a museum.”

The group of mostly Duke physician assistant students studied hallway posters questioning the ethics of zoos and describing the arrival of the Mayflower. They saw uplifting notes from teachers on classroom whiteboards encouraging students to behave for substitutes. They examined signs promising students a visit to the Sky Zone, a Durham trampoline park, for passing a test.

Cut-out construction paper letters in one hallway spelled out an inspirational quote often attributed to Albert Einstein. “Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

When the volunteers reconvened in the library to discuss the school, Hopkins directed them to use their Smartphones to fill out a Google Forms questionnaire. “What would you say we value and/or prioritize?” it asked. “What stood out to you?” “What do you believe distinguishes a good school from a great school?”

Discussing their responses, volunteers recalled experiences from their childhood that Lakewood Elementary School might incorporate. The privilege of eating lunch with their principal was one. Having teachers who accommodated different learning styles and becoming friends with cafeteria and custodial staff were others.

Brains and brawn

When volunteers wrapped up their brainstorming, Simhal handed out blue nitrile gloves and transparent trash bags so volunteers could clean up litter around the school.

Outside they collected trash, including packaging from Cheddar Jalapeños Crunchy Cheetos and Dannon Danimals Yogurts, litter that hadn’t made it to trash cans.

Duke mechanical engineering doctoral student Hadiya Harrigan was a repeat helper, signing up for the Lakewood session after enjoying a session at another school where she and others painted stairwells. “I think that it is really important to give back the the schools,” she said.

Getting repeat volunteers like Harrigan will help Simhal. Bull City Classrooms has held 12 events so far at schools including Eastway, E.K. Powe, and Merrick-Moore elementary schools. One day, he wants to organize that many in one week.

“The point of this program is to bridge the wonderful Durham community with the wonderful Durham public schools,” Simhal said.

Interest was high enough the weekend before Martin Luther King Day, when many people seek out community service, that Simhal could have held three different events.

Hopkins, the Lakewood principal, said he appreciates the program and would recommend it to his fellow Durham Public Schools principals.

“We are in Anish’s debt. He reached out and said, ‘Hey, can I come with some people to help?’ Hopkins said. “A fool would say ‘no’.”

Bull City Classrooms has three volunteer opportunities planned for coming weeks. More information is available here.

How reliable are the state’s performance grades?

North Carolina has been rating school performance on an A-through-F scale since 2013-14, when the Republican-led state legislature started the letter-grading system.

Schools are assessed on a 100-point scale, with 80 percent of the grade coming from the percent of students who pass exams and the other 20 percent factoring in year-to-year growth.

Supporters of the system say letter grades provide a simple way for parents, educators and community members to assess how various schools are doing. But critics say that the system tends to stigmatize schools in high poverty areas.

Lakewood Elementary Principal James Hopkins said the state standards are a valuable guide for assessing teachers, but the grading formula is “backwards” because it “can undermine efforts made in areas in North Carolina that have historically struggled to achieve proficiency, but have not struggled to meet growth.”

I think that the current model, the formula, does not help reflect what schools are doing,” he said. “I understand why the state wants to have grades, but I think the formula is flawed and it gives a very negative perception for schools like Lakewood.”

Related story: Lakewood and Mangum: Comparing Durham’s worst and best performing schools

Even as Lakewood received an “F” grade for 2017-18, it met its growth expectation, and Hopkins said a model that gives more weight to a school’s growth status would better reflect the learning happening in more disadvantaged classrooms.

“The way that its reflected in the paper is that Lakewood is a failing school,” he said. “To say that we are an F school I think deflates any additional efforts that we have made in trying to address some of our learning gaps with our students.”

Gwendolyn Dorman, principal of Mangum Elementary School,  agreed that test scores can be misleading, but said Magnum would score well even if the formula were flipped. “We’re definitely getting the growth that we need,” she said.

For better or worse, schools have to work with the system they’re handed, she said.

“There’s lots of research on whether tests are culturally biased,” she said. “And whether they are or aren’t, unfortunately we have to teach (students) for the test.”

Grades for Durham schools go up while state numbers go down

Students in Durham improved their performance on state exams last year, continuing an upward trend that had school officials celebrating this past week.

The improvement represents the district’s highest year-to-year bump in grade level proficiency in the last five years, Durham Public Schools announced in a press release.

The district’s accountability report said 48.3 percent of Durham students passed their exams, up from 46.4 percent in 2016-17, according to annual data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

There were still 15 Durham schools rated as low-performing — but the number was down from 18 last year and 21 the previous year.

School officials said teachers and school staff deserved credit for the improvement. “The constant last year was our excellent teachers and staff,” Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, who started November 2017, said in a statement. “What changed was that we had the opportunity to fill a number of vacancies among principals and central administrators, enabling us to set a tone at the top.”

“These results reflect years of hard work by our teachers and staff,” added Mike Lee, chair of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. “It’s clear that our new administration’s focus on data, equity, and student achievement is paying off.”

Schools are assessed on a 100-point scale, with 80 percent of the grade coming from the percentage of students who pass exams and the other 20 percent factoring in year-to-year growth.

Schools in Durham that received an A included City of Medicine Academy, Durham School of the Arts, J.D. Clement Early College, Magnum Elementary and Middle College High.

Durham schools that were handed the low-performing grades included C.C. Spaulding Elementary, Eastway Elementary, Eno Valley Elementary, Fayetteville St. Elementary, Glenn Elementary, Lakewood Elementary, Brogden Middle, Lowe’s Grove Middle, Lucas Middle and Shepard Middle.

The district’s progress is not entirely reflective of trends across the state, however. Overall, fewer North Carolina public school students passed the exams this year.

But in Durham, five of 52 schools received the state’s top letter grade for performance.

Durham schools also saw a small jump in the number of schools meeting or exceeding growth expectations, meaning the school’s students made a year’s worth of academic progress during the year.

Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer for Durham Public Schools, said the Durham schools that received an F this year could be reasonably expected to earn a higher grade in the upcoming year.

“They are so close to leaving that F territory that with hard work and focus we think every one of them could,” he said.

Sudderth also noted that Durham saw a decline in performance on high school math and English, a trend he said was mirrored across the state. “That is an area of concern and we will be looking at that,” he said.

North Carolina has been rating school performance on an A through F scale since the 2013-14 academic year, when the Republican-led state legislature implemented the letter-grading system.

Supporters of the system argue that letter grades provide a simple way for parents, educators and community members to assess how various schools are performing. But critics say that the A through F scale tends to stigmatize schools in areas of high poverty.

More specific data detailing school performance by subgroups such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status is set to be released in October.