Ashley: East Durham efforts bearing fruit

May. 11, 2013 @ 11:04 AM

I heard a great story from a former colleague last week, a story of small but telling measures to tackle seemingly overwhelming challenges.

April Johnson, who I worked with at Preservation Durham, on a recent Saturday helped with a project spearheaded by Ernest and Camryn Smith, who she described as “active, passionate community partners in the Old East Durham neighborhood.” 

They were doing a neighborhood clean-up – with an added twist. They were planting fruit trees on the grounds of a church at Main and North Driver streets.

Coincidentally, that same neighborhood activity came up when David Reese and Barker French from the East Durham Children’s Initiative met with The Herald-Sun’s editorial board a couple days later. They brought it up enthusiastically as a novel way to grapple with East Durham’s limited options to shop for healthy, reasonably priced food, especially fresh fruit and produce. One day, those trees will literally bear fruit that will at least help make a small dent in a “food desert.”

The fruit-tree planting is one of a host of initiatives coalescing to try go reverse the decades-long socioeconomic decline of East Durham. City and county governments, Durham Public Schools, Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, Self-Help Credit Union, and scores of residents and neighborhood groups – the list could go on and I’d still leave out key players.

East Durham Children’s Initiative is one of the most ambitious. Many committed individuals helped birth EDCI, none more so than the passionate and relentless Barker French. It’s impossible to hear him and David Reese, who signed on three years ago as the organization’s first executive director, talk about their efforts without sharing their enthusiasm.

EDCI focuses on a 120-block area. The statistics as its work got underway, as listed by EDCI,were daunting:

-- Four in 10 residents are below the federal poverty level. That is more than three times the 12.7 percent poverty rate in Durham County as a whole – a number itself painfully high.

-- Nearly six in every 10 households in the zone receive some form of public assistance.

-- Unemployment is 13.4 percent, nearly three times the countywide rate of 4.7 percent.

-- The zone confronts “high rates of crime, teen pregnancy, child maltreatment, disconnected youth, food insecurity, lack of access to high quality childcare and healthy food sources.”

At Y.E. Smith Elementary School, in the heart of the EDCI zone and the focus of many of its efforts, 95 percent of its roughly 350 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

At the heart of EDCI’s efforts is the belief that change won’t come without a coordinated, multi-pronged effort. It aims to provide “a continuum of services for children extending from cradle to college or career.”  It has harnessed more than 20 partners – and works closely with the community so that residents are among the engineers of the efforts.

The efforts are paying off.

Perhaps the most encouraging numbers emerge at Y.E. Smith, where Durham Public Schools has been working to change one of the state’s lowest-performing schools, and where EDCI has focused many efforts.

Preliminary data for the past school year show a composite proficiency score on state assessment tests of nearly 62 percent – considerably up from last year’s 48 percent.  The school has met 100 percent of state assessment goals, and attendance – critically important to academic success – is at 95 percent.

Those fruit trees at Main and Driver are a fitting symbol of change taking root in a neighborhood whose health is critical to Durham’s future.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. He can be reached at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.