Two years ago the PTA at Y.E. Smith Elementary Museum School had one active parent, and she lived in Raleigh.
Last Thursday night, a PTA meeting attracted about 40 people – and seven parents volunteered to serve as officers.
Principal Letisha Judd told the story during a walk in her school’s attendance zone Saturday. The new interest excites her, and it’s an excitement she and others hope to spread through the East Durham Children’s Initiative.
The program 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 say they’re already seeing results.
A meeting next week will look at ways to measure progress. The walk’s purpose was for EDCI director David Reese, chairman Barker French and others to lead people through the neighborhood, 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.
Later as he stepped through the fall leaves down Driver Street, Reese explained how EDCI is trying to create community in 120 square blocks where 80 percent of the homes are rental and 90 percent of the elementary students qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.
EDCI has begun reaching out to new parents through Durham Connects, where nurses evaluate newborns. If the program succeeds, a “pipeline” of services will follow each child until college or a career. Last school year saw tutoring, summer camps and a playground built behind the United Methodist Church in The Shepherd’s House on Driver.
The Rev. John Gumbo was skeptical when Reese first talked to him about building a playground.
“I didn’t trust him,” said Gumbo, whose mostly African congregation 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.”
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 few years ago as many in one in 10 absentee-owned buildings was vacant or abandoned.
Judd, the 41-year-old principal, remembers when it wasn’t that way. She 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.
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 Saturday afternoon. “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!” 7-year-old Travion Hayes, a second-grader calls out, before he rushes up to hug the principal’s knees.
Judd says it’s been wonderful to work with EDCI to help give all children the education and family support they need.
“I tell you, I would love the see this community rebuild,” she said. “I would love to see it.”