DURHAM New Horizons Academy of Excellence wants to … excel.
To do it, the faith-based high school for at-risk students who might otherwise not graduate needs support from a lot of Durham churches. All churches – liberal, conservative and everywhere in between.
Jeff McSwain, who leads Reality Ministries, which has supported and housed the school the past three years, thinks it can be done. He presented his idea to a meeting at the Reality Center last month, hoping to fuel a grassroots effort among the Durham Christian community.
Judge Pat Evans is the first person named to the board of the new New Horizons, which will expand to include a middle school and add students in the high school as well.
“The time has come,” McSwain said. “We feel like what’s going on here is working. There are so many kids on the street.” he said. They would like to expand beyond the space they have for the current 15 students.
They’ll need a new building. The separation won’t just be structural – New Horizons will launch as its own entity. Reality Ministries will be there as support, but not in any official capacity. Martina Dunford, head of school, will lead the expanded school. New Horizons would like a new location, too. They don’t have any money, just a vision at this point, but hope the vision and money will come together soon.
McSwain and Dunford hope the school can open next fall. There’s much to be done, but they can’t wait, McSwain said.
“We need to get this out there, get on church budgets,” he said. They’re looking for pledges so churches can be sustainers of New Horizons next school year.
“Our goal is to have every church in Durham on board with us, and get together in the body of Christ. We need the whole spectrum – left and right – for a faith-based school for at-risk kids,” McSwain said.
“Let’s step across these dividing lines and catch these students before they drop out,” he said. “If we squabble on political and doctrinal issues, who loses? Where do dropouts go? They’re here in the community.”
Some students come to New Horizons three or four years behind in school, but are accepted as long as they can graduate by age 21. The school is tuition-free.
In 2011, 378 students dropped out of Durham Public Schools, McSwain said. “This is a heart issue, in addressing gifts these young people have been given by God, as God’s beloved children.”
Tyrone McMillan and Demetrius Smith are both seniors at New Horizons. It’s been a blessing to him, McMillan said. He didn’t want to go to Durham Public Schools anymore.
“Here it’s hands-on. Less people, less students, more time for you,” McMillan said. “In public school, if you don’t get the work in, the teacher keeps on moving.”
Smith said it was a struggle for him to keep up his grades in public school and get help.
“I heard about this and had tried everything else,” Smith said. “It’s more like a family here. They actually care about you graduating on time.”
He thinks expanding New Horizons is a good idea. “I think it would do a lot of good,” he said. “I know people struggling.”
“Here, it’s not just book stuff,” McMillan said. “It’s life stuff, too.”
Smith said at New Horizons teachers find out where you are and help you improve to get you where you need to be.
“Me, myself, even as a senior, I’m still a work in progress,” he said.
McSwain said helping teenagers with odds against them for success is exactly where the church should be.
The message to the students, he said, is: “God hasn’t given up on you. We haven’t given up on you.”
Jim Stuit, the Durham County gang reduction strategy manager, said there is always a connection between education and the juvenile justice system.
McSwain said that no matter how big the school might become, they’ll keep the small-group interaction.
Dunford said: “What better purpose for churches to come together? How do we have a church on every corner in Durham and not have this? It’s time to unite.”