At the beginning of March The Urban News met with Nicole Cush, the principal of Asheville’s School of Inquiry and Life Sciences (SILSA), for a conversation about the school, its students, and her own vision and goals.
Nicole Cush was named principal last summer, and in August she took the reins at SILSA, which is a separate high school housed within historic Asheville High. While the two schools share many facilities, such as the media center, gymnasium, Arts and CTE Buildings, and elective teachers, they have separate core class faculty as well as administration and diplomas.
Teacher, administrator, communicator
Cush is a former teacher and curriculum developer who earned a Masters in School Administration at Chapel Hill. She came to Asheville after serving as Assistant Principal of Green Hope High School in Wake County, where she implemented behavior-based leadership development opportunities and developed systems of support for struggling students. She also coordinated and implemented curricular programming in Science, Media/Technology, Facilities, Arts, and Career and Technical Education.
Before becoming a school administrator, Cush was an English Language Arts and Broadcasting teacher for 18 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Film and Television/Video Production from Montclair (NJ) State University, and took her first master’s degree in Visual Arts from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
Her work in Wake County followed a stint as Assistant Principal at Southeast Raleigh Magnet HS. Now, working at SILSA, Cush is using all her diverse experience to tackle some of the problems that had been plaguing both that school and the surrounding Asheville High.
Glow and Grow
“There were girls who fought against each other, some who were rough around the edges, frustrated, yet all of them smart and capable. Their backgrounds are varied, but they are girls of color.”
Cush explains that Asheville City Schools Superintendent Denise Patterson has long used the rubric of “Glow and Grow” to identify areas worthy of praise and emulation, compared to those where work needs to be done.
“Every time we end a meeting from Dr. Patterson we provide her with ‘Glow and grow’,” she says. During her interview for the position, she learned Patterson was well aware of the social problems among young women in the school, and she was not at all averse to hiring a principal with locks, boots and jeans, and a taste for glitter rather than gray flannel skirts and jackets. What she needed was someone who could relate to the girls.
Mentor, authority figure …
That has long been Cush’s forte. “It’s difficult for some people to understand what baggage these kids are carrying. You have to be patient, kind, even to those who demonstrate the least amount of lovability. They probably are the ones who need it the most!” she says.
She grew up New Jersey and in Montclair where her father owned a beauty and barber supplies store—and as a girl she, too, worked in the family business. Being close to New York City, the store attracted the likes of JT and members of Kool and the Gang, Gil Noble of the TV show Like It Is, and other celebrities, as well as everyday people—including many biracial couples. She notes “Montclair back then was the number-one interracial-couple area in the state.”
“Dad was gregarious, very handsome, and personable. And he was a specialist at helping black people see their beauty, which was a challenge when we were so absent from mainstream media back then, so even back in the 1970s he wanted to encourage them to wear hair naturally.” This experience introduced her to her mild obsession to make the ordinary beautiful.
Cush considers herself lucky to be in that milieu. In college she realized that she had interacted with about 30,000 people, many different types, and as a result had become something of a “social-emotional learning expert. While In graduate school at Rutgers, I worked on a team for the social problem-solving initiative. I did all of the filming and editing training sessions, visiting schools, watching the synthesis of what trainers were learning and bringing it to students.”
…and Glitter Girl
Social problem-solving, social-emotional learning, years of teaching, empathy, and a strong belief in finding each person’s own beauty—“making the ordinary beautiful”—all those factors made Cush an ideal candidate to lead SILSA and try to heal its problems. In addition, Dr. Patterson’s “glows” idea resonated strongly with Cush, who loves glitter, sparkle, and light-catchers of all types (several beveled, framed, and decorated mirrors hang on her office walls).
“I am mildly obsessed with glitter,” she says with a laugh, “ever since I started working on my second masters. I was a stressed, busy mom and would study so hard, such long hours, so then I turned to crafting with glitter; I liked to relax by decorating. Wine bottles, glasses, you name it. I just have a love for sparkling things.”
And thus the Glitter Sisters were born. They themselves would be the Glow: the Plus, and the Grow. “The thing about Glitter, just like my students, when you put them together, no matter the color, they all shine.” Cush would be the social-emotional learning expert, who would always demonstrate kindness, maintain her composure, keep social-learning quotient high from a caring, empathic perspective, and, perhaps most of all, never overreact to whatever hidden baggage people may be bringing with them into the conversation.
The approach is working well. “Some of them used to fight with each other; now they’re working as a team on reconciling,” says Cush. And we saw that teamwork and caring in interviews with the girls (see Interviews with SILSA Students). But no one person, even a talented, smart, high-style principal like Nicole Cush can fix problems by herself—even with the full support of the superintendent and the faculty, and the dedication of the girls themselves. With the assistance of School Social Work Interns Levette Campbell and Stephanie Jones, the Glitter Sisters meet weekly to discuss mindfulness, campus resources, and leadership. Because in raising children, it does take a village.
Calling on the village
Cush’s goal is to get every Glitter Sister a mentor from outside the educational system, among people in the community.
“Most of these girls don’t want to be in education, but in technical fields, medicine, and so forth. They’re smart, and they’re driven. And while we have wonderful teachers, staff, and counselors here who have signed on to assist, they need people from out in the community to invest their time and energy in being a mentor to these girls.”
What would the mentors do? Cush says she wants to find “women who have a passion to help. Women who can answer these girls’ questions. Like, What school would you recommend if I want to study this? What would be a good career path? What did you do to achieve your goals?”
So Cush is issuing a Call to Action.
“I’m asking the Asheville community to put boots on the ground,” she says. “If you say you really care about kids, give me two to four hours per month. Invest time to engage in email exchanges, text messages, phone conversations, or face-to-face sit downs with these girls. Put yourself out there to be a champion for one girl, to help her achieve in her area of interest or in her career pursuits.”
MEN-toring boys, as well
It’s not only the Glitter Sisters who need mentoring and guidance. So do the boys of SILSA and AHS. “We need men to mentor the young men in our program, too,” Cush told us. “Businessmen, entrepreneurs, professionals, community leaders … we need men to make an investment in the men of the future, just as people invested in them.
“So this call goes out across Asheville; come be on our side! It’s not just the students, or SILSA, or the institution that needs you: it’s our community’s future, because these young men and women are our community’s future,” she says emphatically.
Visit SILSA at Facebook.com/SILSAAsheville