Social innovation fuels new Durham school

James H. Johnson Jr.
James H. Johnson Jr.

Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — In 1995, when the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill launched an initiative to boost school performance among children in some of Durham’s most economically-distressed neighborhoods, Union Baptist Church agreed to house the program.

Of 240 students from sixth through 12th grade who have participated after school, weekends and summers in the tutoring and mentoring effort, 80 percent graduated from high school and half went on to college.

And the high school graduates qualify for $10,000 college scholarships from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, which has invested nearly $8 million in the program.

Still, says the Rev. Ken Hammond, pastor at Union Baptist, it was clear from the start that “we needed intervention that began much earlier.”

Now, a new laboratory school the church has financed is set to open in July, aiming to provide comprehensive support to local kids while serving as a national model that can be franchised to churches, school districts and other groups.

“We have to create an environment where kids get a consistent message about the importance of education,” says James H. Johnson Jr., a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School who designed the Durham Scholars Program and the social-enterprise model for the new Union Independent School.

Union Baptist, with 5,000 members, has used $2 million of its own funds and borrowed another $8 million to buy land across the street and build the new 49,000-square-foot school.

The church also has launched a campaign, chaired by Johnson, to raise $30 million in endowment to cover operating costs and free tuition.

“It would cost just under $10,000 a year to educate a kid,” Hammond says. “Some of the kids we hope to attract would not even have household income of $10,000 a

The school initially will enroll 75 students in kindergarten through grade two, adding a kindergarten class each year until it has 250 students through eighth grade.

All children in the 172-block Northeast-Central Durham area will be eligible, with selection by lottery.

“Kids who grow up in socially-isolated, economically-marginal environments are confronted with multiple, overlapping challenges,” such as families, schools and peer groups, says Johnson. “You have to intervene on all those levels if you’re going to do a good job.”

Designed by Marc Smith of Smith Architectural Practice, with L.A. Downey and Son serving as general contractor, the school will include classrooms; science lab; visual arts and music rooms; media center; gymnasium/multi-purpose area; fitness center; cafeteria; outdoor playground space; conference room and faculty and staff office spaces.

The building also will include space for a separately run day-care center, preschool, and health and wellness center.

In addition to serving students, Johnson says, the school aims to generate revenue by charging fees for community use of facilities such as the gym/multi-purpose area and the day-care center.

The lab school, which plans to support parents and involve them in their children’s education, aims to build on the research strength of local universities, says Johnson, a congregation member who also directs the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Kenan Institute.

The school plans to generate income through fees or contributions from companies and groups that want access to the school’s target population to test products and services in fields like nutrition, physical activity, health and wellness, remediation, character education, global awareness and entrepreneurial education.

“It’s really an R&D facility,” Johnson says.

Unlike many school-based intervention models that work like buffets, picking specific programs they like, he says, Union Independent will be “franchisable,” requiring paying franchise-holders to adopt the entire model.

“It’s an all-or-nothing strategy,” Johnson says, “for how you improve educational outcomes for kids who grow up in economically-challenging environments.”

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