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

News and Observer

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.

Howard Lee: breaking barriers, making history

Herald-Sun (Durham, NC)
May 19, 2017

The first few months of 1969 were tumultuous in the United States.

In the early months of Richard Nixon’s presidency, student protests over civil rights and the Vietnam war rocked college campuses. Here in Durham, in February, black students occupied Duke University’s administrative headquarters, the Allen Building, and across the country planning was underway for what would be a massive antiwar demonstration in the fall. The Stonewall riots in New York City would come to be seen as the birth of the modern gay-rights movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just a few years before officially ended generations of legally sanctioned racial discrimination, but the crusade for social justice was far from over. But on May 6, 1969, in a milestone event, 34-year-old Howard Lee was elected mayor of Chapel Hill and became the first African-American to lead a majority-white southern city.

In the nearly five decades since, Lee has had a distinguished public career — a state senator, the first African-American to head a state cabinet department, a member of the utilities commission and the first African-American chairman of the N.C. Board of Education. Always, year after year, Lee has been a vigorous supporter of education and a proselytizer for its role in opening opportunities for all children, but especially minority children.

Thursday night, the Public School Forum of North Carolina presented Lee its Jay Robinson Legacy & Education Leadership Award at the Raleigh Convention Center. Thanks to my wife, Pat — herself a champion for education and a previous recipient of the Robinson award — I was privileged to be among the 300 or so guests.

For those who know Chapel Hill only as the liberal bastion it is today, there were reminders of what a different era it was when Lee began his political leadership and public service. Keith Poston, the Public School Forum’s president and executive director, recalled how Lee and his wife, Lillian, were met with death threats and a cross-burning on their lawn when they moved to Chapel Hill in the mid-1960s.

Lee’s response was to run for mayor, embarking on a career of, as state Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh put it Thursday evening, “breaking down barriers not just for himself but for other people.” Blue, the Senate’s minority leader, was a college student in 1969 and spoke of the inspiration of Lee’s mayoral election. He praised Lee’s ability to bring people together: “In an era that sought to exclude, he found ways to include.”

Still energetic and active at 82, Lee is busy as president of the Howard N. Lee Institute, focusing on increasing “the number of disadvantaged students, especially black boys, graduating from high school prepared to succeed in a post-secondary institution.”

One of his initiatives has been the Stem Academy at Durham’s Lowe’s Grove Magnet Middle School. Its principal, Tekeisha Mitchell, was one of five speakers paying tribute to Lee Thursday. “He impacted our students lives and made a difference with real children,” she said.

Another speaker was former Gov. Jim Hunt, appearing by video because he was otherwise engaged with family and friends celebrating his 80th birthday. Lee “is a man who has made history and is still making it,” said Hunt, who himself has made a fair amount of history.

North Carolina and the Triangle are fortunate Lee has made and is making that history here.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or

Public School Forum Honors Sen. Lee

Adapted from a news release by Keith Posten, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

RALEIGH, NC (May 18, 2017) – Former North Carolina Senator Howard N. Lee received the 2017 Public School Forum of North Carolina Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award today. The Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award was established by the Public School Forum in 2000 to recognize leaders who have demonstrated innovative, creative, effective leadership for public education in North Carolina.

“Howard Lee has been a leader and a trailblazer his entire life,” said Michael Priddy, chairman of the Public School Forum. “His lifetime of public service in support of children, including serving as our state’s first African-American chairman of the State Board of Education, stands as a shining example of the very best of North Carolina. Howard Lee exemplifies what we look for in selecting our annual award recipient: dedication, leadership and courage.”

Sen. Lee may be best known as the first African-American to be elected mayor of a predominantly white southern town since reconstruction.  In 1969, he became mayor of Chapel Hill, an office he would hold for three terms.  He was also the first African-American to be a cabinet secretary, as secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, and the first to chair the State Board of Education.
In 1990, Lee was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he served for 13 years.  During his tenure, he held several powerful committee chairmanships; presiding over education, transportation and Appropriations Committees.  In the North Carolina Senate, Sen. Lee built his reputation as a fighter for education reform.  He fought for higher teacher salaries, increased funding for public education and advocated for raising teacher and student standards.  In addition, he sponsored or co-sponsored several major pieces of educational legislation which included Smart Start, More at Four (a pre-kindergarten program), the Excellent Schools Act for school reform, and the Safe Schools Act.  In 2003, Sen. Lee was elected chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education and as a gubernatorial appointment (2005-2009) to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
During his career, he served as an administrator at Duke University and on the faculty of North Carolina Central University, in addition to being a member of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has lectured at numerous universities throughout the South and the Nation.”  In 2008, he released his biographical memoir, entitled: “The Courage to Lead, One Man’s Journey in Public Service.” In his memoir, Sen. Lee shares his life story and insights about how he survived the oppressive gauntlet of Jim Crow infested South, overcame obstacles, and broke racial barriers as he rose to positions of political prominence and power.

Since 2011, Sen. Lee has spent most of his time as president of the Howard N. Lee Institute, focused on developing initiatives in middle and high schools to increase the number of disadvantaged students, especially black boys, graduating from high school prepared to succeed in a post-secondary institution (university or community college).

Howard Nathaniel Lee, born July 28, 1934, grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in Lithonia, Georgia.  He graduated from Bruce High School in 1953.  He attended Fort Valley State College in Georgia where he received a BA degree in Sociology in 1959.  In August 1959, he was drafted and served two years in the United States Army; spending more than one year in Korea. After being honorably discharged from active duty in 1961, he worked for three years as a Juvenile Probation Officer in Savannah, Georgia.  In 1964, he enrolled in the graduate School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina and received his Master’s Degree in 1966.

About the Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award
The award is named in honor of the late Dr. Jay Robinson, one of our state’s most distinguished education leaders. His career spanned 50 years, beginning as a math teacher and basketball and football coach in Cabarrus County, becoming a school principal and later superintendent of schools in first Cabarrus and then Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems. He served as vice president for public affairs and special projects for the University of North Carolina system and chaired the State Board of Education. He was also the first president of the Public School Forum and served as an Emeritus Member of the Board until his death in April 2000.

About the Public School Forum of North Carolina
Since 1986, the Public School Forum of North Carolina has been an indispensable and nonpartisan champion of better schools and the most trusted source in the state for research and analysis on vital education issues. We bring together leaders from business, education and government to study education issues, develop ideas, seek consensus, and ultimately inform and shape education policy. We do that through research, policy work, innovative programs, advocacy, and continuing education for educators and policymakers. Follow us on Twitter @theNCForum and visit our website at

STEM Scholars show their pride



Seventh and eighth grade STEM Scholars at Lowe’s Grove Magnet Middle School show off their STEM Scholars jackets, provided by Sen. Howard Lee. Their program coordinator, Jennifer Duvall, proudly joins her students. The idea for the jackets came from Cale’f Mack, a 7th grade Scholar (bottom photo, back row, center). (Photo by Kim Wysong.)