StudentU working to equip more Durham students to succeed

[Note: This was written for The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.]

DURHAM, N.C. — Preparing more kids in Durham to graduate from high school, enroll in college and graduate, and then find ways to help other students succeed in school and life is the focus of a $25,000 grant to Durham nonprofit StudentU.

With the funds, from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham, StudentU aims to double — to 30 — the number of college students it employs who work with middle-school students in its summer and year-long programs.

It also plans to double — to 40 — the number of internships it provides for high school students who work with middle- and other high-school students and at local nonprofits.

“We want to see a Durham where all kids can succeed,” says Dan Kimberg, founder and advancement director of StudentU. “We believe the way to get there is for our students to actually be the leaders who change the system.”

Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Biddle Foundation, says StudentU is preparing students to thrive.

“With support and encouragement,” she says, “students who face difficult odds in school and in life can believe in themselves, find a path to success, and give back by looking for ways to create greater opportunities for kids like themselves.”

The Foundation made the grant as part of the celebration of its 60th anniversary.

Preparing for college

Inspired by a summer job in New Orleans after his freshman year at Duke that paired college students with middle-school students, Kimberg founded StudentU after graduating from Duke in 2007.

Operating with an annual budget of $2.1 million, a staff of 18 people working full-time and up to 150 working part-time, StudentU is serving 450 students this year, a number that will grow to 500 in its new class that begins next March.

It works with students at all 18 middle schools and all 12 high schools in Durham, and partners mainly with students at Duke and North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

All public school students participating in StudentU begin in sixth grade, most qualify for school lunches that are free or at a reduced price, most are students of color, and most are the first in their families to go to college.

Among students who began StudentU in sixth grade, 110 currently are pursuing bachelors’ degrees, including a few who transferred after graduating from community college. In 2017 the first of those students will graduate from a four-year college.

School-year program

StudentU offers school-year and summer programs.

During the school year, 150 students in grades six, seven and eight participating in StudentU visit the W.G. Pearson Center five days a week after school for three hours a day. Learning specialists teach them literacy and math. Students also participate in dance, orchestra and arts clubs, and get help with homework.

About 190 students in grades nine through 12 participate in StudentU at their schools. StudentU hires and pays a stipend to teachers and guidance counselors already working at the schools who serve as advocates for the StudentU students in their schools.

Each advocate works with a group of four students who meet one-on-one with the advocate every week to make sure they are on track to graduate and enroll in college. And once a month, all the StudentU students and advocates in a school meet to talk about their progress and challenges they face.

During the school year, StudentU students visit about 15 colleges in North Carolina. Before applying to college, each StudentU student visits a total of about 35 colleges.

StudentU employs full-time college advisers who provide support through the application process to its high school juniors and seniors, along with their parents.

Summer program

During the summer, 150 middle-school students attend a six-week StudentU summer program at Durham Academy five days a week, eight hours a day, while 100 ninth-and-10th-graders attend a five-week summer academy and spend another week visiting six or seven out-of-state colleges with high rates of retention of students who are the first in their families to attend college.

And 90 11th-and-12th-graders hold StudentU internships, either at its campus, supporting the operations of its middle-school and high-school academies, or at local nonprofits.

Student support

StudentU employs a full-time social worker to help address the individual needs of students and families, and to manage health partnerships. The social worker works to make sure each student has a primary care doctor, helps arrange or directly provides psychological therapy for those who need it, and arranges for annual vision screening for each student, with those who need prescription eyeglasses getting a free pair.

StudentU also employs one full-time learning specialist who work directly with individual students with the greatest academic needs.

College students

StudentU employs college students to teach middle-school students. And it provides support for college students who began participating in StudentU in sixth grade.

Each semester, the full-time StudentU “college success coordinator” meets one-on-one on campus with each StudentU college student. And each August and winter break, StudentU students participate in a retreat that features experts who talk about key factors for college success, such as time management; getting the most from college advisers; racial identity at white institutions; and dealing with drugs, alcohol and sex on campus.

StudentU also makes gifts up to $500 per family to help keep their children from leaving college because of a financial emergency.

Parents’ role

The parent of every high-school student and middle-school student in StudentU receives a phone call at least every three weeks or two weeks, respectively, that focuses on the student’s progress and on what the organization can do to better support the family.

A parents council, known as Guardians for StudentU, works to support the StudentU staff, and the council head serves on StudentU’s board of directors.

Other communities

Twenty-three communities throughout the U.S. have asked StudentU to consider expanding to their communities. While it has declined because it wants to focus on Durham, it shares with them for free a 515-page document outlining how its programs work. This summer, based on that model, Gaston County in North Carolina launched a program starting with middle-school students.

Long-term goals

StudentU aims over the long-term to help students achieve educational success; gain the knowledge they need to achieve financial security as adults; make progress toward reaching their full personal potential; and become traditional and non-traditional leaders in Durham and other communities who are equipped to help make long-term systemic change happen.

Consider Casey Barr-Rios: She enrolled in StudentU as a sixth-grader and now is a junior at North Carolina Central University and the first person in her family to go to college. She also is the full-time executive assistant at StudentU, and a member of the board of directors of Made In Durham, a community partnership that aims to help Durham youth complete high school, get a post-secondary credential, and begin a rewarding career by age 25.

“As a result of structural racism and systemic inequalities, the odds are against students of color in the Durham Public Schools,” Kimberg says. “We want to see a Durham where all kids can succeed. We are helping students discover their best selves so they can change the system around them.”

Biddle Foundation grants celebrate 60 years of impact

[Note: This was written for The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.]

DURHAM, N.C. — On September 14, 1956, when Mary Duke Biddle established her philanthropic foundation, inspiring the foundation’s mission were lessons she had learned growing up in a family that believed in supporting causes and communities it cared about.

So she decided her new philanthropy would focus on making modest gifts that could multiply over time, providing access to education, enriching lives and communities through music and the arts, lifting up impoverished people through churches and congregations, and providing critical aid to communities.

In its first 60 years, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation has awarded nearly $43 million to those causes in North Carolina, where Mrs. Biddle was born and raised, and in New York City, where she lived for 20 years as an adult before returning to Durham.

Now, to celebrate its 60th anniversary, the Foundation has awarded five special grants totaling $125,000 to support efforts in North Carolina and New York City to boost the arts and arts education, to use orchestral training to equip more underserved kids to thrive, and to prepare more at-risk kids to succeed in school and life.

“The philanthropic legacy of Mary Duke Biddle continues to advance the arts and improve the lives of youth, particularly those who are less advantaged, in the communities she loved,” says Mimi O’Brien, executive director of the Foundation.

Making an impact

The five special grants — $25,000 each to the Durham Arts Council, Kidznotes and StudentU, all in Durham; the Asheville Art Museum; and UpBeat NYC in the South Bronx — are designed to have a bigger impact on individual organizations and the people they serve. These awards are made in addition to the Foundation’s regular annual giving, including approximately 40 grants of $5,000 each in response to requests from nonprofits in North Carolina and New York City.

“Arts and youth education remain critical, ongoing needs in our community,” O’Brien says. “These special grants represent an investment to help innovative nonprofits make an even bigger difference expanding the impact of the arts and creating opportunities for young people to succeed.”

With the help of the five grants:

* Durham Arts Council will develop an online arts directory and continue to invest in

career development for emerging artists, underscoring Durham’s growing reputation as a hub for the arts.

* Kidznotes will use orchestral training to equip more underserved students to succeed in school and life, continue its expansion into economically-distressed Southeast Raleigh, and consider expanding to other parts of the Triangle region.

* StudentU will prepare more kids in Durham to graduate from high school, enroll in college and graduate, and then find ways to help their peers succeed in school and life.

* The Asheville Art Museum will provide access to arts education and activities to more underserved children in Asheville, Buncombe County and three rural counties in Western North Carolina.

* UpBeat NYC will provide free music training and orchestral instruction to more at- risk children in the South Bronx, along with hope for the future and a better chance to succeed in school and life.

Philanthropic legacy

Mary Duke Biddle, the daughter of Benjamin Newton Duke and granddaughter of Washington Duke, attended public schools in Durham, and in 1907 graduated from Trinity College, now Duke University.

Her father and uncle, James B. Duke, using wealth generated from tobacco, textile and electric power industries they developed in North Carolina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gave generously to their community and became known for their philanthropy. Both were benefactors of Durham’s Trinity College, and in 1924, through the newly chartered Duke Endowment, the college was named Duke University in honor of their father.

In establishing her own Foundation, Mary Duke Biddle designated that half the grant funding would go to Duke University, with the rest going to non-profit organizations that support a variety of causes in North Carolina and New York.

Mary Duke Biddle died in 1960 at age 73. For many years, the Foundation was led by her daughter, the late Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, and her husband, the late James H. Semans, M.D.

“The Biddle Foundation continues its legacy of making the communities we serve Jbetter places to live and work,” says Jon Zeljo, chair of the Foundation’s board of trustees and great-grandson of Mary Duke Biddle. “We invest in programs that expand opportunities for everyone, connect and inspire diverse populations, and give people in need tools and hope for the future.”

Model for future funding

Including grants to organizations such as Duke University that it has funded for many years through long-standing relationships, the Foundation typically makes nearly $1 million in grants a year.

With an endowment of about $30 million, the Foundation continues to focus its funding on the arts and youth education, particularly in collaborative efforts that serve less advantaged populations.

The Foundation is using its 60th anniversary to examine how its grantmaking practices and programs can be more impactful to the organizations and causes it supports.

In addition to support for Duke and to grants it makes in response to applications, organizations the Foundation funds through long-standing relationships include, among others, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Durham Arts Council; American Dance Festival; Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle; and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.