Sunday, November 11, 2012

Not Your Father's School

Duke School’s project-based approach creates bold, critical thinkers who love to learn

Word cloud created from Dave Michelman’s blog, Michelman’s Musings

Duke School serves as a leading educational institution both within Durham, N.C., and the wider educational community. Its teaching methods continue as a model for both public and other independent schools, and its unique child-centered, project-based curriculum continues to adapt to serve a variety of learning styles. 

The school has made a particular contribution to the Durham community by producing outstanding students who are independent learners, thinkers, and decision makers - helping to create a better future both for Durham and communities beyond Durham. 

The school also continues to raise consciousness about education in the Durham community and provides the expertise of its extraordinary teachers for other local schools. 

As a historic laboratory school for Duke University, Duke School maintains a longstanding goal to reach out to other educators, both local and national. Several faculty members present at conferences and some have served as consultants and published articles. 

In an effort to broaden outreach—and to further their role as a national model of integrated learning—DS actively seeks ways to share resources with other educators or interested parties. Its mission is to help children become confident, independent learners who solve real-life problems, work cooperatively with others and develop their personal talents, character and ambitions. 

“The most significant impacts for Durham are student involvement in community service, including last year’s redesign of Cornwallis Park, providing education alternatives to professionals moving into town, and partnering with other schools to help them understand our project based approach,“ said Dave Michelman, head of school. 

Connecting through community service

Beyond connecting classroom experience with real world experience, service learning at Duke School:

  • Fosters an ongoing commitment to outreach and service in the local community 
  • Provides opportunities for students to experience different types of community service 
  • Helps students gain a deeper understanding of their interests, talents, and skills 
  • Deepens every student's commitment to the global community 
  • Enhances students’ understanding of the ways community systems work, empowering them to act as advocates

Click here to watch them in action

D.S. fifth-graders partnered with the Duke Lemur Center located across Erwin Road from the Duke School campus. The fifth grade classes planted fruiting trees and bushes, and will hopefully produce a steady supply of fresh, organic fruit to supplement the lemurs’ everyday diet.            

As this particular class of Duke Schoolers moves on, subsequent classes will pick up the responsibilities of plant care and harvesting.

Josh Leffler, a fifth-grader at Duke School, talks about volunteerism in his A Kid’s View blog,

“I would say that there are two rewards. Of course it feels good, but it could change lives of people! Whether you're delivering food to underprivileged families, or teaching kids how to read, it can change their lives.”

More important than a grade

One thing that sets Duke School apart is the way the school assesses a student’s success or failure; DS does not give grades to its students nor does it conduct end-of-grade testing. Which begs the question how does Duke School measure student success? 

According to Michelman, “Student assessment is a critical part of any educational program, and a good program will have multiple ways of assessing student progress. 

Steve Waterman, a fourth-grade teacher at DS added, “In a program like Duke School’s, which is based on best practices, assessment determines what we do each and every day in our classrooms and helps us evaluate the effectiveness of our educational program.” Appropriate assessment practices include: 

  • Identify a student’s knowledge, skills, and interests. 
  • Inform the goals we set with students. 
  • Help chart student progress toward specific learning goals. 
  • Provide data to assist in program evaluation.

Learners for life

As a school that extends from preschool to eighth grade, Duke School offers an unmatched academic and social foundation in which one year builds upon the next. Eighth graders lead, role model, and contribute to the community in ways that empower each of them. Project work starts as early as preschool and grows more sophisticated each year. Per Michelman, “our small class sizes allow teachers to form close relationships with students and families—and to tailor instruction to the needs and interests of the individual. Best of all about Duke School, our students and families become part of a tight-knit community built around a shared love of learning. And that shared love of learning stays with our students for life.


For More Information on Duke School

Duke School website,

Related Links

Target Publication

Durham Herald Sun, or other local media outlet

Interview Questions:

Dave Michelman, head of school:

  • You have your law degree, what drew you to education, and more specifically Duke School?
  • Of all the changes you’ve implemented at Duke School, which one are you most proud of?
  • What do you believe Durham’s public schools can learn from Duke School’s approach to learning and the success of DS graduates?
  • What’s next for Duke School? If you could make any change at Duke School, what would it be?
  • Aside from creating bold thinkers, what is the most significant impact of Duke School on the city of Durham? Explain. 

Steve Waterman, fourth-grade teacher:

  • What is the best and worst thing about teaching at Duke School? 
  • Why is the assessment method of DS a better indicator of progress than end of grade testing? 
  • Why are you teaching at Duke School rather than at a public school or more traditional private school? 
  • How have you benefitted from Duke School’s commitment to professional development? What is your most memorable experience? 

Nicole Thompson, director of admissions

  • What is the difference between Duke School and other independent schools?
  • What is the most common question you get from prospective parents?
  • How does Duke School combat the idea that private schools are elitist?
  • Please describe how Duke School impacts the local community? 

I also attempted to contact a Duke School parent, Kelly Burling but she simply couldn’t find time to talk to me before the deadline and two other DS teachers, Geoff Berry (fourth-grade) and Debbie Marshall (kindergarten). I wanted to interview a local high school teacher but don’t have any contacts to exploit there and I ran out of time.

Additional Story Elements:

If possible, I would add:

  • Glossary that could provide definitions of project based learning and best practices for assessment
  • Possibly even a FAQ section that could include a chart explaining the options and differences among local independent schools and Durham Public Schools, as well as a comparison of project based learning vs. standard methodology
  • Could also include a sidebar feature on a DS alumnus and possibly success metrics of DS graduates 
  • Comments section for reader’s feedback 
  • Q&A feature with a community leader who can speak to how Duke School has helped the community 
  • A slideshow of a service project

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