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Johnson leads effort to take kids
‘from the streets to the suites’

Let’s go, Mommy!

First grader D’erica Cotton tugs on Felicia Harper’s hand, eager to begin her first day at Union Independent School in Durham. It is Aug. 19, the long-awaited opening day of the free private school for the children of economically distressed northeast-central Durham.

Nearly 70 little ones arrive in new uniforms: dark blue pants or skirts and neckties with pale yellow shirts – to which some parents have added matching blue and yellow hair ribbons or beads and lacy yellow socks.

Two men in dark GQ suits, both beaming, tower above the deluge of energetic kindergartners through second-graders. They are giants in more ways than by comparison to the munchkin-high youngsters scurrying about their knees.

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Eight years ago, the idea for the school took hold of Rev. Kenneth Hammond of Union Baptist Church on North Roxboro Street in Durham and James H. Johnson Jr., the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Union Independent was created in a collaboration between the church and Johnson’s Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. The institute is an arm of the business school that seeks to apply University resources and brainpower to real-world issues. Union Baptist raised $2 million and borrowed $8 million to buy land across the street and construct the 49,000 square-foot building.

Johnson, a member of Union Baptist, designed an operating model for the school that adds special elements to the North Carolina standard course of study: nutrition education, character development, entrepreneurship, global awareness and economic literacy. The school will operate year-round from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, to provide extra tutoring and enrichment as much as to keep kids off the streets.

During the extended-day program, students will learn about poetry and plays and practice writing, vocabulary and public speaking. They also will play outside in secured playgrounds or in- side the school’s full-size gym. During the traditional school day, they’ll study language arts, math, science, social studies, theater and Spanish.

“The goal is to have them bilingual by eighth grade,” said Head of School Troy K. Weaver.

All this takes place in a community where drug deals and gang activity are common. Half of all households are headed by single females, 98 percent of residents are minorities and 40 percent of the children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level.

“From the streets to the suites” is where Johnson hopes Union Independent will take them. The school will add a new kindergarten class and another grade every year until it teaches students through the eighth grade. Eventually, Johnson and Hammond believe, the facility can also be used for health care, fitness, healthy cooking classes and more for adults in the area.

“Maybe people will change,” Harper said.

“It’s wonderful to see a vision coming into focus,” said Johnson, who has brought to bear his years of research on urban areas, inequality and underprivileged youth to design the operating model.

“There’s no better experience than to see young, excited kids coming to this school. Their job is to be excited. Our job is to maintain it. We have a talented staff committed to making sure these kids get to where they need to go.”

Johnson grew up poor in Eastern North Carolina. He earned a doctorate in geography at age 26 and went on to teach at UCLA, studying urban poverty and how to build bridges between academic research and social action – between the haves and the have-nots.

At Kenan-Flagler, Johnson teaches courses on entrepreneurial and business-oriented strategies and approaches to poverty alleviation, job creation and community economic development.

“There are pressing social problems we should be addressing, and I had to do something,” he told Fast Company magazine in a 2007 story ( “I’ve always believed I was put on this Earth to make a difference.”

Soon after coming to Carolina in 1992, Johnson got to know the late Frank Hawkins Kenan, then chair of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust.

“One of the first times we met, he talked about how kids from the inner city needed something other than drug dealing and basketball,” Johnson said.

Their collaboration produced the Durham Scholars Program for kids in northeast-central Durham, an after-school, weekend and summer tutoring and enrichment program for sixth- through 12th-graders, housed at Union Baptist.

Since 1996, there have been 240 Durham Scholars. Eighty percent of the students graduated from high school, and half went to college. Each graduate qualified for a $10,000 college scholarship from the Kenan Trust, which committed some $10 million to the program.

Durham Scholars taught Johnson and Hammond a great deal about working with underprivileged children. “We needed intervention that began much earlier,” said Hammond.

Now, budding new friendships blend with fun, learning and discipline from day one at Union Independent.

“When we are outside our classroom, we need to be in one line,” second-grade teacher Villa Gaddy tells her class. “We should be still and our hands should be down at our sides.” Everyone must face forward before the line can move.

After lunch, second-grader Madison Kelly high-fives with Weaver. “Guess what!” she said. “I’m having a great day today.”

New multimedia images of the school's opening will be added.

For more information, contact L.J. Toler with UNC News Services: (919) 962-8589 or Martina Hicks at Union Independent School: (919) 682-5903 or

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Above, James H. Johnson Jr. of UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School researched studies about education and underprivileged youth to write an operations plan for Union Independent School in Durham.

Below, second-grader Madison Kelly works intently at her desk on the first day of school at Union Independent School.

Madison Kelly

Classroom on first day of school

Above, students listen to instructions from their teachers on the first day of school.

Below, Johnson and the Rev. Kenneth R. Hammond of Union Baptist Church.

Hammond, Johnson

Below, Union Baptist Church on North Roxboro Street in Durham raised $10 million to construct Union Independent.

Union Baptist members see their involvement with the school as serving the community. Religion will not be taught in the school.