Durham alternative schools graduate formerly disconnected young people

May 24, 2018
Akheem Hurst is among 100-plus young people graduating from high school this year thanks to Durham alternative school programs.

“It’s not where you started, it’s where you end. Look at me now!”

Nineteen-year-old Akheem Hurst’s remarks at Achievement Academy of Durham’s graduation April 24 expressed the sentiments of more than 120 Durham youth, previously disconnected from school and work, who received high school diplomas and support for pursuing college and careers this year thanks to alternative school programs.

Achievement Academy, which helped 10 young people earn a high school credential this year, is one of four alternative school programs that collaborate through Made in Durham’s Durham Futures initiative to help students who have not graduated from high school get back on track for academic and career success.

The four play a key role in helping the partnership achieve its mission of ensuring all Durham youth graduate from high school, earn a post-secondary credential that is valued by the marketplace and enter a career by age 25, building a strong talent pipeline for local employers.

Made in Durham transition support specialist Rotcelis Morales Jones delivers keynote remarks at Achievement Academy of Durham’s graduation.

“Your education is the most important tool in your toolbox. It will open doors like never before,” Rotcelis Morales Jones, transition support strategist for Made in Durham, said during her keynote address at the graduation celebration. “Whatever fear, challenge or barrier that once stood in your way of receiving your education, you faced it and now you’ve made it!”

As many as 15 percent of Durham’s young people may be disconnected from school and work, while another 25 percent may not be prepared for careers, says Lorenza Wilkins, senior director of programs and operations for Made in Durham, who coordinates Durham Futures.

“It places our young people – and our community – at an economic disadvantage,” Wilkins says.

Durham Futures program partners – Achievement Academy of Durham, Durham Literacy Center’s Youth Education program, Durham Public Schools’ Performance Learning Center and Durham Technical Community College’s Gateway to College program – pilot a range of academic, career and social supports that help disconnected and at-risk youth succeed. This year, they helped 124 students graduate from high school.

Each program offers support and instruction to help students earn GEDs, as well as college and career counseling that helps students set goals, identify and apply for post-secondary options, apply for financial aid, learn career readiness skills and connect with work-based learning opportunities – all strategies that are important for students to get back on track and stay there.

“The diploma is not really the main event for us,” says Amy Fee, youth education program coordinator for Durham Literacy Center, which helped three Durham youth earn a high school diploma this year. “Having them enter secondary education or find employment is what we’re aiming for.”

United Way of the Greater Triangle supports Durham Futures by providing grants that fund two Made in Durham staff specialists. They provide college and career preparation, work-based learning and social supports for students in three of the four programs – Achievement Academy, Durham Literacy Center and Performance Learning Center, which graduated 86 students this year.

Durham Tech’s Gateway to College, which helped 25 previously disconnected young people earn a high school diploma and prepare to move to a post-secondary program this year, has its own support team.

“We have resource specialists to make sure students have the resources they need to be successful,” Gateway Director Dr. Marguerita Best says. “As soon as students come into the program, we’re talking to them about what they want to do post-secondary.”

Durham Tech specialists orient students to college and help them fill out applications and financial aid forms, enroll in academic programs that match their career interests, and overcome family and life barriers. “We find out which way they are going and help them get there,” Best says.

Durham Futures partners have worked for three years to test and refine interventions and services that help Durham’s formerly disconnected youth succeed. This year, with support from a $750,000, three-year grant from the Oak Foundation, they have begun working to scale the initiative to reach more students.

The Oak Foundation grant funds a full-time reengagement specialist who is working with the partners to develop an effective process for identifying more disconnected young people across Durham and provide pathways to place them in alternative programs that best meet their needs. Fifteen young people have been reengaged and placed in best-fit alternative programs since January.

As for Akheem, he says, “My next step is to get a trade that pays good so I can take care of my mama.”

For more information on Made in Durham’s Durham Futures initiative, contact Lorenza Wilkins at lwilkins@madeindurham.org or (919) 627-6421.

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Made in Durham is a community partnership of educators, business, government, youth-serving nonprofits and young people mobilized around a shared vision that all of Durham’s youth will complete high school and a post-secondary credential and begin a rewarding career by the age of 25.
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