Educators focused on making east Durham a bright spot for students

KIPP Durham College Preparatory is working with a new program focused on closing the achievement gap and to meet students' needs.

Posted Updated

Lora Lavigne
, WRAL Durham reporter
DURHAM, N.C. — Some educators in Durham are taking on the new school year with a passion to make sure students in low-income communities can succeed academically.

KIPP Durham College Preparatory is working with a new program focused on closing the achievement gap and to meet students' needs.

“This year, we've been very intentional about building a brand-new culture,” said KIPP Durham College Prep School Wayne Muhammad. “Instructional culture, operational culture, behavioral culture.

“KIPP has had its challenges since its inception here in 2015. And so, we wanted to come in and just make sure that kids understood what our expectations are for them.”

KIPP Durham is using innovative teaching methods to help pave a way for the next generation. The school leaders are taking a unique approach to education to serve a more diverse group of students.

The school is located at 1107 Holloway St. in the heart of east Durham, and staff have been working hard to make this a bright spot in the Durham community.

The student body is comprised of about 55% African American and 45% Hispanic/Latino students. The overwhelming majority of students come from the same tough neighborhoods in East Durham.

“Our goal is to make sure that every kid has the opportunity to go to college,” said Graham Witherspoon, Dean of Culture and Instruction. ”We plant that seed at a very, very early age, the opportunity and you don't have to go but you have the opportunity.”

Witherspoon began his new role over the summer as the new Dean of Culture and Instruction.

“They come in with things they see from the neighborhood and just life,” Witherspoon said. “All the kids, all the kids come into classrooms with that right?

And teachers do a great job bearing that responsibility. A lot of people don't understand that. Teachers hear a lot and have to endure a lot and support. We just have people who support.”

Witherspoon’s time in education in Durham comes after many years serving in the Raleigh Police Department, and then becoming a principal in Wake County Public School System.

“It starts when you first get on the bus right, and I tell them, ‘Your mindset has to change and when they get off the bus I'm the first thing they see,’” Witherspoon said. “ I give each kid a hand bump and I go, ‘Alright, let's go to work.’”

Witherspoon mentioned the importance of student safety, both emotionally and physically.

“[That’s] first and foremost,” Witherspoon said. “That’s the first thing about culture. So, when they get here, they understand they have somebody to talk to and they have just a variety of different teachers to talk to and some that looks like them.”

This school year kicked off with a “Chant-Off” competition between the sixth, seventh and eighth graders. It’s a fun way to build community and leadership among students as the remixed songs to incorporate the core values of the school.

“Everything we do is intentional,” Muhammad said.

Helping underserved communities, the school is located in an area plagued by gun violence with a poverty and unemployment rate three times greater than the national average.

“We want students to get all the academic information that they can we want them to learn,” Muhammad said. “e want them to be successful academics.

We also want their lives, we want their perspectives and their viewpoints on what's possible for them and also for other people to be transformed. We want them to leave the world better than they found it and we want them to be able to walk away from here knowing their place in the world and knowing exactly what they can do to make the world better to make themselves and their family and their communities better.”

Following the hardships of learning through the pandemic, the new administration is revamping its structure to fit the needs here.

“Here, we go to school a little longer. Our days are a lot longer,” Witherspoon said. “We go from 7:30 a.m. and the kids leave at 4 p.m., and it's really intense on excellence, [how] you walk, how you talk.”

Witherspoon mentioned the school’s clubs and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program.

“We also have clubs. We have STEM. We have dance and we just bring all that together, but it doesn't work if we're not academically excellent,” Witherspoon said. “That’s all we're focused on is academic excellence for some kids who may not have a chance.”

Numbers show low-income alumni of KIPP schools are graduating college at three to four times the national average.

Muhammad has a goal to remove barriers for these students to achieve it all.

“Our kids need to understand exactly what they're capable of,” he said. “We need them to believe in what's possible. And we need to change their perception of what they're able to do, not just here at the school with their lives.”

To learn more about KIPP Durham, visit its website.


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