A Principal Finds A Place For “Magic”

by Paul Bass | October 2, 2009 1:29 PM | | Comments (13)

DSCN5523.JPGHurrying down the hallway of Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School, Sharece Sellem ran into a roadblock named Kaison Mims.

Kaison, a Davis Street fifth-grader, had been refining a monologue about a comic day at Six Flags with his little brother. He wanted to perform it for Sellem. Sellem stopped, cocked her head. An impromptu critiquing session began.

Since the school year started at Davis, Sellem (pictured) has planted roadblocks like Kaison throughout the school. She makes a point of running into them.

Sellem, who’s 25, doesn’t have a full-time job at Davis. Technically she’s a $50 a-day part-time sub. She waitresses at night at Chili’s in Hamden.

In reality, she has become a daily presence at Davis. She comes in for free on days the principal, Lola Nathan, doesn’t need a fill-in for an absent staff teacher. Sellem has had fifth and sixth-graders writing scripts based on their home lives, developing characters, memorizing parts, performing for the rest of the school.

As Kaison performed in the hallway, Nathan observed Sellem from behind a glass wall steps away in the principal’s office.

“She’s like magic with them,” Nathan said. “She doesn’t stop ‘til she gets it done.”

Nor does Nathan. She wants Sellem inspiring and teaching Davis students as much as possible. Even though Sellem doesn’t have a teaching degree.

The Independent is checking in on Davis, one of the school system’s star performers, throughout a transitional year. (It inhabits temporary quarters on Legion Avenue as its Westville home is being rebuilt.) As New Haven embarks on a reform drive aimed at making its struggling public schools the best urban district in the nation, Davis offers clues to what works.

Among the reform drive’s goals: Attract and develop talented teachers. The way, for instance, Lola Nathan is working within the confines of budgets and work rules to make an energetic, talented young woman part of the Davis team.

“1 - 2 - 3 … Action!

Nathan discovered Sellem last year when Sellem came in to sub. Nathan spotted talent. She encouraged Sellem to start an after-school arts program. Sellem asked for permission to stage a spring play.

“Tell me what you need,” Nathan said.

Sellem didn’t need much. She got the kids excited about the show, rehearsed with them. She bought costumes herself. She convinced a local company to donate T-shirts.

Over the summer Sellem attended a monologue slam in a Manhattan nightclub. “When I saw that,” she recalled, “I said it would be awesome for the kids.”

“There’s so much talent here” at Davis, she said. “I know some of these kids have it rough at home. This is great for them.”

She got to work as soon as the school year started. Nathan called her in to sub in fifth and sixth-grade classrooms. Sellem asked the students to write stories about a summer experience, one that evoked “strong emotion.”

“When they heard ‘strong emotion,‘“she said, “most of them thought of their parents.”

Once they wrote out narratives, Sellem told them to pick a single character. Develop the character, she said. She taught them what monologues are. She told them to write some.

After they refined their scripts, Sellem worked with them on performing. They memorized the lines. They practiced delivery. She coached and critiqued them along the way and helped them trim their performances to 30 seconds. She set up a contest for the best monologues.

“A lot of the kids didn’t even know they could act,” Sellem said.

The results were on display last Friday when Davis held its first school-wide “town meeting” of the year. It featured Davis’s first monologue slam.

(Click on the play arrow above to watch highlights.)

There were no alcohol served, no bouncers outside the door. The yelling voices were for the most part preadolescent. But given the electricity in the air, you could have closed your eyes and imagined yourself in that nightclub Sellem attended over the summer.

Seated on the floor of the school’s cafetorium, magnified shouts ricocheted off the walls with the intensity of Superballs. The students hailed the performers as they raced to the center to deliver their monologues.

“One … Two … Three … Action!” the students cried out. The performers responded with rapid-fire monologues.

Laughter nearly drowned out Justice Willoughby’s account of wrestling with boredom at home: He can’t go outside. He can’t play Wii. So he invents a football game.

Egged on by the crowd’s delighted giggle, Justice stretched out a runner’s imaginary gallop downfield. “The crowd cheers!” he announced. And it did.

The laughter took on a knowing tone as sixth-grader Nijae Flower piled on complaints about mom. (“I’m not my sister! I’m tired of her always trying to compare me to you!”)

Daily domestic frustrations emerged as a theme, as in “Messy Room,” Vanessa Hansen-Quartery’s monologue in the voice of a character named Melissa:

Auggh! I am sick and tired of cleaning this room! … Next time I find a room like this, I will drag his lazy butt up here and make him clean it up. Hats, belts, pants, it’s such a mess! … What are my new skinny jeans doing in my trash bin? … Now, I have to wash them again! … I do everything! I do the dishes, I do the laundry, I vacuum, all Jason does is sit behind the computer all day! He’s worse than Jeremiah!, well sorta … At least the mess isn’t that big … I’m almost done cleaning the room too … (pause )…There … done. Now to go find Jeremiah.

After the students finished, Sellem announced a surprise performer: Principal Nathan, who ran to the mic and picked up on the “why me?!” trope.

She played herself in the monologue.

“Why did you choose me to be the principal of Davis Street Interdistrict Magnet School?” Nathan implored the audience. “I never understood why you chose me to do this!”

“Yay hoo!” The cafetorium erupted in laughter. You could barely hear Nathan when, after a comic pause, she delivered the punch line. She understands why she’s the principal, she said — because she works with the best staff and students around. She meant it.

After the monologues, Sellem handed out prizes to the student winners: notebooks and mechanical pencils. She paid for them herself.

Mentor & Mentee

Thrilled with the results, Nathan prepared after the town meeting to post photos of the winners and their winning essays on the bulletin board outside her office.

DSCN5532.JPGSharece Sellem, in the meantime, is working on a new after-school program for Davis this year. She’s also organizing a later-afternoon program in Newhallville for students citywide. She wants them to develop monologues based on characters from African-American history.

Sellem was the oldest of five children growing up in Hartford. She said she adopts a “big sister” approach to working with students. She encourages them, pushes them to do better. “I’m also very loving.”

Lola Nathan, who has been Davis’s principal for 19 years, plays a mentoring role for Sellem, too.

Sellem studied video production for two years down south after high school, then returned to Connecticut. She worked as an administrative assistant at a Hartford arts organization, where she picked up ideas she brought to Davis.

As she finds ways to keep Sellem on the team, Nathan is also encouraging her to complete her undergraduate degree and obtain her teacher certification. She has big plans for Sellem, at Davis — and beyond.

Previous stories about Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School:

Comer Is Back
Principal Keeps School On The Move
Pot Melts
So Long, Old Davis
Music History Steps Offstage
Music Video Of The Week

Some previous stories about New Haven’s school reform drive:

Philanthropists Join School Reform Drive
Wanted: Great Teachers
“Class of 2026” Gets Started
Principal Keeps School On The Move
With National Push, Reform Talks Advance
Nice New School! Now Do Your Homework
Mayo Unveils Discipline Plan
Mayor Launches “School Change” Campaign
Reform Drive Snags “New Teacher” Team
Can He Work School Reform Magic?
Some Parental Non-Involvement Is OK, Too
Mayor: Close Failing Schools
Union Chief: Don’t Blame The Teachers
3-Tiered School Reform Comes Into Focus
At NAACP, Mayo Outlines School Reform
Post Created To Bring In School Reform
Board of Ed Assembles Legal Team

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Posted by: streever | October 2, 2009 4:00 PM

Wow Sharece! What a great teacher, and only a sub. Whatever it takes, get this woman on staff.

Posted by: Hood Rebel | October 2, 2009 5:16 PM

New Haven students desperately need more energetic, talented, committed people like Sellem who care about their learning; and, are willing to reach and teach kids --no matter what it takes --in different and creative ways.

To the close the achievement gap these students need to make huge leaps and bounds in just one academic year. It's gonna takes talent, creativity and and out of the box thinking--not same old, same old--to make that happen.

Kudo's to Nathan for spotting talent and doing what it takes to give her students that type of exposure.

Posted by: Shortty | October 2, 2009 7:09 PM

Great Job Sharece! I teach in New Haven and people like you need to be recognized! Way to go!!!

Posted by: Yes We Can | October 3, 2009 7:21 AM

I have not always been favorable to NHI coverage of NHPS. So, I must give credit where it is due to Paul for venturing inside the walls of a NHPS to actually see for himself what kinds of things are going on. Yes, kudos to Davis, Lola and Sharece. But kudos also to these kids who are great kids that want to learn, can learn and will learn if we as adults stop and adjust our way of thinink about them. These are not "failing schools" these are schools with legitimate challenges that need to be taken head on. Had Paul walked into any other New Haven School he would find similar dynamic staff members and programs going on. The perception is, in fact, far from the reality. Every time I walk into a NHPS I find myself amazed by one thing or another and truly appreciative of the work that many people are doing for these children and for the work and dedication that so many of these children are engaged in themselves.

Davis is a great example of a school that has made test score improvements by using every tool at its disposal and creating a few new ones. We still must do more however. Challenges, big ones, exist in Urban education. There is no simple answer, there is no silver bullet. But there can also be no excuses. We must recognize the hurldes and find creative ways to clear them, like Sharece and Lola do every day.

A fine foundation exists in New Haven thanks to Dr. Mayo. Curriculum changes, program changes, magnet/school choice programming, data driven analysis, state of the art facilities, double digit test score gains and the best damn cafeteria Food in the nation are the base from which we now recommit ourselves to the Reform program that the Mayor and Superintendent have launched.

Now the hard work truly begins as we embark on this next chapter of allowing NHPS students to reach their fullest potential. We need everyone, students, staff, parents, community members, non-profits, business community, the unions, Yale, Paul Bass. . . to step up and accept this challenge.

We can make New Haven the model for modern Urban Education in the United States.

We can close the achievement gap in New Haven.


Posted by: Jenn | October 3, 2009 12:54 PM

I never understand you, Yes We Can. You comment by first praising the hard work done by NHPS staff and then you go on to criticize it as not being enough. To further develop your fence sitting opinion, you praise Dr. Mayo.

Which is it? For or against?

Posted by: andrew | October 3, 2009 1:52 PM

dr. mayo deserves NO credit, he should have been relieved of his duties years ago. The individual teachers are keeping this system alive despite the administration
otherwise, this is a great story

Posted by: 9887111225 | October 3, 2009 4:35 PM

Working for free shows a real commitment to putting children first. If the majority of NHPS teachers would abandon their greed and agree to forego salaries, the school reform movement would finally score a fundamental and much deserved victory. Yes, Connecticut Can!

Posted by: James | October 3, 2009 8:08 PM

Dr. Mayo has presided over a failed system for years and years. The fact that he and the administration are just now, after years of neglect, incompetence, and waste is not to be lauded. Yes, it's good that we're finally moving in the right direction, but Mayo and his crew should have been on their asses long ago.

Sharece Sellem exists not because of Mayo, but in spite of Mayo. Good job, Sharece. Stick to your principals.

Posted by: Sharece Sellem | October 4, 2009 11:44 PM

Wow, thank you all soo much. It's people like Ms. Nathan who love our kid's to allow creativity to flow through the school. I would also like to add that I am not to recieve credit for purchasing costumes for last year's spring production. The children worked hard to raise enough to get costumes.

Posted by: CAT | October 5, 2009 7:30 PM

way to go, reesie!!!!

Posted by: FRANCOISE | October 5, 2009 8:47 PM

To be honest Sharece Sellem has always been a very strong and independent person even from her childhood years. She wants something to happen she will make sure it does. I am very proud of her as I see big things happening for her in the future!! She has amazing creativity qualities that will bring the best out of those kids. I have seen her plays and they are truly awesome!!! Do not underestimate her greatness because of her young age. This young lady is truly remarkable and I hope she gets all of the credit and noteworthy and praise that she truly deserves - those kids adore her and love her - we need more role models like Sharece Sellem!!!!!

Posted by: Josiah Brown [TypeKey Profile Page] | October 6, 2009 7:02 PM

The following curriculum units, developed by New Haven teachers participating as Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellows, might be of interest:

"Voices of the Sixties and the Modern Poetry Slam," by English teacher Sean Griffin of Betsy Ross Arts Magnet Middle School:

"Rap as a Modern Poetic Form," by Creative Writing teacher Mindi Englart of Cooperative Arts and Humanities H.S.:

These Fellows prepared these curriculum units in Institute seminars led by:

*Cynthia Russett (Larned Professor of History) on U.S. history of the postwar period; and

*Paul Fry (William Lampson Professor of English) on poetry.

Posted by: Tom Burns | October 7, 2009 12:13 AM

Hey Sharece----Don't know you, but I'm proud to be a New Haven teacher because of you. So many people do so much for our children and receive no accolade----keep doing what you are doing-- I would hope you would continue your education to obtain your teaching certificate as you are just what we are looking for---don't leave us now---Tom

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