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Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic

On April 16, the Durham Public Schools Foundation, Food Insight Group, and the Durham Hotel began providing breakfast and lunch to local students in a new partnership called Durham FEAST. 

The announcement came after Durham Public Schools struggled to maintain a safe food distribution program.

Durham Public Schools had been offering free meals to students since March 23. But after learning that an employee at Bethesda Elementary School had contracted the coronavirus, the school system discontinued the program in early April.

Local families didn’t know where their next meal would come from. So several organizations stepped up. 

The DPS Foundation, a community-led nonprofit that supports the school system, took on the bulk of student food distribution. It ramped up its weekly food delivery program to deliver meals to 1,500 families, and then joined the Durham FEAST initiative.

A Riverside High School senior Elijah King also offered his own solution, partnering with local businesses to start the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative. They set up shop in front of Geer Street Garden and distribute sandwiches. 

And Catholic Charities and Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina continue their food pantries.

They don’t know how long school cafeterias and local restaurants will be closed, but these distribution services anticipate working for the long haul. 

“In any instance when something like the coronavirus is happening in Durham, the community comes together,” said King. “It’s like New York, but on a very small scale.”

A community FEAST

As Durham FEAST launched its partnership on Thursday, thousands of Durham families flocked to DPS schools — while staying six feet apart — to pick up free breakfast and lunch from Durham restaurants. The provisions are meant to serve all children under 18 years old for several days. 

The Restaurant at The Durham, Monuts, Spicy Green, Southern Harvest Catering, and Beyu Caffe were first to offer meals. Kids may have a buckle streusel, a banana muffin, or overnight oats for breakfast. Lunch options included quinoa chicken or vegetarian spinach alfredo pasta. Family-style casseroles and shelf ingredients were also available. 

Depending on the location, pick-ups are on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. Some locations open at 11 a.m. and others at 12 p.m. Volunteers drive meals to families that are unable to pick up food.

“The main thing that we need right now is even more volunteers, especially with the new announcement,” said Katie Spencer Wright, communications manager for the DPS Foundation.

Over 900 volunteers pitched in during the DPS Foundation’s previous program, including Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull and Durham City Council members Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

“Everyone is happy to be out of the house and enjoying working together on this, which is what we need to do,” said Spencer Wright. “We need to have each other’s backs.” 

Community donations are also essential to support the ongoing program. Funds go toward meals and paying restaurant employees’ wages.

Over 1,100 Durham community members have donated funds to the meal program. Mayor Steve Schewel announced he’d match all donations up to $10,000 to the previous initiative. Durham songwriter and DPS dad Hiss Golden Messenger pledged all proceeds from his new record to the meal effort. (Spencer Wright says it’s “great quarantine music.”)

Federal school meal funding and Durham County also back the initiative.

A student-run initiative

As the coronavirus escalated in Durham, King, a Riverside High School senior, became concerned about small businesses. He wondered how he could support local restaurants while addressing community food shortages.

He presented a couple ideas to friends and businesses: An ad campaign? Business partnerships?

“Everyone shot them down,” he said.

Then, he thought of Grant Ruhlman, the owner of Homebucha Kombucha. Ruhlman had heard King speak at a climate strike and told King to reach out if he ever needed help.

Together, Ruhlman and King decided to work with local businesses to provide free lunches. Homebucha Kombucha, Lil Farm, and Geer Street Garden joined in the effort, which they named Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative.

Every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they set up outside Geer Street Garden and distribute about 100 meals. Community members wait for food, standing in distanced lines and listening to amplified music. 

Lunch selections vary day-by-day, including pimento cheese, turkey, or BLT sandwiches. Sides may be yogurt, bread, fresh fruit, or veggies.

The initiative runs on monetary donations to provide food from the farm and restaurants. 

Within a week of announcing the initiative, their GoFundMe campaign burgeoned, reaching nearly $35,000 in donations. That would cover sandwiches, masks, water bottles, and four employees’ wages for a couple weeks. 

“But as soon as we pay all of the bills this week, that money is going to be gone,” King said. 

He needs to raise more money to keep the initiative running until May 15. If he runs into trouble, he’ll consider decreasing the production cost of meals.

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages. That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making,” King said.

Other resources

Local food banks continue offering meals and accepting donations during the pandemic.

The Durham Community Food Pantry reopened April 10 after issuing new guidelines to protect volunteers and clients from the virus. The pantry, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, operates from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

As of April 9, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina had distributed 11,132 boxes of 20 meals each during the coronavirus outbreak. They operate in a 34-county region and work with local nutritionists to determine needs.

At top: Volunteers distribute meals at Glenn Elementary School as part of a new DPS Foundation initiative to address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Corey Pilson, The 9th Street Journal

Durham public schools to start student lunch delivery

Starting Monday, yellow school buses will once again stream to all corners of Durham County. This time they won’t be carrying children, they’ll be delivering needed food. 

Durham Public Schools is launching a meal delivery and pick-up program that will provide lunch and a snack to schoolchildren every weekday until at least March 30.

Meals will be made available at “Grab and Go” sites at 17 schools and 50 “mobile sites,” mostly apartment complexes and recreation centers. 

In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, all North Carolina public schools are closed until at least March 30.

The unplanned closures leave gaps in more than lessons and test-taking. Approximately two-thirds of Durham Public School (DPS) students qualify for free and reduced school lunches, compared to the state average of 57% in 2018 .

Durham school leaders want to continue the meal programming until schools are reopened, but whether that happens depends on if they get funding, said Board of Education member Natalie Beyer. If the federal government does not come through, the public schools will have to look for local funding to continue, she said.

Beyer said school board members hope to have answers on funding by Thursday. 

Durham is not alone in mobilizing food delivery while public schools are closed. Many surrounding counties have similar plans, according to a News & Observer report.

Organizers identified low-income neighborhoods and housing complexes and designed the plan to serve “our most in-need and vulnerable students,” Chip Sudderth, the school system’s chief communications officer explained in an email.

The locations of displaced McDougald Terrace families, who left their public housing apartments for hotels across the city in January, were also taken into account when strategizing the site locations, Beyer said.

This past weekend, the Durham Public School Foundation and other nonprofits delivered meals to families that needed them immediately. DPS needed 34 volunteers and they got over 600, according to a tweet from Durham County Public Schools.

The foundation shared photographs of volunteers wiping down steering wheels and car interiors.

In the midst of this coronavirus outbreak, social distancing will be a mandatory ingredient at meal pick ups. Sudderth said the district is advising people visiting the mobile sites to not gather in groups larger than 10.

“Crowds and lines will not help this situation, and DPS staff will wait to serve until students are organized,” he wrote.

Along with the food, students will receive school work packets. The contents aren’t intended to teach new material and do not require access to the internet or technology. 

This meals program is not completely unprecedented. The school district has summer meal programs, Beyer said. The USDA-funded summer meals program ensures students still receive breakfast, lunch, and snacks even when school is not in session. 

The impromptu program won’t fill all the gaps that opened after schools closed. DPS has universal free breakfast which students will not receive this week, said Beyer. Surrounding counties such as Wake and Johnston counties are including breakfast in their programs, however.

At top: A screenshot of a portion of the sites where Durham Public Schools are making food available for students. The entire list is here.

He won with People’s Alliance support, then lost without it

Early this month, the local People’s Alliance political action committee once again displayed its influence on Durham elections.

By a wide margin, voters selected first-time candidate Alexandra Valladares, who was endorsed by the political action committee, to win an at-large seat on Durham’s Board of Education on March 3. 

Valladares beat incumbent Steven Unruhe, who Mayor Steve Schewel, former Mayor Bill Bell, fellow school board members and the Durham Association of Educators all endorsed. The left-leaning People’s Alliance supported him in 2016 but not this year, despite wide appreciation for his contributions to the school board.

“He is among the finest teachers in the memory of Durham’s public school system. And he was an excellent school board member,” said Tom Miller, a coordinator for People’s Alliance.

Valladares, an educator and high-profile volunteer leader in the schools, was the better candidate partly because the school board lacked a Latinx member, Miller said. Durham Public Schools identifies more than 32% of its students as “Hispanic/Latino.”

“It is a reasonable expectation, where an excellent candidate is available, to have the school board reflect, at least in one member, that makeup of the constituency,” he said.

Valladares, a Durham Public Schools graduate and a DPS parent, has worked with BOOST, a Duke University program that encourages middle school students to pursue training in science and medicine. She has led multiple district projects as a volunteer, including convening a Superintendent-Parent Forum series for Latinx families.

A former resident of McDougald Terrace, a musician, and a Human Relations Commission member, Valladares emphasized the need for Latinx leadership during her campaign for the seat.

“Ya es Hora!,” was one of her campaign slogans. In English that means “It is time!

Unruhe, a national-award winning educator, taught at Northern and Riverside high schools over 29 years. During four years on the board, he helped revise the budget to increase funding for the construction of new two schools, among other accomplishments.  

Both competed for the People’s Alliance endorsement, one of many decided during the PAC’s Jan. 14 meeting, where over 600 members were present.

This year, the decision about who to endorse for the at-large school board seat was difficult for PAC members, Miller said. 

Steven Unruhe logged many high-profile endorsements during his re-election campaign, but the People’s Alliance backed Alexandra Alladares this time.

Valladares did not comment for this article, despite multiple requests for an interview. But Unruhe was frank in his disappointment in the close nominating vote he lost. “I have serious reservations about this process because the vote in endorsing was 51% to 49%. That somehow translated in the minds of People’s Alliance organization into a 100% endorsement of my opponent,” Unruhe said. 

Disagreement over who should win on March 3 bloomed on social media after the endorsement vote. 

On Jan. 27, a letter posted on a Facebook account named Miel Etant Possum asked alliance members to support Unruhe, despite him losing PA’s endorsement. 

While it is rare for many of us to support a candidate outside of the PA endorsements, we feel in this case that Steve is a much stronger candidate,” the letter said. “We believe Steve represents the values that are at the heart of the PA and a progressive Durham.”

The letter, no longer public, was signed by 110 people. 

On Feb. 1 Ronda Taylor Bullock, a scholar who works to reduce racism in schools, published a letter on Facebook promoting Valladares. She argued that there was a clear racial dimension to the school board race and that voting for Unruhe would support white supremacy in Durham. 

“I’m arguing that from a critical whiteness lens, this is indeed an act of upholding white supremacy,” the former Hillside High School teacher wrote. “There are currently zero Latinx board members and by supporting a white male, folks are saying this is OK for a district that’s 33% Latinx.

Her letter was signed by 167 people.

Unruhe said what he perceived as “the nastiness” of the campaign solidified his decision to not run for elected office again.

Miller acknowledged the divisiveness of the endorsement process and election in this school board race. The political landscape in Durham has shifted, he said. 

“Years and years ago, we chose progressive candidates to run against candidates being promoted by conservative organizations,” he said. 

The school board race, however, highlights how multiple progressive and qualified candidates are now running against each other which makes the People’s Alliance endorsement more challenging.

“To make it more difficult for our members to choose from among progressive candidates who are longstanding and effective and loved members of our own organization,” he said. 

However, Miller said he envisions that unity is ahead.  

“As difficult as this decision about this school board contest has been, moving forward, it’s going to be one People’s Alliance committed together to support progressive change,” he predicted.

School assignment shifts, more changes ahead for Durham public schools

At 10 am at Creekside Elementary School cafeteria, one class begins to eat lunch as other students finish up their breakfast. 

At a school that is 200 students over capacity, the Creekside cafeteria cannot fit all students at once. So the lunch cycle starts early and continues in waves until the last sit-down at 12:40 pm.

To alleviate crowded hallways and trailer park classrooms, Durham Public Schools is redrawing the student boundary maps for Creekside and Githens Middle School to reduce how many children can enroll at each.

Lots of changes are brewing for Durham Public Schools this year and next. The district is addressing several core issues beyond overcrowding, including retaining more children in district schools, expanding access to programming and resources, and reducing class sizes.

Even though Durham County is growing — by an estimated  23,221 people from 2015 to 2020 —enrollment in district schools dropped by 698 students during that period. For one, families have more choices than ever. Parents can consider district, charter and private schools, among other options.

Along with student retention, district officials want to expand equity. In 2017 the Durham Public Schools Office of Equity Affairs opened with the mission to provide equal opportunity and experiences for all students. 

The Barbershop Talk Series program, where students, administrators and parents share observations about discrimination, is one way the district is bringing disparities to the forefront.

The wider goal is to balance school demographics to ensure that students of all races and income levels share the best of school resources, from lower teacher to student ratios to the length of school bus rides and classroom supplies.

Overcrowding at Creekside impacts all corners, from the cafeteria to art classrooms. Due to the large class sizes, students are no longer able to take two year-long art and music classes. Instead, the subjects are taught in one course, said Rhonda Woodell, the Creekside PTA president. 

In the parking lot, two fourth-grade classes and all fifth-grade classes meet in trailer park classrooms. Creekside also faces a challenge each year to balance the student-to-teacher ratio per grade. Some years, four first-grade teachers are needed, while other years it could be six. 

“It’s been a chess game every year for administration,” said Woodellt. 

Source: Durham Public Schools

Boundary reassignment sounds like a simple solution, but it is a puzzle with complex pieces. Multiple factors get considered in all this planning: student enrollment, age and capacity of schools, driving distance to school, and the overarching emphasis on equity, Palmer said. 

“It’s an operation research riddle,”  he said. 

Palmer, alongside Julius Monk, chief operating officer for the district, presented their boundary change proposal for Creekside and Githens to the Durham School Board in October. Board members approved boundary shifts with a 4-3 vote in November.  

To reduce enrollment at Creekside, the change will be pretty straightforward. The Parkwood Elementary School boundary will expand to accommodate more students. Families who live east of the intersection of Scott King and Herndon Road will now send their children to Parkwood instead of Creekside, which will save driving time for some. 

Change at Githens requires increasing the student enrollment boundary for Brogden Middle School, which is more complex than it sounds. Six elementary schools feed into Githens and the district is considering three possible adjustments.

Ultimately the number of elementary schools that feed into Brogden will increase from three to five. The number of elementary schools that feed into Githens will decrease from six to four. 

State mandates regarding class sizes in North Carolina schools makes school boundary changes more urgent.  A law passed in March 2018 has begun to reduce the average size and maximum capacity of K-3 classrooms over four years.  

For the 2020-2021 school year, the average class size should be 18 students per teacher, with classrooms capped at 21 students. 

That further complicates the planning process, Palmer said. “It becomes what we call a tri-level optimization. So we have to first fit the kids in the classroom, then we have to fit the classroom in the school,” he said. 

Throughout the fall, DPS invited parents to Board of Education meetings and solicited feedback via surveys regarding the coming changes. Not all parents agreed with the shifts, but many recognized the complex challenges. 

With plans for the construction of a new elementary school within the next few years, some parents have voiced concerns that their children could be reassigned multiple times while in elementary school. 

At a public hearing in November, parent Jessica Simo asked why her children may have to switch from Creekside to Parkwood to a new school set to open within the next few years. 

“This proposed plan to redistrict around 50 families seems like putting a Band-aid on an open wound for overcrowding,” she said, adding that it “might not accomplish that much other than upsetting a group of families.”

The reassignment project is a small piece in a larger puzzle and the district is doing its best to meet everyone’s needs, Palmer said.

“If you’re looking at Mount Everest, you have to have base camps as you work your way up the mountain,” he said. 

At top: Pascal Mubenga, Durham schools superintendent, has met with staff, teachers and community members  to discuss overcrowding, student assignments and school boundaries. One event occurred at Lakewood Elementary School last fall. Photo by Durham Public Schools

The barbershop: A space for honest conversation about bias in Durham schools

When Jermaine Porter wanted to better understand the experience of boys of color in Durham Public Schools, he asked them.

Not in just any setting, but in barbershop chairs. “In our community, in barbershops you just talk about anything you want,” he said. 

Porter is the boys of color initiative coordinator for Durham Public Schools, a job focused on building support systems for students who don’t always feel bolstered at school.

With Daniel Bullock, executive director for equity affairs, Porter invited administrators, male students and parents to speak their minds at three public events this year. At each, panel members sat in black leather barbershop chairs while answering questions.

Listening to students’ honest words wasn’t always easy. “I walk around with a target on my back,” Donte Alexander, now a high school junior, said at a session in April.

Yet even that tough news was helpful. “We gave students the floor and listened to them, listened to their perspective, listened to the advice they gave for how to improve outcomes for boys of color,” Bullock said. 

What Porter and others learned helped shape training on implicit bias for principals and assistant principals this year. It also spawned a leadership program for middle and high school students.  

Jermaine Porter, boys of color initiative coordinator for Durham Public Schools, stands in front of students Ronald Hernandez Solarzano and Donte Alexander. Photo by Truitt Avery O’Neal for Durham Public Schools Office of Public Affairs

Getting started 

Porter and Bullock launched Barbershop Talk Series: Building Systems to Support Boys of Color in February. The first session featured school administrators. In April five high school students took the stage. In October, parents spoke.

This was one response to the 2018–2023 Durham Public Schools strategic plan, which includes a call for more programming to help address disparities experienced by students of color. In 2016–2017, for instance, the suspension rate for all students was 8.44%. However, 17.18% of black males were suspended and 6.14% of Hispanic males, according to the district.

At first, Porter and his team were unsure how many people would attend an optional Tuesday night talk. But when they opened the doors for the first session at the Holton Career and Resource Center, over 200 people filled the audience.  

For the second event, principals nominated students from various schools. Porter ensured that boys with varying degrees of academic success joined the panel to better understand a range of experiences.

As a former basketball coach, teacher and school administrator, Porter said he’s concluded that relationships are at the heart of a student’s success. 

“If a student is sleeping on the floor with no electricity, they do not care what x equals. But you wouldn’t know that if you had not built the relationship with the student,” he said. 

Students speak 

Michael Graham, a senior last spring, said misjudgment from teachers was something he struggled with throughout his years attending Durham schools. He was once escorted out of class because a teacher falsely assumed he had drugs on him, he said.  

“The teacher only thought that about me because of my skin color or how because of the way I chose to act or because the vernacular that I choose to use,” he said. 

David Madzivanyika, also a senior, said he’d endured flawed flash judgment too. “Why should a teacher be surprised when a boy of color is doing well in their class when we are in the class every day, and we are learning the same material?” asked Madzivanyika, who enrolled at Harvard University this fall.

Daniel Bullock, executive director for equity affairs, (standing) and Durham Public Schools superintendent Pascal Mubenga (seated) with students and Porter after the April event. Photo by Truitt Avery O’Neal for Durham Public Schools Office of Public Affairs

Negative assumptions about academic promise are too common, Graham said. “In a public school system where it can be predominantly white, you can’t just be smart. Even if you were smarter than those who aren’t your skin color, ‘Oh he’s cheating’,” Graham said. 

But some teachers do build bonds, the young men said. Alexander recalled the first time a teacher connected with him in seventh grade. He did it by drawing analogies between classwork and something they had in common – playing Madden NFL on a PlayStation. 

When Bullock and Porter developed training on implicit bias for principals and assistant principals this summer, they included videos from the Barbershop Talk events.  

The series also sparked a new program called We Are Kings. Middle and high school participants have access to additional academic resources like field trips, guest speakers and college tours. Bullock and Porter are brainstorming how to expand opportunities for more students. 

They may host another series too, though which format they’ll select is not yet clear. 

We have the potential for even more people to be involved, and attend and to expand the conversation,” Bullock said.

At top: Students Michael Graham, Ronald Hernandez Solarzano, David Madzivanyik and Donte Alexander (left to right) at the Barbershop Talk Series event in April. Photo by Truitt Avery O’Neal for Durham Public Schools Office of Public Affairs

At Lakewood Elementary School, Spanish and English speakers learn together

After kindergarteners take their seats at a small octagonal table at Lakewood Elementary School, their teacher tells them in Spanish to pick up a blue crayon and fill in worksheets. 

One student dives into coloring an octopus. Hesitantly, the remaining four begin to understand what is expected and follow his lead. 

“Thumbs up if you understand,” instructor Heidi Miles says, after seeing the blank expressions. “Entender a los instructors,” she quickly adds.

No child in class comprehends both sentences. Not yet. This kindergarten classroom is Lakewood’s first dual-language immersion class. Half the students are fluent in English, half in Spanish. Upon leaving Lakewood after fifth grade, all are expected to read, speak and write proficiently in both.

Kindergarten students gather on the carpet to review Spanish vocabulary. Photo by Cameron Beach

In kindergarten, 90% of the material is taught in Spanish, and the remaining 10% in English. As the students become more proficient in both languages, the ratio of Spanish to English will become more even by fifth grade. 

The Durham School Board approved the dual-language classroom at Lakewood in April, alongside the expansion of an existing program at Southwest Elementary School and another new program at Bethesda Elementary School. 

Two Durham school student parents, Rocio Evans and Linda Stone, as well as district staff advocated for dual-immersion classrooms at a school board meeting in March. Kimberly Marion, director of academic and magnet programs, briefed board members on the benefits of having children who speak different languages learn together in the same space. 

Such programs promote academic achievement, biliteracy,  strengthens brain development, improves overall school performance and more, according to a slideshow Marion presented at the meeting.  

Marion also cited a 2012 study by Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier of George Mason University, which concluded that dual-language education is the most effective way for students to acquire a second language. Students engage with a new language in all subjects, including math and science. After classroom observation and research,  Thomas and Collier concluded that the earlier students begin this type of language study, the more effective it is.

“This program is a game changer on so many levels,” said James Hopkins, principal of Lakewood, a school that jumped 18 points on the grading scale of the North Carolina school report card over the past year.

Twenty-three kids are in the new class. Admission was decided through a lottery that was partly random but also had specific diversity targets, according to the lottery application.

This Lakewood Elementary School second-grade classroom is typical of the school’s diverse student body; 88 percent of students last year identified as Hispanic or black. Photo by Cameron Beach.

The 35 initial applicants were divided into native Spanish speakers and native English speakers, with the intended goal of splitting the classroom 50/50 according to the lottery application. Racial diversity was also considered when selecting students, as district leaders wanted a class that is  representative of Lakewood’s demographics, which during the last school year was 53.2% Hispanic, 35% black and 7.7% white.  

Durham Public Schools partnered with Participate Learning, to launch the programs. The educational consulting company has helped launch similar classes elsewhere in North Carolina. 

Participate helped Lakewood hire Fátima Martínez, the new dual-immersion teacher who is from Spain. It also briefed parents on the programs’ structures and goals. 

Participate helps manage parental expectations about their children’s progress, Hopkins said. Despite initial struggles, parents were told that they would see significant development in language comprehension around November and December. 

“The transformation is an amazing thing to witness because the first day of school, the kids know zero. And then at the end of the year in May the kids are not only able to understand, but they can now take the language and communicate with each other,” said Carlos Ramirez, director of educational programs for Participate, during an interview at Lakewood this month.

Miles, the program’s coordinator, is in the classroom each day, and particularly helps those, like her, who are not native Spanish speakers. From the first day of school, she has watched kids who never spoke Spanish previously absorb vocabulary to follow Martínez’s instructions. 

Miles is already seeing bonds grow between children who likely would have had more trouble communicating just weeks ago too. “You see that friendship and that bond of kids saying ‘that’s not what she meant’ or kids who can speak a little bit of English and Spanish, they can support each other,” she said. 

To strengthen such links, Miles is working with parents to establish a buddy program to pair the families of students in class. The hope is that parents will develop relationships and help each other in navigating the ups and downs of a class that will remain together through 5th grade. 

For Hopkins, offering  a six-year dual-immersion program is an additional way to ignite interest in his neighborhood school. “I was very adamant that Lakewood remain a neighborhood for 1,001 reasons. This program is for my families,” he said. 

Hopkins predicts increased enrollment for next year’s class, which will be one metric he will use to assess the program’s progress. 

Participate will assess the program each year to ensure that students are meeting comprehension benchmarks. After kindergarten and first grade, Participate will test on site words – common words such as the, as, and is – before moving onto oral and reading assessments beginning in second grade.

“By the time they are in fifth grade they are bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural,” Ramirez said. 

After the students finish coloring, Martínez starts singing the class clean up song. Students clap along, but only some join in with Spanish.

Together, though, they rise from their seats, finding their assigned spots in a line marked by stickers on the floor. As they wait to go outside for recess, a Spanish flag hangs next to the door, and their clean up song comes to an end.

At top, kindergarten teacher Fátima Martínez reviews vocabulary with her students who are learning both Spanish and English in a new dual immersion classroom at Lakewood Elementary School. Photo by Cameron Beach.

Corrections: This article originally misstated by how much Lakewood Elementary School improved on the grading scale of the North Carolina school report card in the past year. Lakewood’s score rose by 18 points. The article also misstated Carlos Ramirez’s title at Participate Learning. He is director of educational programs.

 

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 ‘Ms. Xenia’ keeps the community together at Forest View Elementary

In a back hallway at Forest View Elementary School, a small boy sits at a desk outside the assistant principal’s office, his shoulders slumped under a gray hoodie and his feet dangling above the floor.

Xenia Carcamo, a school custodian, stops and whispers something in his ear. He smiles.

This is part of her magic, a sign of how she connects with the students at Forest View. She says this spot is where teachers send students who are having difficulty in class.

“Some students have behavior problems, and I always try to go closer to them,” she says. “Maybe in their family, they don’t have attention, or they don’t have love. And maybe they want to find that in the school, so I don’t have a problem giving it to them.”

In her 13 years at Forest View, Carcamo has become a vital part of the community, playing a role much larger than her title might suggest. She knows almost all of the students by name, and they refer to her affectionately as “Ms. Xenia.”

By state standards, Forest View is an average school, having received a “C” for performance in 2017-18. But the grades don’t tell the full story.

There are 40 different countries represented among the school’s more than 750 students. The student body is 36 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 21 percent black and 7 percent Asian.

Forest View is a melting pot of cultures. Now the school’s lead custodian, Carcamo knits the diverse community together as a translator, as an inspiration, and as a friend to everyone.

Carcamo is tall, with a round face and a big smile that makes her eyes squint. She says she came to the United States from El Salvador in 1997 and worked at a sunglasses company in New York for nine years.

Her move was complicated by some unexpected twists, which she recalls with tears in her eyes. First she separated from her husband. Then her daughter, 6 years old at the time, developed brain cancer. She died seven years later.

Looking for a fresh start, Carcamo moved her two other children once more, this time to North Carolina. She says she hoped to get a job with the state government, but her difficulty speaking English got in the way. Instead, she sent a job-seeking note to Forest View with her son, who was a student. Later that same day, she went in for her first interview.

Since her hiring, Carcamo has bounced between full-time and part-time jobs as a custodian and also as a member of the cafeteria staff. She says she takes pride in her work, and that she feels protective of the school’s students, especially after losing a child of her own.

“If they need something, I’m always there,” she says.

She says the children — especially the native Spanish speakers — go to her when they’re sad or distressed. Teachers do the same when they need help getting through to their students.

“Sometimes the teachers come to me and say, ‘Xenia, can you help with this? Can you ask him why he’s sad or why he’s crying?” she says.

On one occasion, she says a boy named Justin asked her for a second breakfast during her shift in the cafeteria. Speaking in Spanish, she asked why he needed a second helping. He said his mother hadn’t been feeding him properly at home.

“I’m always keeping my eyes on them,” Carcamo says of students like Justin. “In some countries, you can see or you have to live with what I call the hungry face. If you never see the hungry face, you can’t understand how these kids feel.”

Her workday starts at 10 a.m., but she says she regularly arrives at 8:30 a.m. and stays late into the evening.

“My goal is to have everything ready so they can come into a safe place, a clean place,” she says. “So if I have to work extra hours, I don’t care nothing about it.”

Carcamo and Ronnie Winston, assistant principal of Forest View Elementary School. (Photo: Katie Nelson).

Forest View’s students, teachers and administrators love her dedication. “She always puts the students first and she takes pride in her work,” says assistant principal Ronnie Winston, who has known and supported her since her move to North Carolina.

Carcamo says she has a special place in her heart for children, which makes it easier for her to go the extra mile. But just as she supports Forest View’s students, she’s also become a go-to resource for Hispanic candidates applying for custodial positions in Durham.

She says she’s recruited several people to positions in Durham public schools, including multiple members of Forest View’s six-person custodial staff. “The first thing that I always say is, if you can help somebody go to the next step, why not?” she says.

Winston says Carcamo’s recruiting has been helpful, and that he knows any candidate she’s recommended will work hard to keep the school clean.

“If Xenia says so, I don’t question it,” he says. “I know they’re going to do a good job.”

Durham’s custodial jobs have been more attractive since the district recently switched from an outside contractor to an in-house model, Carcamo says. Now that custodians work directly for the district, they get better benefits, such as insurance and the ability to take more sick days.

That’s important, she says, because it’s easy for custodians to find themselves being taken for granted.

“Sometimes, some people make you feel like, ‘Oh, she’s custodian, I can throw away this one here and they get paid to clean,’” she says. “Some people, they are like that. But people are people and you need to respect everybody.”

Students at Forest View expressed their gratitude for the custodians on staff with a key-shaped poster. (Photo: Katie Nelson).

But at Forest View, Carcamo feels like she’s earned everybody’s respect. She adores her role, and she says she’s never considered leaving, even as other opportunities have popped up.

“I always say this is my family,” she says.

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.”

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.”