Durham effort targets poverty through education

David Reese
David Reese

Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — This summer, roughly 60 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Y.E. Smith Elementary School, one of Durham’s lowest-performing schools, attended a six-week camp designed to keep them from losing academic ground they gained last school year.

Staffing the camp, which featured tutoring in the mornings and traditional camp activities in the afternoon, were students from Duke University and N.C. Central University trained last spring by The Hill Center.

The program is part of a growing array of community-based services coordinated by the East Durham Children’s Initiative, which manages a collaboration of roughly 35 partner agencies working to support families and children in a 120-block area east of downtown Durham.

“We make the promise that we’ll start from the cradle and get kids ready for college or ready for a career,” says David Reese, director of the Initiative, which is housed at the Center for Child and Family Health, a consortium operated by Duke, N.C. Central and UNC-Chapel Hill.

And the program this month received a commitment from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh to invest over $1 million over three years in unrestricted grants and loans.

Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, the Durham effort began in 2008 with planning that is ongoing and has engaged a broad range of community residents, government and school leaders, and agencies that serve children.

Reese, former chief operating officer for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh and before that director of resource development for Urban Ministries of Wake County, says the effort aims to address the interconnected social problems that contribute to poverty, all of which are rooted in education and depend on engaging the community to fix.

“This is a pipeline of services, a long-term approach, a community-based approach,” says Reese, a native of the Bronx who has devoted his career to working for nonprofits that serve low-income communities. “We engage the community in virtually every aspect of what we do.”

Serving as the attendance zone for Y.E. Smith Elementary School, the East Durham neighborhood that is the focus of the Initiative is characterized by “all the social ills,” Reese says, including high rates of childhood abuse and neglect, teen pregnancy, crime and substance abuse.

And efforts to fix those problems must be rooted in education, he says.

“Schools change communities,” he says. “This is about changing outcomes for a community. The heart of it is in the school.”

Programs launched so far by the Initiative, which operates with an annual budget of roughly $1 million, include:

  • A nurse from Durham Connects, a nurse-home visiting service of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke, identifies every child born in the 120-block area, assesses family needs and refers at-risk families to Healthy Families Durham, a home-based case-management program at the Center for Child and Family Health at Duke.
  • Durham Health Innovations, a health initiative at Duke, worked with kids and parents on an obesity project, with food provided by the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.
  • With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, volunteers from the Durham Downtown Rotary Club provide fresh fruit to students during the week.
  • A curriculum known as Incredible Years, provided through Healthy Families Durham, teaches parenting and teaching skills to parents.
  • The Holton Resource Center in the neighborhood includes vocational programs run by Durham Public Schools, a dropout-prevention program run by Communities in Schools of Durham, and a health clinic run by the Duke University Health System.
  • The Hill Center this school year will train child-care facilities in the neighborhood to administer a literacy program 15 minutes a day to three- and four-year-old children in their care.
  • The Office of Durham and Regional Affairs at Duke this summer offered a four-week program to prepare 30 children to enter kindergarten this fall.
  • Tutors from the YMCA work every day from 3:20 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. with students at Y.E. Smith Elementary, where the school day has been extended.
  • Citizen Schools this school year will launch a tutoring program at Neal Middle School, where Teach for America also is adding 15 teachers.
  • The Initiative is hiring new staff to serve as advocates in the schools for families and children, and teaching parents to be advocates in the schools for their kids.

Reese says a core initial goal is to help parents of young children better prepare themselves and their kids for kindergarten.

He also says new projects will be added as the Initiative identifies new opportunities for “high-quality, evidence-based interventions” and new partners.

“This is about moving the needle,” he says, “one step at a time.”

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