Dan Kimberg knew at a young age that his success depended on another person’s success and vice-versa.
So he and two friends decided to form a nonprofit program that would help students make going to college a reality.
Then a 19-year-old college student, Kimberg helped found Student U and in 2007 got it running with the support of many in the community, including the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.
“The first year we were on this campus we had 49 students and 16 teachers,” said Kimberg, now the program’s executive director. “We were all doing something that was harder than we could ever imagine doing. We were all working together to build this vortex of love and energy and community and belief and empowerment and changing the world – and it was just crazy and amazing.”
The program, funded by grants and donations, provided support to students year-round, and made sure students were doing well in school, offering them tutoring or someone to talk to if needed.
“Our curriculum was not strong, our teacher training was not strong, and none of the logistics were pefect but we just all had this wild energy of ‘let’s work together to do something that none of us by ourselves could do,’” Kimberg said.
School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said, when Kimberg came to her with the idea eight years ago, she was excited about middle school students getting year-round support from mentors and teachers.
The program started with one sixth-grade class.
Today the program has 390 students and 46 teachers, housed on Durham Academy’s Upper School campus. Many of the paid high school teachers work for the Durham Public Schools, while the program’s paid middle-school teachers are college students.
Middle-school students have six weeks of instruction and high-school students have five weeks of instruction during the summer. Other high school students participate in internships. During the school year, students have advocates they can reach out to for support and can get tutoring.
Eighty-five percent of the students in the program will be the first in their families to attend college.
According to Kimberg, Student U students in grades 6-8 scored five percentage points higher than the district average in reading. The students scored equal to the district average in math. He also pointed out that Student U participants averaged six absences from school, about half the DPS average of 11 .
“The program has proven to be more successful that we envisioned it at the time,” Carter said. “Student U is more of a movement than a program, creating a community that believes in the students and does whatever it takes to support the students that they’ll be successful in school and in their lives.”
Providing the students with the tools
This year, all 40 of the first class of Student U participants who had stayed in the program since sixth grade graduated from high school. All will be going to college in the fall.
One of those students is Casey Barr-Rios, a Clement Early College High School graduate, who said when she initially came to Student U as a sixth-grader she was resistant. Born to a Panamanian mother and American father in Panama, Barr-Rios had trouble adjusting when she came to the United States. She didn’t know how to fit in and which group to hang with: the Latino kids, or the black kids?
She said she had her guard up and sat at the back of the classroom, but she made a connection with teacher Jenny Hinkle that has lasted until today.
Hinkle would encourage Barr-Rios to be better. She would tell her to speak up and “share her brilliance.” She even gave her an award for doing so.
“I still have it in my house, and I treasure it,” Barr-Rios said. “It’s up (on the wall) because it meant so much to me to know that a teacher believed in me and wanted to put me up front even though I wasn’t considered one of the smartest students in the classroom because I didn’t own up to my intelligence at that time.”
Barr-Rios said the most important thing Student U has done is provide her with support and the resources to visit and learn more about her colleges choices, options she otherwise wouldn’t have had.
She will attend N.C. Central University in the fall.
“At first I felt like (the teachers) were coming up to me and asking me questions just because they had to and it was their job,” she said. “But over the years I understood that these teachers are here because they truly care about every single student and their success.”