On one of the VOICE’s first student bus tours years ago, I remember Earl “Big Earl” Phillips, at the time, the city’s assistant director for community engagement, telling us that in a few years some places we visited would not be recognizable.
Back then, many of the houses around the Golden Belt complex had not been renovated. The new Eastway and Franklin Village communities had not debuted. The building that would become the Holton Career Center was still boarded up and Joe’s Diner at Angier Avenue and Driver Street was in its infancy.
Listening to Phillips and Melva Henry’s comments, many of us looked at each other with these knowing looks like, “Sure, Earl.”
Fast-forward almost six years to our most recent tour, and I found myself telling this newest crop of reporters and photographers just how right he was.
The proof is in the pudding – just look at the new Maureen Joy Charter School.
The 100-plus year-old building was once the East Durham Graded School and later the old Y.E. Smith Elementary. After the elementary school moved, the building served various roles, most recently as storage, and began to fail structurally including a partial roof collapse, water and termite damage.
And there it stood, at 107 S. Driver St., almost like a testament of hard times that had fallen on this community.
But after a helping hand from Self-Help venture funding, architectural work and restoration by Durham-based Belk Architecture and about $10 million in funding, the scholars of the city’s oldest charter school can call the once segregated school, home.
The institution, where almost 98 percent of students are minorities, will move from its location on Cornwallis Road to the community that many of them live, next school year.
A majority of the school’s students, 87 percent, receive free lunch and even so, MJCS is still rated as one of the best charter schools in the state. Of the K-8th grade scholars, as students are often referred as, almost 81 percent scored advanced or proficient on their end-of-grade assessments for the 2011-2012 school year.
After a festive ribbon cutting that included city officials, state senators and other dignitaries, students, faculty and community members, the building is now a new testament — one of education as an anchor of hope.
Sen. Floyd McKissick called the new building “excellent” with its original wood floors refinished and light fixtures similar to those used during the original school period, and said it could help the school fulfill its “higher purpose” for students and the neighborhood.
Likewise, Sen. Mike Woodard believes it will be a “catalyst” for the neighborhood as a needed anchor.
If I’ve learned absolutely nothing else in my community journalism adventures, it’s that schools and churches are true anchors of any community. They help make a community, well, a community.
Desmera Gatewood is a first-year 3rd grade teacher at MJCS and a Durham native. She remembers the boarded up windows of this historic building.
“Now it’s bright and beautiful and actually conducive to learning,” she said.
This ribbon cutting shows what a community can do when it pulls together. Bill Rowland spoke to the crowd as a student who came to the school in 1947 and grew up a few blocks away.
His perspective on the new school and his community was simple and summed up how many folks who have been around the neighborhood for a while feel.
“I’m proud to be from East Durham,” he said. “ A lot of people don’t believe it, but I am.”
Pride was a word echoed in comments throughout the afternoon.
It took three years from the project’s conception to finish and $4 out of every $5 spent stayed in Durham.
That’s quite a feat during these tough times.
And although things are looking up around here, they still have a way to go.
MJCS’s rock star principle, Alex Quigley, has worked in schools in some of the poorest areas of the nation – from the Mississippi Delta to our own Eastern N.C. where he served as executive director for Teach for America.
Around the school he has a saying:
“If better is possible, then good is not enough.”
Well said. Onward and upward.