'YOU HAVE A FUTURE'
A once-crumbling school building has been reborn as an expanded Maureen Joy Charter School, heralding another step forward for the East Durham community.
Supporters gathered in the fully restored auditorium at the former Y.E. Smith Elementary School on Wednesday to cut ceremonial blue and gold ribbons.
“This is a breath of fresh air for this community,” said Durham County Commissioner Michael Page.
It marked the end of a 3-year project that drew both public and private support.
Originally opened in 1910 as the East Durham Graded School, the building was renamed in 1925 after former board member Y.E. Smith following the annexation of East Durham by the city. The historic, turn-of–the-century schoolhouse originally served all grade levels. Maureen Joy serves students in kindergarten through 8th grade.
With about 54,000 square feet of space and a price tag of more than $10 million, Maureen Joy now has three floors for educating children, including a science lab, music room, art room and media center. Students entering the building are greeted by colorful accent walls, an abundance of natural light and high ceilings.
Each classroom is named after a college, usually the one attended by the teacher, to keep college in the front of the minds of the students.
The landscaped exterior of the campus surrounds a blue and gold playground and a lot behind it that will soon be a gym after funds are raised. They’ve even got space for a garden close to the building that can be watered using collected rainwater.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell said that the new Maureen Joy is an indication of a city willing to do what it takes to survive by putting resources into its communities.
“The city has really made an investment in our inner city communities, particularly in East Central Durham,” Bell said. “We know that to have a strong city you have to have strong communities. Now when I come to East Central Durham, I no longer think of it being depressing. It’s rising. It’s really about people and a way of life.”
Maureen Joy Charter School is a free school that provides college preparatory academics and character development for children living in low-income areas of Durham. The school works to create well-rounded students who, as adults, should be able to compete in the world and contribute to society.
Durham County Commission Vice Chair Brenda Howerton toured the new facility and was amazed at how the building had been restored and combined the old with the new. She wished she could attend the school now as a young student.
“It’s fabulous. It’s just fabulous,” she said. “I can imagine children coming here have to feel proud to come in here each day. The space, the classrooms are small, they took such care of the floors. It’s just wonderful.”
Tucker Bartlett, executive vice president of Self-Help Ventures Fund, explained that Self-Help understands the value of helping East Durham.
“We celebrate the diversity of black, Latino, white and Asian children learning together,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett recalled his own experience in the inner city schools of Atlanta, Ga. They were diverse but lacked an element that Maureen Joy is known for.
“We celebrated this diversity (in Atlanta inner city schools), but thinking back, we celebrated the diversity but it did not change the natural trajectory of our lives. Maureen Joy is improving the trajectory of its scholars’ lives and that is worth celebrating.”
Bartlett said that the completion of this project during hard economic times proves that willpower and creativity can overcome a perceived lack of funding. He added that $4 out of every $5 spent on the project remained in Durham. Tax credits helped cover part of the project costs, along with donations and grants.
Maureen Joy was initially educating students at Braggtown Baptist Church. Moving into trailers after enrollment grew, the school was most recently on Cornwallis Road.
Michael Jones, a representative for U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, read her remarks. Hagan said that “this campus is a source of pride for this entire community” and the renewing of the investment in Central Durham.
Eri Guckian, senior education advisor to Gov. Pat McCrory and former executive director of Teach For America, spoke highly of Maureen Joy and of the importance of teachers.
“This place represents everything that is good about education in this state,” he began. “We also need to celebrate the teachers here today who are setting those high goals. The growth shown in this very short amount of time is really, really, remarkable. “
Maureen Joy Board of Directors Chair Helen Bryant has been with the school since it began in 1997 and was happy to see this goal achieved.
“This new campus brings this academic experience full circle,” she said, “to be a model of an urban public charter school. Here at Maureen Joy, we are putting our scholars on the path to college and fundamentally improving their community.”
In 1947, Beal Rowland attended what has since been transformed into Maureen Joy. He walked up to the microphone and spoke highly of his community.
“I was at school here in 1947 and I am proud to say I belong to East Durham.,” he said. “I believe in it and I stand up for it.”
Current Maureen Joy student Jessice Agbemavor is in her second year at the charter school.
“This is one of the best schools I’ve been to,” she said. “At this school they want us to succeed. They talk to us about college, about having a future for ourselves. They don’t lower their expectations because you did bad on something or because you might be from a bad home life.
“They teach that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you have a future. They welcome you with a smile and they encourage me to do my best.”