Lowe's Grove Middle School teacher Jenny Duvall congratulates eighth grader Julius Borunda on his rendition of symbols of activity in the human brain.

Former state senator Howard Lee works to make these Durham schools ‘challenging enough’

Decades of experience in education and state politics have led Howard Lee to some strong opinions on education.

“Schools aren’t challenging enough,” Lee said. “Schools don’t want to put kids in a position to fail. But sometimes the greatest lessons are in failure.”

So Lee, a former mayor of Chapel Hill and state senator who also chaired the state Board of Education, started a program to help the students he thinks most in need of a challenge – low-income students with high potential. With grants and donations, Lee picked the two Durham middle schools with the highest percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunch, Lowe’s Grove and Neal. Most of the students in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes are minorities.

At Lowe’s Grove in south Durham, the STEM Scholars meet in the 1903 wooden red schoolhouse next to the sprawling modern school. There is a waiting list for three classes, one each for sixth, seventh and eighth grades. They meet daily and are limited to 15 students.

Veteran teacher Jennifer Duvall greets each student by name as they enter the schoolhouse. Many respond with hugs.

The classes veer from intense silence and concentration to raucous group projects. An engineering project entailed building a tower from uncooked spaghetti, masking tape and string. A volunteer from software giant SAS taught students to create apps on tablets. The ping pong and drawing apps were especially successful.

Lowe's Grove Middle School eighth grader Gabby Laws shows a fellow student her concept of how to portray an activity gateway in the human brain.

One chemistry experiment on the effect of salt on water’s freezing point was a big fail, according to Raquel Gulledge, now a seventh grader: “It was as hard as a rock, just a big clump of ice.” The class had a lively debate as to why: Too much salt? Too much ice? Not enough shaking and mixing?

Perhaps the most important point is allowing the students to embrace their smarts and not to limit their interests.

“Middle school is all about belonging to your group,” Duvall said. “Kids get distracted by hormones and peer pressure.”

Willow Neil, now an eighth grader, explained how she named the instruments she plays: Arnold (trumpet), Sir Gerald (alto sax), Mike and Billy Bob (marching band cymbals, left and right.)

“This is the weirdness of the STEM minds,” Willow said.

That met with approval from her friend, Ayanna Futrell. “Smart people are weird.”

And smart people need challenges. Julius Borunda said his regular classes put him to sleep, or worse.

“I was bored and already knew what they were teaching,” Borunda said. “I would throw little balls of paper in class.”

Alexandra Viro was more blunt: “STEM is what metaphorically prevents me from taking a two-by-four to my head out of boredom.”

The students are clearly engaged, but are they learning more? Will it have lasting impact?

The initial results are promising: Last spring’s end-of-grade math tests for this year’s eighth graders rose an average of 12 percentage points.