Durham Nativity School Creates a ‘Pipeline for Success’

Durham Nativity School Creates a ‘Pipeline for Success’

An administrator and former students share their experiences at the tuition-free middle school for boys

Lateef Mitchell shakes the hand of eighth-grader Julian as he enters one of the DNS classrooms. Photo by Briana Brough

Drivers racing north on Roxboro Street might not notice the boys in French blue dress shirts and striped ties milling about near the sidewalk, or the sign at the intersection with East Trinity Avenue that reads “Durham Nativity School.” But those familiar with the institution say it’s one of the city’s little-known treasures.

An independent middle school established in 2002, Durham Nativity School (DNS) has a mission of supporting low-income boys all across the city. Tuition is free, class sizes are small (each grade has roughly 15 students), and service and faith components are woven into the curriculum. Most important, graduates are assisted in applying to and paying for attendance at private high schools and then college, which the vast majority attends. The school’s tiny size and laser-focused mission created a close community of students, alumni, faculty and staff that they say serves as a supportive second family.

Maura Sullivan, director of admissions, who’s been with the school for 14 years:

“This is our 15th year. It was started by my father, Joseph Moylan, who was a lover of education. He thought the model was fantastic; it has an extended day and an extended year. This is the first year we’re offering fifth grade.

We have very, very high expectations. We hold the boys in high regard. It’s not one strike, you’re out – these are middle school boys, after all. We cultivate them as learners. There’s time in the afternoons for homework help, to cultivate their study skills. Usually they come in about two grades behind. When they leave in eighth grade, we would like them to be above grade level. There’s a lot of expectation of parents, too; they sign a parent agreement.

We’re always looking for a capable learner who might have that drive to be self-motivated and a self-starter. The kids are referred by parents, churches, teachers. It’s grassroots recruitment. At the Compare [Foods supermarket], if I see a mom with a kid who seems the right age, I’ll talk to her about the school. My Uber driver this past summer told me he had a son, so I asked how old he was, and then I asked, ‘Do you know where he’s going next year?’ I gave him my card, and now his son is in our fifth-grade class.”

BACK ROW Durham Nativity School (DNS) students Julian, 13, and Amir, 13, with DNS grad Lateef Mitchell. FRONT ROW Kelvin, 11, Alex, 12, and David, 12, with DNS Director of Admissions Maura Sullivan. Photo by Briana Brough
Lateef Mitchell, community engagement coordinator with the East Durham Children’s Initiative as part of Americorps-Public Allies; enrolled at DNS in 2002:

“I was born with ADHD; I was doing well in school but needed the teachers to slow down. My mom said, ‘We need to find a place where you can get that undivided attention that you deserve.’ She got on the computer, found DNS, and they said, ‘Come to an open house at the Durham County Library.’ We went, and they told us about college preparatory schools, which of course intrigued my mom. They helped us with the application process.

Once it started – I believe there were about 15 to 20 of us in the school; it was very small. We stayed at school till about 7 at night. We came from rougher neighborhoods, and they wanted to make sure we had something constructive going on. They’d partnered with the YMCA and we played ball, swam; they opened up this network of opportunities for us. And this was in the first year.

It was such a different style. Uniforms – shirt and tie, black belt, black shoes – all boys. It was tough academically. They said they wouldn’t cut any corners. They did have to play catch up with some of us, but they caught us up. The challenging part was the expectation on us. But we grew. Every DNS man understands challenges. It’s one of the things they try to teach: success, integrity, hard work and being upstanding.

I ended up going to Guilford College. I was prepared for the writing intensive because of the background at DNS. The different things that DNS teaches you come back at different times in your life. It’s really a pipeline for success.

I have friends who are in prison; I come from a background where those people exist. I don’t associate with that negativity and crime, but I do offer resources to anyone who wants it. DNS taught me that: No judgment, just love.”

Aaron Harrington, currently performing as Tom Collins in the touring production of “Rent”; enrolled at DNS in 2003:

“It wasn’t nearly as tough to get used to as I’d imagined. We all clicked pretty instantly and became a tight-knit family. We were so small [that] you really knew everyone there; there was nothing to be nervous about. That also helped with the curriculum because if there was any time you didn’t understand anything, you were comfortable enough to go to your professors – and that was conducive to learning.

It definitely helped me become more of a people person. It helped me speak to people in a certain way – for example, shaking hands. We learned how to have a firm handshake, look someone in the eye and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ Being respectful.

It was all packaged; they didn’t just develop the curriculum, they developed you, as a man, a young black man in Durham. And that was amazing, because I’m now able to comfortably speak to just about anyone. And of course it’s developed even more as I grew up and went to different schools and met different people, but that spark was developed there.

DNS was all about teaching – it taught a lot more than just would be learned in the classroom. My teachers all cared about my well-being, and you could feel that, and that made you comfortable very quickly. I still keep up with my teachers. Just about all of them have come to see me in this play, and a few of my schoolmates as well. When I say it’s tight-knit, it’s tight-knit.”