Student U pairs teens with college students

Daniel Kimberg
Daniel Kimberg

Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — After his freshman year at Duke University, Dan Kimberg spent the summer working in New Orleans for Breakthrough Collaborative, a national organization that teams college students with middle-school students for summer programs.

That experience led Kimberg, a Robertson scholar, to design his own major and focus it on public education in Durham.

And his major served as the research and development for Student U, a nonprofit he created after graduating from Duke in 2007.

The mission of Student U is to empower middle-school students in the Durham Public Schools to “take education into their own hands” and help them “develop the academic and personal skills they need to succeed in school and beyond,” Kimberg says.

The nonprofit operates with an annual budget of $630,000, including $330,000 in cash and the rest in in-kind support, and partners with Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University, Durham Academy and the Durham Public Schools.

With Kimberg serving as the only full-time employee, Student U works with five part-time paid staff and a team of 36 college students who are paid for their part-time work as teachers in the program.

The Durham Public Schools nominate students who have the potential to thrive in school but may be at risk of disconnecting with the school system because of one or more risk factors.

Now completing its third year, Student U is phasing in its program, adding roughly 50 rising sixth-graders each year until it has students from sixth through 12th grade.

Starting in the summer before they begin sixth grade, students spend each weekday for six weeks at Durham Academy, where they are taught by students from the nonprofit’s three partner universities.

And during the school year, the same students work with the same college-age teachers for two hours a week at their schools.

“We talk a lot about being your best self,” discussions that focus on “learning how to take the skill and personality sets you have and use those to make a difference in the world,” Kimberg says.

The students also learn about leadership skills, public speaking, the value of service, and understanding their own strengths and weaknesses.

And the program is making a difference, Kimberg says.

After the first two years, compared to their peers statewide, 100 percent of participants increased their end-of-grade reading test scores and 93 percent increased their end-of-year math scores.

And after only one summer, 95 percent said they believed they would graduate from high school, compared to 75 percent before their first summer in the program.

Kimberg says Student U reflects childhood lessons he learned from his social-worker parents.

“They always taught me the power of ‘tikkun olam,'” he says, referring to the concept in Judaism of fixing what is broken.

The idea behind Student U, he says, is for kids and their college-age teachers alike to grow and learn.

“We all have this brilliance inside of us,” he says. “I wanted to be part of a process where people in Durham are all sharing their brilliance together.”

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