From the president: Supporting schools and communities

When I visited Durham’s Lakewood Elementary last month, the smart students in Ms. Ledwith’s first-grade class were having a spelling contest. Divided into teams of five, they raced each other to spell green, week, feet, and—perhaps for the benefit of their visitor—Duke.

“D-U-K-E!” one student called out. “That’s my team!” As I said—smart kids. I was at Lakewood with Vice President for Durham and Community Affairs Stelfanie Williams to visit with Principal James Hopkins and hear about the ways that Duke is supporting the school in its efforts to be a school of excellence.

When Principal Hopkins came to Lakewood in 2017, it was a failing school, slated for takeover by the state board of education. With his vision—and in part through partnerships with Duke’s Office for Durham Affairs and our program in education— he has transformed it into a model for the city.

Hopkins met us at the entrance to the school, a bright space decorated with student artwork and supportive notes from parents. He greeted by name the passing students—most of them from the diverse neighborhoods that lie between the school and Duke’s campus.

“Lakewood is Durham,” he told me and Stelfanie. “Our school sits in a neighborhood that reflects the demographics of our city.” He recognizes that positive student outcomes often start outside school, and he has created a community literacy night to support reading among his students and literacy among their parents.

The goal is simple, he said: “We want them to think of our school as a community hub.”

Likewise, Duke recognizes that all of our work in the community starts with our schools. If we can get this engagement right, we’ll benefit for generations. So we’ve invested in initiatives like Stepping Stones, which is strengthening Durham Public Schools’ reach to children with little to no preschool experience and preparing them for school, and the K-12 Technology Mentor Program, which helps students and teachers access the latest technological innovations.

Supporting our public schools is only one piece of Duke’s engagement with Durham, a comprehensive effort that Stelfanie oversees at the Office of Durham Affairs. From economic development to affordable housing, early childhood to workforce education, the office collaborates with a host of Duke and community-based partners to support our neighbors in leading healthier and more prosperous lives.

As we were walking in the halls, Hopkins introduced us to another face of Duke’s engagement—Duke first-year student Brynne O’Shea, a volunteer from the Partners for Success program, which pairs tutors in our undergraduate education program with mentees at Durham Public Schools. I couldn’t help but notice that she was proudly wearing a Duke sweatshirt.

We chatted for a moment—she had just been tutoring her mentee—but she had to rush off. “I have to get back to campus,” she said. “I’ve got class!”

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