Black History Month (BHM) has been filled with many programs and activities nationwide and locally. The origination of RN Harris Integrated Arts and Core Knowledge Magnet School in Durham, the background stories of staff and students, and their programs celebrating BHM for the past 30 years are exemplary reasons to celebrate. RN Harris is proactive at honoring, remembering, and recognizing important African-American contributions all year long. The efforts of their staff and other individuals may not be included in history books, but their commitments do not lessen the impact of creating a nurturing and effective education system for underprivileged children.
To start the commendable contributions stories, the magnet school is named after Rencher Nicholas Harris (1900 – 1965), who was, according to the history at RN Harris School, “a prominent member of the black business community in Durham, NC where he was active in civic and political affairs. In 1953, he became the first African-American to be elected to the Durham City Council. In 1958, only a little more than a year since he had left the City Council, Harris was appointed to the Durham City School Board to fill an unexpired term. On the School Board Harris became increasingly insistent that public schools be completely desegregated.”
Carolyn Pugh has been a staff member at RN Harris for 30 years and the current principal for 395 students ranging from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Pugh started as a teacher, became a lead teacher, and then was appointed as the assistant principal. Push talks about the students and calls them her “babies.” She said, “What I can say (about their background) is that 83% are ‘free and reduced lunch,’ which is considered a high-poverty school.” However, regardless of the classification, RN Harris won the Urban School of Excellence award in May 2012, about which Pugh said, “No school in North Carolina has ever won that award.” She attributes their high proficiency rate to the core curriculum, teachers, and staff.
The behind-the-scenes and real-life stories at RN Harris provide a glimpse of a version of disparity in America. The good news is that a long list of caring and compassionate people is trying to contribute to solutions, sometimes to daunting problems. Along with teachers (30) and staff, Pugh’s commitment and leadership style are evident as she explains her priorities: “To ensure that the students are successful and that no matter what, every day, they come into the building, and when they go home, they experience some degree of success.” The school has their own anthem, which they sing each morning, called, “Push It to the Limit,” which also sums up Pugh’s proactive and solution-driving attitude.
The approach to RN Harris’s teaching methods and philosophy is called Core Knowledge Education, about which Pugh stated, “We integrate art into classroom instructions and into common core standards and core curriculum” (ex. language arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music, visual arts, etc). “Regardless of the high poverty, we have to use the core knowledge curriculum, which promotes excellence and fairness in education. It levels the playing fields between the ‘haves and have not’. You may have affluent families that expose their children to a lot (and) they have a strong foundation of knowledge. Then you have middle-class to low income that can’t (provide) such exposure for their children. But through our core knowledge, we’re able to expose all children regardless of ethnic background, and it does not matter what obstacles may get in the way. We’re able to expose to them (cultural and educational offerings). What knowledge does for the brain is what exercise does for the body. The more you know, the easier it is to learn,” said Pugh.
In their curriculum they strive to establish strong foundations at an early age, Pugh explains, “Because that’s when children are receptive – but it (requires) specific curriculum.” Integrating the studies of diverse cultures is another focus which helps to create what Pugh calls “creating a common ground for communication.” “Because we are in a diverse society, we develop an appreciation for all cultures in order to understand to make a positive contribution. That’s what we try to teach the children,” she said.
Today, as in the past 30 years, RN Harris celebrates Black History Month with a program inspired by teachers, staff, students, and whoever has a good idea and is willing to help, like a home-grown team creation process. Elizabeth Vick is one of the main program coordinators for the concert this year. As a music teacher, her priorities for the children are to “explore and to create” with the arts and “learn about the world around them.” This year their program is called “The Journey to Freedom.” Vick explains, “For the concert, we’re tapping into their units of studies and mixed whatever they’re doing for Black History Month. We’ll connect to the core knowledge curriculum in some way. This year’s program includes third, fourth, and fifth graders. For example, the performance creation goes like this: In fourth-grade, they’re studying ancient Africa and learning about the African dances, and we have chosen the Lion King melodies to sing and dance. The third-graders are studying Civil War and African history and I’m working with them on songs of the islands during the time of the slave trade. The Caribbean islands were part of the slave trade in America and songs reflect the work songs and spirituals. The fifth-graders are studying westward expansions that go into to the 50’s and incorporating music like jazz and a history tour of music (including other genre music of those times).” Their Suzuki String Violin Orchestra will also be part of the performance held on February 27th at the Holton Career and Resource Center at 401 N. Driver St Durham at 6:30pm.
When asked what rehearsals are like with 100 children from ages four to ten years old, Pugh stated, “They have not pulled their hairs out yet but probably came close.” Vick graciously added, “The process is dynamic and it takes a lot of patience. They are like little sponges and quick to pick up everything, quicker than adults. Every student can be in the concert. We don’t have try outs. Only thing they have to do is to have permission from the parents.”
The biggest production challenge is, “Time, and there’s never enough time to work with them,” said Vick. “There is a constant flow of things happening and it takes patience.” But after all that is said and done, she said, “You get to see the growth in the child and their self-esteem. They can view themselves up onstage and are able to stand up and sing and perform. That translates into everyday life and, hopefully, that experience will go with them when they become adults. They will be more productive in the workforce, and in anything that they want to do and apply that knowledge.”
Beyond academics, valuable lessons also come from being immersed in real-life situations and cultures. Vick offers meaningful and relevant wisdom: “Some children don’t blossom until they get older, and in elementary they may be quiet and timid. Then they go to high school and their personality comes forth. You never know who you’re touching or what that child is going to become. All you’re doing is nurturing the little seed that’s going to grow. There’s no formula for it. You help that child along the best way that you can.”
When Ms. Pugh was asked, “What do you need from the community as a whole – for example, education system, parents, businesses, politicians, etc.” she offered the reminder that it truly “takes a community to raise a child.”
• “If I wanted something from our community, one is financial support for things like arts programs like residence artist programs and to bring in a variety of speakers to school which can get costly.”
• Two, “I need human beings to mentor students and volunteers. We have a nature field that has not been fixed for eight years with learning stations. We have raised beds for gardening that has not been completed to teach children about planting and growing vegetables. We would research and grow a rich harvest to weigh the vegetables which ties in the math and deliver them to elderly in our surrounding areas to give back.”
• They want their story out to the public and outside of the system that has not been heard.
R.N. Harris Integrated Arts, Core Knowledge Magnet School
1520 Cooper St Durham, NC 27703 919-560-3967 http://harris.dpsnc.net
More Related Resources and Information:
A Must Listen Podcast: “How Charter Schools Are Changing Public Education”
Frank Stasio is the host of the radio broadcast of “The State of Things” and Alex Granados is the producer. The story, “How Charter Schools Are Changing Public Education” aired on WUNC 91.5, provides more in-depth information about charter schools, and emerging trends and its ramifications and influences on the education system in North Carolina.
From the program information on their website, “Frank Stasio talks about charter schools with Dave Dewitt, WUNC’s education reporter; Barry Smith, an associate editor at Carolina Journal; and Helen Ladd, Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy.”
“Seventy new charter schools have applied to become part of North Carolina’s growing population of alternative public schools. For the longest time, the number of charter schools in the state was capped at 100, but lawmakers changed that back in 2011.
“The cap is gone now. Never to return most likely,” said WUNC Education Reporter Dave Dewitt on The State of Things. “So there are going to be a lot more charter schools.”
From the Core Knowledge Foundation, “The idea behind Core Knowledge is simple and powerful: knowledge builds on knowledge. The more you know, the more you are able to learn. This insight, well-established by cognitive science, has profound implications for teaching and learning. Nearly all of our most important goals for education–greater reading comprehension, the ability to think critically and solve problems, even higher test scores–are a function of the depth and breadth of our knowledge.”