Ribbon cutting for new pre-K classrooms at historic Whitted School

A group of city officials, school board members, and others gather for the official ribbon cutting during the opening ceremony of the new pre-k program at Whitted. (Staff photo by Justin Laidlaw)


Minnie Forte-Brown and Cora Cole-McFadden have a storied history here in Durham. Both are alumni of the former Whitted Junior High School where they now sat, sharing a laugh as they tripped down memory lane alongside an enthusiastic group of city and county officials, school board members, and others during the ribbon cutting and reopening of the reconstructed historic Durham landmark.

Mike Lee, Chair of the Durham School Board, was the first of many speakers during the morning’s event, stating that the renovation project was a “full community effort.” Lee painted a picture of historic Hayti district, reminiscing about the success of black enterprise in the early 1900s that included educational institutions like James A. Whitted.

Bruce dePyssler, associate professor at NCCU and advisor for the Campus Echo student newspaper, worked with NCCU students in 2012 on a documentary titled “Upbuilding Whitted School” that premiered at Center for Documentary Studies on April 30, 2012. dePyssler, known to students as “DP,” said, partly in jest, that their work spurred discussions about what to do with the building.

“The thing that really stood out was how important it was to everybody we talked to,” said DePyssler. One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Pat Murray, publisher of the Durham Skywriter, who moved to Durham 16 years ago to care for her aunt who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Murray describes how “even in the fog of Alzheimer’s, she never forgot Whitted” when they would drive by the school.

This ribbon cutting was particularly heartwarming for Forte-Brown, a Durham school board member, who remembers the impact of the Hayti district and what it meant for the community.

“Anything that a black child wanted to become could be found in excellence on Fayetteville Street and the Hayti,” said Forte-Brown.

For Durham’s leaders, this exemplifies the necessity for universal pre-K education throughout the county.

“Durham has a long history of valuing education,” said Linda Chappel, senior vice president of the Triangle Area Child Care Resource and Referral Services. Chappel was part of the task force in charge of developing the proposal for early childhood education in Durham County.

“Not enough of our kids are entering kindergarten ready to excel,” said Chappel. As Durham’s economy continues to grow, so does its challenges, one of which being access to resources for the city’s less affluent. The pre-K programs at Whitted are an effort by the city and county to combat some of the issues as early as possible.

“We need more people to feel at home at the table [in these discussions] and know their voices are heard,” said Chappel.

The facility will operate under Durham Public Schools with eight classrooms serving 144 children. According to the DPS website, “priority will be given to children living in zones for the following elementary schools:  C.C. Spaulding, Eastway, Fayetteville Street, Lakewood, W.G. Pearson and Y.E. Smith.”

In addition to pre-K classrooms, Whitted is furnished with 79 affordable housing units, know as The Veranda, for citizens 62 years and older. About 32 apartments have already been leased as of June 2017 according to The Herald-Sun.

“What we are witnessing today is a result of partnership, innovation, vision, and hard work,” said Wendy Jacobs, Chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners. The project was funded by a mixture of private and public dollars, tax credits, and grant money to make the restoration possible.

“To quote Carl Webb,” said Jacobs, “this is a public-private partnership on steroids.

Now, the city looks forward as they continue to push for even more pre-K access in the coming years. Chappel believes that anything is possible.

“Some people said this was too ambitious… Nothing is too ambitious for Durham’s children.”