We’ve heard from just about everyone when it comes to Durham’s Hillside High School. We’ve heard (loudly) from the leaders at the top of Durham’s African-American political establishment, who don’t like the way Superintendent Ann Denlinger has done just about anything, particularly at Hillside. We’ve heard from Denlinger (barely), who cites the marked improvement in the Durham school system’s test scores as evidence that she’s doing a good job, and the slow improvement at Hillside as evidence that changes are necessary. And we’ve heard occasionally from the rest of the community, who seem disgusted with the whole affair.

But we haven’t heard much from the students. At this year’s open house before classes started, kids gave hugs to their friends, received their schedules for the semester, and met their new teachers. One of those students is 12th-grader Derek Pantiel, president of the school’s chapter of Health Occupations Students of America.

Pantiel sees Hillside as a decent school–but not without its share of problems. He didn’t particularly like the old principal, Henry Pankey, and thinks the new principal, Eunice Sanders, is off to a good start. He says low-achieving students aren’t taking advantage of the school, and blames the media for sullying Hillside’s reputation and keeping students from wanting to go there. He hopes things will settle down soon so those students will return, restoring Hillside’s proud place in the community.

“When I was younger, I used to drive by Hillside and I was like, ‘Ma, I want to go there,’” he says. Since he’s been there, it’s allowed him to realize that he wants to go to UNC and on to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“I took a health relations course my 10th-grade year,” says Pantiel. “I learned a lot of different strategies about getting to where I wanted to go. They teach you different leadership skills, and teach about different types of jobs.”

Pantiel, like protesters who urged a boycott of Northgate Mall to protest the removal of Pankey and much of the school’s support staff, blames Denlinger’s lack of communication with students and the community for much of the problem. “I think communication is the key to all developments–whether at school, work or home. She’s superintendent of Durham Public Schools. That’s her big problem–communication isn’t there.”

Pantiel also notes that Denlinger’s style of not communicating with students and their parents seemed to rub off on Pankey. “We would ask him questions, and he would just look at us like we were crazy.”

Pantiel says that although Pankey’s leadership style worked wonders at Southern High, he thinks Pankey needed to get a better feel for Hillside students before picking up his vaunted bullhorn and yelling at kids to tuck in their shirts.

“What does tucking in our shirts have to do with education?” Pantiel asks. “If it wasn’t for him, I think this boycott wouldn’t be happening. Denlinger was hoping he would come in and make a difference, like he did at Southern. If they were trying to help us, they would listen to us–pay attention to what the students have to say.”

But Pantiel doesn’t blame him for not “turning around the school.”

“When he came to Hillside, there were already a lot of problems. It’s not easy to come and take over and fix the school in one year. He needed more help, and I don’t think he was getting it.”

Pantiel welcomes Sanders with open arms. She already has been quick to answer his club’s advisor’s questions when he calls.

“I can tell you right now that she’s going to listen to us. She answers questions that need to be answered. [Hillside needs] someone who listens to the students to know where they’re coming from.”

Pantiel blames the students themselves for the school’s low percentage of students testing at grade level.

“A lot of individuals that come to Hillside, they try, but they get caught up in the wrong group or something. There will always be students that are low achieving–they’re just not using their resources.”

Pantiel blames part of Hillside’s problems on unfair media coverage, saying that parents whose kids are districted for Hillside should take a tour and try it out before letting them transfer to other schools.

“I feel that people need to experience Hillside before they come up with the idea that it’s a bad school,” he says. “It’s a great school to go to. There aren’t fights inside the school like people say–it’s problems outside the school that we have to face. I hope that this year it all settles down.”

“No matter what they throw at Hillside,” he says, “we just keep pushing on and on. I want to leave Hillside knowing that I made a change–I helped Hillside become a great school. I hope that in 10 years I can come back to Hillside and still represent my school. … Once things start cooling off at Hillside, it’s going to be a lot better.”