Author’s note: Today, Bull City Rising takes a two-part look at a proposed deal to convert the former Y.E. Smith School building to a home for Maureen Joy Charter School. Part 1, posted previously, examines the building’s history and the basics of the deal. Part 2, below, looks at some neighbors’ feelings about the proposal, at Maureen Joy Charter School and at changes in the neighborhood.
“We as a community are pretty cool with the school being in a building that was formerly a school, so that’s obviously a very compatible use,” Aidil Ortiz Collins, facilitator of the community group Uplift East Durham, said last week. “For us, though, we’re pretty wary of, at this point, the process for that, because the zoning that’s up there isn’t for a school.”
In fact, would-be purchaser Self-Help is asking for the parcel’s zoning to be changed from RU-M(D), or residential zoning with a development plan, to RU-5(2), or residential suburban.
“What we’re doing is simply trying to change the zoning back to what it was before and what the entire surrounding neighborhood is,” Levine said.
If the reclassification is granted, a minor special-use permit will be required to allow Maureen Joy Charter School to use the facility.
Tiffany Elder is the general manager of Coral Construction and Design, which renovates homes in East Durham. Like Collins, she was initially skeptical about Self-Help’s intentions, but she was reassured this weekend at a community meeting hosted by the organization and the charter school.
“The explanation by Self-Help is that the full existing parcel will be used for a school,” Elder said Monday. “Nothing will be parceled off after it’s rezoned to RU-5(2) to use for any other purpose. They're only doing this so that they can get the property into the use that they need it for. But definitely up front, there was some concern, probably because there was a lack of information given to the neighborhood.”
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Rezoning is one of two major obstacles to allowing Maureen Joy to transfer homes. The other, said Self-Help project manager Dan Levine and Maureen Joy principal Alex Quigley, is the sale of the charter’s current campus, a former synagogue at 1955 W. Cornwallis Rd. near U.S. 15-501.
Maureen Joy currently has about 325 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, of which roughly a third live in East Durham. Of 166 third- through eighth-graders at the school who took mandatory state tests in 2010, 139 were black, 141 were economically disadvantaged, 26 were considered disabled and 22 were Hispanic. (Many students, of course, belong to multiple categories.)
Among all students tested, 64.2 percent were deemed proficient in reading and 82.1 percent were so deemed in math. The school made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind regimen, meeting all 13 of its targets in 2009-10.
The Maureen Joy school community has been informed about the pending move and held a parent meeting about it in mid-May. Quigley said questions were raised about the safety of the neighborhood. They were defused in part by comments from Aliyah Abdur-Rahman, a board member for the school who lives near the Smith school.
Occupying the Smith school in 2013, as planned, will give the charter several opportunities. Quigley said it will let Maureen Joy nearly double its student capacity, increase academic synergy by having more teachers working at each grade level, move closer to many of its students and get involved in the neighborhood.
“We want our middle schoolers to learn about community service and reach out in the community and serve in the community,” the principal said. “I think we could really be an active, positive force in that community.”
In the neighborhood, there is enthusiasm for the old school housing a new school.
“It was obviously a landmark and anchor before, so it would be great to see it be that way again,” Collins said. “Driver Street is getting more critical mass in terms of ... people moving in and people doing new renovations, so I think that would be a really great piece in terms of keeping the momentum going — just creating friendly traffic along that corridor.”
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The area has been targeted for improvement by the police, the East Durham Children’s Initiative and both Preservation North Carolina and Preservation Durham. The latter two groups have combined on Project RED, which stands for Revitalize East Durham.
Last month, the nonprofit KaBOOM! organized the installation of a new playground in the neighborhood. A city-funded streetscape improvement project for the commercial area at South Driver Street and Angier Avenue, two blocks south of the Smith school, will start soon as well.
This year, the Smith school and other vacant buildings in East Durham were the setting for a public art project called “New Neighbors” by Efland artist Dave Alsobrooks. (Paintings from the project will be auctioned off this Friday at the Golden Belt Arts studios.)
There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. A similar concept seems to apply in this case to East Durham, and it hasn’t escaped the notice of some.
“Given that it’s such a large area” in East Durham, “it’s going to take a lot of effort to make changes,” Elder said. “So it’s nice to see that that effort is coming from a few different places.”