East Durham Children's Initiative showing results, organizers say

Program offers hope to Durham’s poorest

mschultz@newsobserver.comNovember 23, 2012 

  • If You Go The East Durham Children’s Initiative will hold a Holiday Open House at its offices at 107 N. Driver St, third floor, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, for people to learn more about the organization’s work in East Durham. Please RSVP to jill.ullman@edci.org.

— An effort to protect and nurture children in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of town is showing results, according to organizers.

The East Durham Children’s Initiative is trying to create community in 120 square blocks where 80 percent of the homes are rentals and 90 percent of the elementary students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price school meals. EDCI director David Reese, chairman Barker French and others led people on a tour of the neighborhood last weekend, pointing out successes and challenges.

“Welcome to the zone,” Reese said outside the Holton Career and Resource Center, itself a reason for growing pride in the neighborhood. The $17 million facility houses school and recreation programs, vocational training and more.

EDCI aims to create a safety net around each child in the zone so that no child slips through the cracks. After three years of planning and one year on the ground, organizers will meet Thursday to look at ways to measure progress.

EDCI has begun reaching out to parents through Durham Connects, a program that sends nurses into homes with newborns and one of EDCI’s more than 20 partner agencies. If the model succeeds, a “pipeline” of services will follow each child until college or a career.

Last school year also saw tutoring, summer camps and a playground built behind the United Methodist Church in The Shepherd’s House on Driver Street.

The Rev. John Gumbo was skeptical when Reese first approached him. “I didn’t trust him,” said Gumbo, whose congregation of mostly African immigrants took over the abandoned church building seven years ago. “He’s talking about how people can just do it and how they’ll get help. I was like, no, this guy might not be genuine.”

But four months after planning began, 339 volunteers built the playground in a single day.

“Then we gave it back (to the church) and said, ‘This is yours,’ ” Reese said. “Kids use it all the time. This is part of building community. This is what success looks like.”

Gumbo admits Reese proved him wrong.

“It’s one of the greatest achievements we have done as a church,” he said, then corrected himself – “as the church and community working together.”

Boarded-up houses

But it doesn’t take long past the playground to see the boarded-up houses, a stubborn challenge for EDCI. Cathleen Turner, Piedmont regional director of Preservation North Carolina, says a report a few years ago found about one in 10 absentee-owned buildings was vacant or abandoned.

Letisha Judd, principal of Y.E. Smith Elementary Museum School, remembers when it wasn’t that way. Judd, 41, grew up in East Durham and points down Angier Avenue to where the old post office used to be, part of a struggling commercial district the city is trying to revitalize.

Her students, almost all black and Latino, are making progress. She and EDCI tout a jump in overall proficiency from 48 percent to 62 percent, meaning nearly two out of three are now doing grade-level work.

She thinks that has helped reinvigorate the PTA, which had only one active parent two years ago. Two weeks ago, a PTA meeting attracted about 40 people – and seven parents volunteered to serve as officers.

Judd, who was principal at the new suburban Creekside Elementary and an assistant principal in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, said she chose to come back to the old neighborhood to lead Smith, where students wear uniforms and stay in school until 4 p.m., the longest day in the Durham Public Schools.

“I’m from Durham,” Judd said. “I don’t see East Durham as a rough part of town. I don’t see East Durham as just another community.”

Moments later, Judd approaches a group of children in the front yard of a small, brick house.

“Ms. Judd! Ms Judd!” second-grader Travion Hayes, 7, calls out before rushing up to hug the principal’s waist.

Judd says it’s been wonderful to work with EDCI to help give all children the support they need. “I tell you, I would love to see this community rebuild,” she said. “I would love to see it.”

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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