First-grader D’erica Cotton tugs on Felicia Harper’s hand, eager to begin her first day at Union Independent School (now Global Scholars Academy). It is Aug. 19, 2009, the long-awaited opening day of the free school for the children of economically distressed northeast-central Durham.
Nearly 70 little ones arrive in new uniforms: dark blue pants or skirts and neckties with pale yellow shirts—to which some parents have added matching blue and yellow hair ribbons or beads and lacy yellow socks.
Two men in dark GQ suits, both beaming, tower above the deluge of energetic kindergartners through second graders. They are giants by comparison to the youngsters scurrying about their knees.
Eight years ago, the idea for the school took hold of Rev. Kenneth Hammond of Union Baptist Church on North Roxboro Street in Durham and James H. Johnson, Jr., the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School and director of the Kenan Institute’s Urban Investment Strategies Center.
The school is an outgrowth of the Durham Scholars Program, an after-school, weekend, and summer tutoring and enrichment program for sixth- through 12th-graders in northeast-central Durham, housed at Union Baptist. Since 1996, there have been 240 Durham Scholars. Eighty percent graduated from high school and half went to college. Each graduate qualified for a $10,000 college scholarship from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, which committed $10 million to the program.
Durham Scholars taught Johnson and Hammond a great deal about working with underprivileged children. “We needed intervention that began much earlier,” said Hammond.
Union Baptist raised $2 million and borrowed $8 million to buy land across the street and build the 49,000-square-foot school. Johnson, a member of the church, designed an operating model for the school that adds special elements to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study: nutrition education, character development, entrepreneurship, global awareness, and economic literacy. The school operates year-round, from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, to provide extra tutoring and enrichment. It is now a charter school.
During the extended-day program, students learn about poetry and plays and practice writing, vocabulary, and public speaking. They play outside in secured playgrounds or inside the school’s full-size gym. During the traditional school day, they study language arts, math, science, social studies, theater, and Spanish.
“The goal is to have them bilingual by eighth grade,” said Head of School Troy K. Weaver.
All this takes place in a community where drug deals and gang activity are common. Half of all households are headed by single females, 98 percent of residents are minorities, and 40 percent of the children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level.
“From the streets to the suites” is where Johnson hopes Union Independent will take them. The school will add a new kindergarten class and another grade every year until it teaches students through the eighth grade. Eventually, Johnson and Hammond believe, the facility can also be a community resource, used for health care, fitness, healthy cooking classes, and more for adults in the area.
“It’s wonderful to see a vision coming into focus,” said Johnson, who drew on his years of research on urban areas, inequality, and underprivileged youth to design the operating model.
“There’s no better experience than to see young, excited kids coming to this school. Their job is to be excited. Our job is to maintain it. We have a talented staff committed to making sure these kids get to where they need to go.”
Johnson grew up poor in eastern North Carolina. He earned a doctorate in geography at age 26 and went on to teach at UCLA, studying urban poverty and how to build bridges between academic research and social action—between the haves and the have-nots.
At Kenan-Flagler, Johnson teaches courses on entrepreneurial and business-oriented strategies and approaches to poverty alleviation, job creation, and community economic development.
“There are pressing social problems we should be addressing, and I had to do something,” he told Fast Company magazine in a 2007 story. “I’ve always believed I was put on this Earth to make a difference.”