“Just because you’re smart, you have a good heart, it doesn’t mean that energy is going to be funneled well,” Crystal DesVinges, a pastor at CityWell Church in Durham, says. DesVignes’ son, Mark, is a sixth grader at Durham Nativity. Her pastoral spirit and searching eyes see in sharp relief the context of Durham Nativity’s steadfast work in Durham over the past twenty years. Put plainly: “There’s so much at stake for a young black man being raised in America.”
Mark is an inquisitive, smart sixth grader. Overall, he had good experiences in elementary school. But DesVinges sees much left to chance on the road ahead for a bot. There are so many competing forces, DesVinges says, noting gang activity in the Triangle, violence on Durham’s streets. “What’s at stake is Mark’s future.”
Taking stock of the possibilities, the outcomes, what parent wants to consider lost potential, lost life as a threat? And yet, these are the realities met with the founding of Durham Nativity School more than twenty years ago.
Reckoning with families’ choices, the school has always represented a simple but ardent conviction: it need not be so.
“When thinking about what Durham Nativity does, its broader function is accompaniment,” notes Head of School Vince Vincent. “We accompany our families on their boys’ journeys and maintain the vision together.”
“We accomplish a lot academically, and character-formation is key,” Vincent says. Durham Nativity operates with the assumption that each boy can be victorious. “Equipping our young men for victory is critical, it’s what we do, and do quite well, but the x-factor is relational. We have to challenge our students, but how we make sure that works is also supporting our families.”
“It’s a God thing,” DesVinges says of finding Durham Nativity. DesVignes points out fifth grade teacher’s aide Angel Whitehead, who attended Mark’s basketball games in a Durham Parks and Rec league outside of school. “This is a person who is concerned with Mark’s whole being,” she says.
The familiar bonds of the community make the difference. “It’s this constant support of me as his parent, as well.” DesVignes says. “That’s important for all parents, but single parents in particular who can kind of feel like they’re doing this by themselves. They are doing what they expressly said they would do but also for me as his parent.”
“Everything the school accomplishes turns on relationships,” Vincent adds. “From drop-off line to discipline.”
If there’s one relationship that makes DNS what it is, it’s brotherhood, the word that pours out of just about every parent, student, or staff member you could ask. Wendy Poteat’s son, Spencer Yelverton, is an eighth grader. “The brotherhood, it means so much to me that he has someone to go to about issues he may be dealing with,” Poteat says.
When Marie Louesy heard about a boys’ school in Durham with a unique brotherhood focused on opportunity and excellence, she knew she had to get the youngest of her four boys there—from Philadelphia. Louesy and her family packed up life in Philly and moved down the East Coast, Durham Nativity bound. Today, her son Noah is a Durham Nativity alumni, making his way in the world at the Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill.
Boys like Noah exemplify the Durham Nativity path, completing their middle school education with DNS and continuing into excellent secondary, college preparatory schools. Doubtless, a bright future awaits them. Durham Nativity men are today students and scholars, entrepreneurs and employees, husbands and fathers. It begins in the brotherhood at DNS.
Durham Nativity’s Role
Louesy’s, Poteat’s, DesVignes’, and so many other Durham Nativity parents’ journeys highlight the fears and risks that guided Durham Nativity’s founding more than twenty years ago: can families and communities leave their future to chance? Are our boys up for grabs? For them, and for the Durham Nativity community, the answer is an unequivocal no.
Traditional educational institutions represent a path to participation in the full life of the community, serving as gatekeepers for academic progress and establishing a far reaching context for personal achievement. Successfully hurdling the passages of K-12 education and college, a student’s prospects for meaningful participation in the economy and community life are bright. It’s no secret that educational achievement begets economic opportunity and personal choice—students who achieve have options. Freedom.
The tragedy of traditional educational institutions is that too few students will complete the path, to say nothing of the quality of education and formation available to the most vulnerable families along the way, Vincent says. Black and Hispanic graduation rates lag the broader community, while students from under-resourced families fare the worst, completing high school far behind students from families with greater resources. Statistics are one thing. Lost potential is another. What opportunities remain for students who don’t complete the path to an education?
Numbers tell the tale, but thankfully not the whole story. Every morning at 1004 N. Mangum Street, the DNS student body and their teachers recite the Durham Nativity School “Man Creed. They pledge: “As DNS men, we will dare to dream big, dare to be our best and disciplined in all we do. Dare to dedicate our lives to the transformation of the community. As DNS men, we will never give up, never be silenced by injustice, ignorance or prejudice. Never forget God and our DNS brothers are with us always. As DNS men, we will strive to excel, strive to be strong in character and humble in spirit, strive to be instruments of God’s peace, justice, and truth.”
The Creed makes the brotherhood, the brotherhood makes the man. Durham Nativity School walks alongside students across a remarkable twelve-years of challenge and support, beginning in fifth grade. What began more than twenty years ago with a bold stroke of courage and action has grown into a rigorous model of academic preparation, character development, and equipping families. Durham Nativity School’s holistic approach has consistently succeeded in bringing students up to and beyond expected grade level performance, placing them in top local secondary schools and boarding schools, supporting their education financially beyond DNS, and drawing them along the path to full participation in the life of the Triangle community.
As Durham Nativity walks alongside its students, the Triangle community of grant-making institutions, donors, and friends of the school, have walked beside DNS, making the school’s more than $1.5 million in operating expenses happen every year. DNS’ location at the heart of Durham is a sign that the Triangle remains yet unwilling to let young men slip through the cracks.
Handing on Opportunity
The resolute commitment of the Durham Nativity to the handing on of life and opportunity from one to another began decades ago. DNS founder Dr. Joseph Moylan’s son, Kiernan, sought coaching from a legendary Durham track coach. He agreed, in exchange for tutoring two of his athletes who were to compete at the collegiate level. As the boys worked away at the Moylans’ kitchen table, the Moylans realized the cards were stacked against them. The two young men were unprepared for college, and would ultimately not advance, in spite of their talents. Tragically, one young man would lose his life in gang violence. Moylan, a trauma surgeon, had to act. The Moylans began visiting schools along the Eastern Seaboard, realizing education was the path to help young men realize their potential. In spite of warnings they needed a multi-year roll-out, they forged ahead. Durham Nativity opened in the fall of 2001.
Today, there are 170 Durham Nativity alumni in the world, completing their education, and participating in all the Triangle has to offer.
The Durham Context
Durham leaders and stakeholders have pointed out that gang violence, part of the original context of the Nativity School’s founding, has worsened in recent years. “We have these major players in the region, real estate is up, up, and yet our city is facing the same issues,” Director of Institutional Advancement John Zambenini notes. “DNS isn’t needed any less.”
Meanwhile, the neighborhood around the school has changed. Boys come from further afield in search of the DNS brotherhood.
Vincent, key constituents and stakeholders in the DNS community see the institution’s regional pull. “We have boys coming from Graham, Butnery, Cary,” Vincent says, not to mention families moving to the region because of DNS.
Yet the institutional capital is there for DNS to become a known and needed force in the region, Vincent says. What presents as a challenging time of change, Vincent, board members and others see as an opportunity. “It’s counterintuitive when things change, but instead we’re saying, ‘Let’s reap the full benefit,’” Zambenini says.
“Let’s reap the full benefit of twenty years of results. I talk to people about what we do, and they’re astonished by what this place has been able to accomplish. They often say, ‘We need more of you.’ I like to remind them: the good news is we already have us.”
For Vincent, the powerplay is operating from a standpoint of abundance. “We see a stronghold in North Carolina for our students, and we’re asking the questions, ‘how do we take the spirit of our founding forward? Who are the players who can come to the table to make this a fortress for our guys, so that no one, no one gives up on a dream? Or has to.’ That’s what’s so catchy, is that people are catching on, they can see it, and they want to walk with us.”
Vincent’s moves as head have been conditioning staff, faculty, and stakeholders to think like a top independent school. “That’s what we are,” Vincent says. “We help our students complete the path in a unique way, but you look at the host of institutions where we’re represented, and our guys who are there, our teachers, that’s us. We are part of that constellation of schools.”
“The pipeline to realizing their potential has passed right through Durham Nativity School for 170 guys,” Vincent says. “As we start thinking generationally as an institution, how many people will be able to look to DNS and say, ‘the path to victory started right there’? What will that mean for North Carolina?”
As Durham Nativity walks the path, and its students, constituents, and friends walk beside the school, one thing is certain. The DNS community has never walked alone. Nor will it.