One recent Wednesday, five Durham high school students sat around a white, plastic table and talked about persistence, self-confidence and LeBron James.
The students agreed they didn’t want to disappoint their families, their friends, or their mentors any more.
These students, four boys and one girl, high-fived and laughed at each others’ jokes. They sat up straight and called each other by their first names.
“You’re good at basketball,” one said.
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“You’re outspoken and say what you think,” another said.
I shifted in my chair and started to pay more attention. I wasn’t expecting this when I walked in the front door of the building and noticed shattered glass from what appeared to be a gunshot.
Under fluorescent lights, and surrounded by posters of Lady Gaga and the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore, these students brainstormed their futures and talked about ways to make them come true.
Becoming a better role model for their siblings. A better poet. The first in their family to attend college. As I listened, I noticed a focus in the group. There were no side conversations or other distractions.
I figured these students had known each other for months, if not years. Their body language and easy conversation suggested they at least went to the same school and perhaps were friends.
But these five students had just met, because they each had been suspended from Durham Public Schools.
Instead of staying at home alone, the students headed to The Durham Teen Center, which now houses the startup nonprofit Rebound, Alternatives for Youth thanks to donated rent and utilities from the city. Rebound is a strengths-focused program for Durham youth who are out of school on short-term suspension.
The nonprofit completed its pilot phase this spring with astonishing results.
Nearly two-thirds of the first 20 students Rebound served avoided re-suspension during the rest of the school year. One hundred percent said Rebound helped them stay out of trouble while suspended.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, DPS disciplined high school students with 2,721 short-term suspensions during last school year, with a disproportionate number of those suspensions going to minority and disabled students. That left me wondering if anyone was paying attention to Durham’s suspended students. Aside from lost classroom time, the effects of suspension can be detrimental, especially with no structure to keep students focused on academics and out of trouble.
Rebound’s co-founders, Lizzie Ellis-Furlong and Pam Gray, realized there were no options offered for short-term suspended students, so they created Rebound to fill that gap. Spread those 2,721 suspensions over a school year, and that’s 15 students suspended each day. Rebound serves a maximum of 10 students a day, meeting two-thirds of the overall need.
Initial supporters of Ellis-Furlong and Gray’s nonprofit have given Durham schools the opportunity to improve a glaring issue. Those supporters believe in their work, just as Ellis-Furlong and Gray believe in the students they serve. Now, the program’s future depends on whether the Durham community volunteers time and donates money to sustain their work.
Toward the end of the day, one of the students had a breakthrough. Ellis-Furlong challenged the students to think of someone who had overcome poverty or worked their way out of a violent neighborhood, like some of the students face. Perhaps that person could serve as a role model for the group. Some of the students brought up entertainers and sports stars.
After thinking about it to herself for a moment or two, a girl wearing black, horn-rimmed glasses confidently said, “Me.” And she’s right. Her introspection and moment of reflection speaks to Rebound’s efforts in helping students realize their capabilities.
I left assured that those students are capable of being that better role model, becoming that poet, and graduating from college. I know more people benefit from Rebound’s work than just the participants; it extends to family members, classmates, and to the greater Durham community. These students may have been suspended, but they still show immense promise. Imagine the possibilities for positive change if we better support these students instead of making them go it alone.
Elizabeth Poindexter is marketing coordinator at DurhamCares. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org