By Cara Oxendine
NCCU Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
Durham Nativity School (DNS) is a tuition-free, private, middle school for low-income boys and their families. The first Nativity School was opened in NY, 50 years ago, and today there are 41 locations across the US. The best thing is – this school is located in NE Central Durham (NECD).
Imagine a 10 year-old boy living in a neighborhood where he can’t do his homework because crime and violence are so intense. He has five siblings and only four beds in his household. His parents work two jobs; they do not have time to help with homework or promote his progress.
This is the reality for too many boys in NECD. But Durham Nativity School (DNS), located in Grace Baptist Church on Mangum Street, helps families work through these issues while attempting to end this cycle of educational poverty.
The DNS model has four components: middle school (3 years), high school (4 years), college (4 years), and job opportunities. It incorporates an intensive community service program that identifies student issues existing within their community and assists students in finding solutions to address these issues.
“We are going to take young people, and the goal is community change – in education, in economics, in community service, in social well being – and prepare this group of people, who right now are being challenged in their community to survive in all of these areas, to be change agents,” said Joseph Moylan, founder and president of DNS.
The selection process for a young student at DNS seems almost as intense as the curriculum. Spanning from March until June, the school recruiters begin looking at fifth-grade boys from low income families and who are enrolled in local public and private schools. Seventy-five percent of DNS students qualify for either HUD housing or the NC National Meal Plan.
“The bulk of our kids come from current parent-student [referrals],” said Moylan. Other applicants are found through organizations like Social Services, the local Boys & Girls Club’s and school referrals.
Of the 120 applications sent out last year, roughly 86 were returned and 59 were invited to attend Saturday Academy enrichment courses taught by the Durham Academy staff for several hours on consecutive Saturdays. Of those, 37 attended a Two-Day Camp that mixed ‘fun with discipline.’ For example, they participate in activities like the Durham Parks and Recreation skill rope courses. The fifth criteria for applicants is a summer camp held at the DNS for two weeks that is called Summerbridge – where the final selection is made.
“What we learn is what kind of kid you are, do you get along with people, do you have any behavioral issues we need to know about?” said Moylan. An interview, with both the student and parent individually, is the fourth step to this process and he explained: You’re not signing your son up for middle school, you’re signing your son up for an 11-year experience.
“Our parents sign a contract each year, they do 12 hours of service to the school per year and get a report card twice a year,” said Moylan. For example, car-pooling and babysitting for another DNS family could count towards their service.
Imagine that fifth-grade boy who spent the last few months in public school, barely getting by, trying to avoid the pressures of gangs and bad influences. Imagine an overcrowded school with inadequate materials, having teachers who spend time trying to control the class, as opposed to teaching it. Imagine the missed instruction and the lack of hope.
“What the faculty is selecting and agrees on is a group of kids they can get above grade level in three years,” said Moylan. “During the [first] three years your goal is to take children who are falling through the educational cracks and bring them above grade level.”
Now a DNS student, this same young boy is greeted each morning at the door by the headmaster at 7:45 a.m. with a handshake and a warm welcome. They are dressed to impress in khaki pants, blue button-down shirts, and striped blue and yellow ties. The first 45 minutes is a student-run assembly where they focus on issues like responsibility, announcements, their code. Sometimes they have guest speakers.
Chancellor Charlie Nelms, from NC Central University, was scheduled to visit DNS on March 12, at 7:45 a.m., to meet and talk to the boys. “I am especially interested in having the university formalize and strengthen its working relationship with the Durham Nativity School,” said Nelms. The boys recently sang at NCCU and Nelms said, “The melodious voices of the DNS choir made the recent appearance of Dr. Benjamin Carson an event to remember!”
These boys dive into an intense curriculum that includes math, science, language arts, social studies, Latin and Spanish, as well as a Religion course, offering a broad exposure to all religions. “We want children to understand in a community there are a variety of religions that believe in a higher being, and if you’re going to change a community you have to understand and respect what other people believe,” said Moylan.
The young boy now sits in smaller classes, usually with 15 peers, and has seven teachers, which provide a nurturing, encouraging environment. “We have a faculty of highly motivated, highly educated, having had experience teaching children in the inner-city and understanding these issues,” said Moylan.
Students’ academic days run until 3 p.m., and instead of going home to an empty house every afternoon, or going home to look after siblings, these boys find themselves with extra-curricular activities like athletics, arts enrichment, and most importantly community service. Their school social worker, Tachiana Vanderbilt, plays a unique role as the Graduate Support Person (GSP) – unlike a typical school social worker they work inside the homes to ensure not only the the child’s success, but the parent’s as well.
Instead of turning problems over to an outside agency, “She solves these problems – teaches the parent how to create a place in the home to study, goes to organizations and makes sure that there’s adequate furniture, and that they are living in the right area,” said Moylan. Last year, they made sure every student had a computer in their home.
Throughout this three-year journey, students are not only challenged academically, but are required to increase their community effort. “They see one, there are issues in the community and two, there are solutions to those issues,” said Moylan.
For example, students participate in Cross-Generational collaboration with the NCCU Athletics department where they work together at an elderly rehabilitation center, and the interaction between these three generations are being studied: the elderly patients, college students/athletes, middle school boys.
At the end of this grueling 36 month period, the end product is a middle-school child exposed to college preparatory curriculum and competitively ready to attend a private, college-preparatory high-school. These boys are now confident, enthusiastic, committed and responsible; and most importantly they are now academically above grade level.
So now this boy is a Nativity School graduate, the next step is to apply to independent (private Day and Boarding) schools that are in NC, as well as surrounding states like VA, GA, and SC. “We are looking to put children who are going from this very controlled, very intense, very responsible three-years to the next level that allows some freedom but still focused on getting them into college,” said Moylan.
“For a lower income kid to get into private school they figure you have to be in about the 30th percentile [on national private school entrance exams] for them to be able to get you in,” said Moylan. “Now, we as a school, are close to the 60th percentile, and we have a boy this year who is in the 80th percentile nationally.”
Because DNS students test way above the national averages and come from such a humble, successful model, private high schools are begging for students and most institutions are able to provide students full scholarships, some even offering the full package: room and board, tuition, travel, clothing and books, if DNS graduates will attend their institution.
“That’s what validates we are doing a good job. We have a good relationship with the DA’s and the Ravencrofts, and the Cary Academies that line up and say ‘we want kids’,” said Moylan. “And if a school can’t fully support a child, they [DNS board] will back that up.”
But the journey doesn’t end there. While away at high school, the GSP meets with students, parents and the school about once a month (during the first year), to ensure they are academically successful, their social needs are being met, and that they are committed to their community service – which they return home to do, mostly on week-ends and holidays.
“We have our first group in the university, in other words our first graduating class, which is small – five – and they are at NC State, Guilford and Elon,” said Moylan. The GSP follows the students through college as well, to make sure they have the support they need, whether it be academic or financial, and to make sure they are continuing their community service.
“We have three years to learn about providing job opportunities – in Durham – that are meaningful to these young men, so they will want to come back,” said Moylan. Since the school is only nine years old, he explained “…after the 11th year of the program (which is our first graduating class from college) we should add a nucleus of young men that have been together for 11 years, with a common vision to an organization” that is about community change.
Again this model represents community change, from the inside-out, not the other way around, and these young men truly represent the change agents of the future. From older Nativity model schools, Moylan explains these graduates are the people producing community change. They are “sort-of the movers and the shakers – making education better, changing the issues of politics, of crime and violence.”
This boy is now part of a community of young men bound for success.
1. Shot of kids: Jose Martinez and Mikael Waldon in their morning Spanish class at Durham Nativity School. Photo by Brandi Myers.
3. Durham Nativity School Headmaster Dr. Dan Vannelle and President Dr. Joe Moylan in Vannelle’s office at Durham Nativity School. Photo by Brandi Myers.