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Posts published by “Rebecca Schneid”

With Wellness Wednesdays, Durham schools tune into student health

Days of monotony inside, constant Zoom links and screens, all the while worrying about your and your family’s health. This is the reality of this school year – one unfathomably different than any other.

For faculty at Burton Magnet Elementary School, bolstering the mental health of their students has always been a priority. Since returning to online classes almost two months ago, they’ve had to innovate new ways to get that done.

“Seeing teachers on Canvas or on Zoom is not the same as somebody touching your shoulder and saying you can do it, telling you that you did a good job,” Principal Kimberly Ferrell said. “We can’t provide the same support we could when face to face.”

Anticipating this struggle districtwide, Durham Public Schools developed new tools to promote social and emotional learning and mental health. Wellness Wednesdays is one initiative: one day of the week when students and staff are urged to focus on holistic wellness.

Wellness Wednesdays look different depending on a student’s grade and school, but DPS and each school provide activities focused on personal growth.

There are both live Zoom sessions to learn about aspects of social emotional learning, as well as documents stuffed with ideas offline, independent activities that students and families can tackle for their mental and physical health. 

A few Burton Elementary faculty members lead a session on Wellness Wednesday focused on physical health. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

For October, many schools scheduled anti-bullying programming in tandem with Bullying Prevention Month.

Emotional learning has been a part of priority four of DPS’s five-year strategic plan, focusing on “strengthening school, family, and community engagement,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, DPS’s senior executive director of student support services.

The transition to virtual learning this fall presented an opportunity, Mattocks-Perry said, to focus more intentionally on social emotional learning and holistic wellness of students. 

“Everything that we’ve been reading from practitioners tells us that all of the things going on – the economic factors related to COVID-19, civil unrest, abrupt adaptations in how we operate daily as a school – that has been classified as a traumatic childhood experience,” said Mattocks-Perry.

Matthew Hickson, director of online learning, and others reached out to local mental health agencies and conntected with community groups around Durham to work up programming.

On Wednesdays, the district uploads a new document for students, teachers, and parents to look at on the district’s new social and emotional learning hub: EMBRACE.

For example, DPS partnered with Growga to hold weekly yoga classes for students, accessible on the EMBRACE website. They partnered with Triangle United Soccer for a weekly soccer lesson and with other organizations for outdoors activities and cooking tips.

“We really want Wednesdays to be a time for our students to really take a step back. You know, they’re in this intense environment, and so we want all of them to take these days and use them as a time to reflect,” Hickson said.

Elementary schools often have much more structured Wednesdays to ensure heightened support, Hickson said. Burton Magnet Elementary School, located in East Durham off South Alston Avenue is an example.

Burton teachers and administrators continue to bring material support to their students, despite school remaining online. Distributing free books from nonprofit Book Harvest is one example. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Burton is a magnet school where a majority of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, many of whom were displaced by the crisis at McDougald Terrace last spring. Mental health support there doesn’t stop on the internet.

Using both DPS’s guidelines and their own creativity, Burton Elementary’s leadership spent about eight weeks before school resumed training on the new mental health virtual resources.

“We can’t provide the type of support that we normally give as part of the process. So we came up with a list of activities that we found ways to connect with his students online,” said Tameko Piggee, a Burton social worker.

Burton designed a check-in system that lets students alert teachers about how their minds and bodies feel. They place themselves in color zones in Google Docs: blue for boredom, exhaustion, sadness; green for positive emotions, feeling ready for the day ahead; yellow for feeling out of control and in need of some support; and red to signal extreme emotions, anger and aggression included.

After students pick their spots, school social worker and counselors can identify students in need of aid and reach out.

Teachers are constantly looking out for students who are struggling but aren’t necessarily speaking up about it, said school counselor Ponsella Brown. 

“There are times when we will get messages from teachers. So, we go into the classrooms, virtual through the breakouts and work with students who are dealing not only with COVID-19,” she said. Housing crises can crop up, so can illness and death in families.

School staff still try to help with students’ more physical needs, despite the pandemic. Many students began quarantine without desks, sitting on floors or couches to do work. So, with the service organization Triangle Park Chapter of Links, they provided 80 desks for Burton students.

After the Durham Board of Education decided on Sept. 24 to keep schools remote the rest of the semester, Ferrell said they are ready to keep using Wellness Wednesdays and their own tools to educate and take care of their students online indefinitely.

“The nuance of this new environment for some of our families, was scary,” Ferrell said. “But, we know we’ll always have a relationship with our community. And they trust us.”

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Students can view dancing and other activities during a break from virutal classroom lessons on Wednesdays. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Teens escape being stuck at home by building digital birthday bashes

In June, a mother posted a plea for help on the Nextdoor neighborhood social media app. How was she to plan a 10th birthday party for her son in the middle of a pandemic?

Since you can build nearly anything in Minecraft, Harrison and Sophie Stanley decided to build birthday parties. Photo by Henry Haggart

She noted her kid’s love for Minecraft, a sandbox video game in which players can mine, build on, and create on an infinite 3D terrain.

After reading this, Jennifer Stanley approached her children, Harrison and Sophie, to see if they had any ideas. They did, and three months later they are running a business called Digicraft, a virtual startup with 10 percent of profits going to a local food bank.

At a time when there are constant think-piece articles and Instagram trends focused on adults tapping into their creativity during COVID quarantine, you don’t hear much about kids. But they too are trying to gain back what has been taken away, including the ability to socialize safely.

“I think it’s one of those things that lets you forget what’s going on in the world, which I think a lot of people need. It gets you out of the work and lets you focus on just creating something new,” Harrison said.

The teenagers created an intricate scavenger hunt in one of their first Minecraft birthday party experiences. Photo by Henry Haggart

After their mother asked, Harrison, 17, and Sophie, 14, put their Minecraft building skills to work. Over the course of a few weekends, they created an interactive “realm” on the Minecraft video game server that multiple players could log into together and enjoy.

The two split up the construction work. Their first world was zombie-themed. Players could “spawn” there and read a sign explaining that zombies had invaded the place and villagers needed players to make it safe again. They built a scavenger hunt for the players, ending with fireworks, music and birthday cake.

After testing each other’s sections and checking with the kid’s parents, they opened the world to their client, and watched him and his friends explore.

“It was so cool watching this kid and his friends interact with, and love this thing that we made,” Sophie said. “And it was so special that we just wanted to keep doing it.” 

Thus, the two decided to build a business. Over the past two and a half months, they have created eight worlds for birthday parties, for kids ages 7 to 12 years old in Orange and Durham counties and out of state. 

Every weekend, the two would huddle around the desktop in the bonus room at home and plan, spitballing ideas and using teamwork to fashion new and unique worlds for each party.

“The cool thing is that we don’t really have any specific plans. We just sit together and shoot off ideas of what looks cool and seems like it will be a fun experience,” Harrison said.

Harrison patrols the worlds they create through an Xbox. Sophie uses an iPad. Photo by Henry Haggart

Using their respective strengths and creativity, they divide the business-side and creative-side of planning for each party. And of course, as with all siblings, collaborating brings its own challenges.

“There’s some bickering, of course, and they have different creative visions. And so, there have been a couple of times where I’ve had to say, ‘you guys need to learn how to critique each other’,” Stanley said. 

At the same time, Digicraft provides a space for Harrison and Sophie to learn about cooperation, creativity and self-discipline, the sort of things they’d normally be getting in non-virtual school.  

“I think that as a parent you see video games as purely an escape,” Stanley said. “Suddenly, this was an opportunity for kids who have been socially distanced to get together virtually, and for my kids to see themselves as mentors for them.”

The two charge $100 for one hour of playtime in their Minecraft worlds, with 10 percent of the profits going to Feeding the Carolinas, a nonprofit network of food banks in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Though the two started (virtual) school at East Chapel Hill High School in August, they still run their business, even with honors classes, college applications, and extracurriculars. Where for some this might be an added stressor, for Harrison and Sophie, it’s a needed refuge.

“Kids aren’t meant to stay home all the time; they’re meant to scream and shout and chase and flirt and all that stuff and it’s like they can’t do any of that,” their mother said. “We need something to replace what we’ve lost. And if we can create it ourselves, there’s a sense of accomplishment and it’s therapeutic.”

9th Street reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu.

At top: Sophie and Harrison Stanley sit side by side at a desk in front of a TV while they work. Photo by Henry Haggart

Natalie Murdock: Education and environment advocate, state Senate District 20 candidate

If Durham voters select her as the Democratic candidate for state Senate on Tuesday, they will accomplish several things, Natalie Murdock says.

They’ll embrace the leadership of an African-American woman, the only elected office holder of the three candidates in the race, she says. And they will reduce how severely black women are underrepresented in the General Assembly.  

“Quite frankly, a woman of color should have been recruited in the first place to seat this seat,” Murdock said at a panel called “Race, Womanhood and Deconstructing Political Barriers” earlier this month. 

“The double standard is clearly there. But, on this campaign trail, I have embraced this challenge because it’s great preparation for the battles I will fight in the Senate,” she added.

Natalie Murdock spread the word on social media after she scored a People Alliance, endorsement. The political action committee is influential in Durham politics.

Murdock; artist and entrepreneur Pierce Freelon; and local lawyer Gray Ellis are competing for the District 20 Democratic nomination. Because Durham voters strongly favor Democrats, whoever wins Tuesday is most likely to become state senator. 

Multiple organizations, including the influential People’s Alliance PAC of Durham, INDY Week, Equality North Carolina and Lillian’s List have endorsed Murdock, who has worked in transportation planning, communications and other areas, including politics. 

A product of North Carolina public schools, including the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Murdock emphasizes the need to improve public education. Specifically, she wants to help raise the wages of teachers and other school workers. 

“My grandmother was actually a cafeteria school worker, so I know the value of the bus drivers, the custodians, the folks that are serving your food. It takes all of those individuals to make sure our schools run properly and they deserve to get at least $15 an hour,” Murdock said.

In a plank of her platform called the Lucas & Parker Education Plan, she also calls for increased funding to historically black college campuses and community colleges. 

Murdock named multiple sections of her platform after influential black women in North Carolina. The Lucas & Parker Plan honors Jeanne Lucas, the first black woman to serve in the state Senate, and Omega Parker, a one time Durham Public School board member.

Mudock, who grew up in Greensboro, favors criminal justice reform too. She says North Carolina has not done enough to dismantle a school-to-prison pipeline.

“There’s a rise in young black girls getting suspended and expelled from school. There’s a direct correlation between those suspensions and expulsions, and them ending up in the justice system,” Murdock said.

Murdock was elected a Durham Soil and Water District supervisor in 2018, a position focused on protecting drinking water quality, agriculture, and open space in Durham County.

Her platform supports the Green New Deal for North Carolina, a switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050, higher water-treatment standards, greater energy efficiency and expanded mass transit.

“I have been an environmental advocate for as long as I can remember,” she said. Much control over environmental policies rests with state legislators, she notes, including management of the Clean Water Management Fund, parks funding and support for farmers. 

Murdock’s affordable housing platform — coined the Andrea Harris Plan — focuses on expanding renters’ rights, building public-private housing partnerships and helping homeowners keep their homes, among other things.

Murdock chatted with voters after a recent candidates forum at Duke University. Photo by Corey Pilson.

At a candidate forum held at Duke University last week, Murdock emphasized the need for safe affordable housing — one of the most high-profile  issues in Durham currently “Wages in combination with housing is really something we have to get a handle on,” she said.

Murdock’s plans and experience appealed to members of the People’s Alliance PAC, said Tom Miller, an alliance leader.

“Our members really liked the fact that Natalie has real experience in governmental and public policy making, as well as her platform,” Miller said. ”It shows networking, experience, and the ability to make decisions and get it done.” 

Launching the firm Murdock Anderson Consulting in 2017 gave Murdock a new understanding of the challenges Durham business owners face, she said at the forum.

“As a new business owner. I actually know what it feels like to go without health insurance. There were times where I chose to make payroll and not have health insurance,” she said.

Candidates for the Democratic nomination were congenial during much of the Duke candidates forum, but they made moves to distinguish themselves.

Ellis said the fact he is older than Murdock and Freelon could bolster his readiness. When Freelon noted that he favors marijuana decriminalization, Murdock quickly inserted that she did too.

“I’m somebody that’s going to boldly state my opinions – not just when it’s convenient. – and that’s what we really need,” Freelon responded.

When asked what she wanted voters to know about her at the close of  the forum, Murdock shared three numbers: twelve, four and zero. 

“It’s been twelve years since Durham has had a woman to represent them in the Senate. We only have four women of color in the Senate right now. We have zero black women under 40 in the House or the Senate,” she said. “I think we can provide our state with the representation that it needs for the marginalized.”

At top: Natalie Murdock speaking at the panel “Race, Womanhood and Deconstructing Political Barriers” earlier this month. Photo by Rebecca Schneid.

 

Shielding Durham kids from vaping addiction and illness risks

Concerned about the rise of vaping among North Carolina teenagers and younger kids, some adults in Durham are fighting back.

E-cigarette use among high schoolers in this state increased 894 percent between 2011 and 2017, according to the North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey. Among middle schoolers statewide, vaping jumped 430 percent during the same period. 

The Men’s Health Council of Durham and the Duke University Cancer Institute recently hosted a public forum titled “Smoking, Vaping & Other Inhalants: What You Need to Know.” 

“Since this is a viable product and available to everyone, we want to make sure that [kids] get this data before it is too late,” said Elvert Dorsey, chairman of the council, which promotes health among Durham men, especially black and Latino men.

Organizers handed out pamphlets, including one advising parents to remain nonjudgmental and honest when discussing e-cigarettes and to set a good example by neither smoking or vaping.

“It’s important for parents to introduce this information to their kids, even if their kid is not directly involved in this activity, because they surely know someone who is,” Dorsey told council members and parents at the Durham Human Services Building. 

Duke University pulmonologist Loretta Que urged everyone concerned about the health of young people to embrace the precautionary principle when it comes to e-cigarettes. That public health practice says when something may be harmful, steps should be taken to reduce exposure to the potential threat.

That’s true even when science hasn’t firmly established cause and effect.

“As of Nov. 13, 2019, there have been 2,172 cases of vaping related lung injuries and 42 related deaths in 24 states …  the lungs look like they have been burned in these patients that died,” Que said in a presentation. “Since substance causing these lung injuries is not known for sure yet, you should not start to vape or use an e-cigarette.”

Michael Scott, program manager of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, discussed how the tobacco industry has a long history of targeting young people with  advertising designed to make smoking look alluring. Specifically, big tobacco companies targeted young teens in order to gain life-long users, by hooking them on addictive nicotine. 

E-cigarette vendors have used using similar tactics, he said. Four out of five middle and high school students saw e-cigarette ads in 2106, in stores, on social media and in newspapers and magazines, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

JUUL for example, has used magazine ads, Instagram ads and sponsored events such as the Music in Film Summit” at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Utah to burnish its image with young consumers. Multiple states have sued JUUL, which recently changed its practices, for targeting young people with deceptive marketing. 

“Big tobacco and vape companies have to continue to recruit new customers as kids, and we want to prevent that,” Scott said. 

Scott said African Americans and members of LGBTQ+ community can also targeted by e-cigarette companies. 

“African Americans, people of low socioeconomic status, LGBT folks, Latino folks… those are the people disproportionately affected by smoking… and now vaping,” he said.

Durham has fairly progressive laws against smoking tobacco. Durham’s Board of Health in 2012 banned smoking in many outdoor public spaces, and a few indoor spaces such as public restrooms. Scott favors vaping bans too. 

“Vaping is less dangerous than smoking, but it still has its significant dangers,” Scott said. “Any anti-smoking laws need to include e-products and vaping products.”

But parents and all adults in the community can help now, Scott and Que said. Their number-one weapon for good in this domain? Education. 

“Be educated about the products that you see; be aware that these products exist, because your kids are seeing them in school and on social media. Secondly, be supportive of policies that are going to be put in place that will prevent this, such as banning menthol, banning flavors, banning e-cigarettes in general,” said Scott.

The best way to address this issue with teens is through nurturing, said Wanda Boone, executive director of Together for Resilient Youth, an organization trying to reduce substance abuse in Durham. Suspensions, expulsions and other forms of punishment in school and outside is not the right answer, she said.

“Holding young people totally accountable for smoking and vaping is like holding fish responsible for dying in a polluted stream,” Boone said. “Our responsibility is to protect them from this environment so that they have the opportunity to grow.

In that spirit, the men’s health council plans to hold more events on vaping at local schools to further spread the word on their risks.

At top: A young guy blows a dramatic vaping cloud. Photo by Micadew at Wikimedia

Javiera Caballero: Inclusion, housing for all, sustainability

Javiera Caballero can come off as soft spoken the first time that you hear her speak, especially in large panels such as last month’s Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum.

But when talking one-on-one, Caballero projects her concerns, her passions, her frustrations and her devotion to Durham with unfettered vigor. 

After moving from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children, the former Montessori-method teacher started her trek into Durham politics as the PTA president of Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School.

After longtime council member Steve Schewel was elected mayor, Caballero beat out 22 other applicants to take his seat in January 2018,  becoming Durham’s first Latinx council member. 

“The mayor said that he would really appreciate the spot going to a Latinx person in the community, and since I’m Latina, folks encouraged me to apply,” said Caballero, a mother of three whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was a child.

Durham’s Hispanic community has grown substantially in recent years. From 2000 to 2015, the Latinx population tripled in size, according to the American Community Survey and the Decennial Census, and the community now makes up 13 percent of the city’s population. 

The student group Plan for All invited Javiera Caballero to speak at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The group organizes events that link race, class, gender and more to planning projects.

Caballero has worked on a number of issues relevant to both Latinx and all Durham residents since joining the council.

“Javiera is a thoughtful consensus builder. She works with her council colleagues and treats all Durham residents with respect. Her efforts to reduce language barriers at city hall have served to promote a new culture of openness in local government,” reads the 2019 People’s Alliance PAC endorsement of her candidacy.

Caballero supported expanded access to applying for U visas, which can grant immigration status to people lacking it who are victims of crimes and can help law enforcement prosecute those crimes. She opposed HB 370, which would have forced sheriffs to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to hold detainees in jail. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the legislation.

Caballero has found her name dragged into spats she did not join during this campaign. One was between some Latinx and Black activists in Durham. In August, people from both groups argued over who the influential People’s Alliance should endorse. Eventually the PAC endorsed all three incumbents running for re-election, including Caballero.

Latino activist and filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman wrote a heated email after the meeting. Dorfman called City Council candidate Joshua Gunn a “black capitalist beholden to the chamber of commerce and the interests of big-time developers” and accused black activists that support him and Jackie Wagstaff of being “homophobic,” anti-Latinx, and “anti-immigrant.”

The incident upset Caballero. “We could hear the yelling and the negativity inside, and it was very sad to me,” she said of the heated People’s Alliance meeting. “This firing squad right now is not useful… it gets us nowhere in the long run…. Eyes on the prize, people.”

Last month, failed council primary candidate Victoria Peterson challenged Caballero’s candidacy at the Durham County Board of Elections, saying Caballero had “publicly stated not one time that she is a citizen of the United States nor has she stated the length of time she has lived in the State of North Carolina.”

Board members unanimously rejected the challenge, noting Peterson presented no evidence. “Javiera has faced these sorts of baseless claims about her citizenship throughout this election, and it’s time for our community to speak with one voice to say that enough is enough. Durham must be a city that works for everyone, and that must include our immigrant neighbors,” fellow incumbent candidate Charlie Reece wrote after the board vote.

Caballero wants voters to tune into facts regarding work she has tackled since she joined the council. That includes efforts to implement a new language access plan. Among other things, the plan ensures that interpreters at public meeting are fluent. “It basically streamlines and operationalizes how people see language in the community, so some of the requirements would be bilingual signage on the roads and buildings, and providing interpretation services at public meetings,” she said.

Caballero has also joined the push to preserve affordable housing in Durham. From 2001 to 2017, $1.7 billion was invested in downtown Durham. Though this economic development has been beneficial to many businesses in Durham, it has also boosted housing prices in and near downtown Durham.

A vocal supporter of the proposed $95 million housing bond Caballero said the money is key to expanding affordable housing here. “From the moment in February when the mayor came in and said that he was going to work on this housing bond,” Caballero said. “I was like ‘Yeah let’s do it.’ I’ve never wavered since.”  

During the Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidates forum on Oct. 17, Caballero noted that the bond fits into the council’s  Five-Year Housing StrategyDurham also should focus more on sustainability to respond to the rise of climate change, Caballero said. That would involve bringing new questions to many different council decisions, she said.

Caballero offered specific examples of such questions in her candidate questionnaire for the INDY. “As we develop affordable housing units, did we incorporate green building design practices? As we think about economic development, are we creating a business environment that is amenable to green energy jobs? Are we working with our local education partners in developing training for jobs in solar and wind tech?” she wrote.

Caballero is campaigning on the joint Bull City Together platform with fellow council incumbents Jillian Johnson and Reece. The five-year housing strategy and the housing bond are significant pieces of this platform.

In broadest terms, Caballero describes herself as someone looking for systematic solutions in Durham, rather than just temporary fixes.

“I’m not looking for just Band-Aids for issues that are just going to come back up in a year or two. That takes a lot of patience, which I know is frustrating for some people,” she said.

With only one and a half years in office, Caballero said she wants to keep going. “I’m hoping that I win, partly so that I can have four years to change things and work in the way that I’ve really wanted to,” she said.

At top: Javiera Caballero at last month’s Inter-Neighborhood Council candidate forum in Durham City Hall. Photo by Cameron Beach.