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Durham Program Ignites Passion For Science, Technology, Engineering And Math [VIDEO]

Students in Neal Magnet Middle's STEM Academy building robots.
Carol Jackson

There's a school program in Durham North Carolina that is preparing low-income African American boys for science, technology and engineering careers. The program is not focused on those who are failing, but rather those who have been chosen for their potential to succeed. WUNC's Carol Jackson has this profile:

Neal Magnet Middle School in Durham, North Carolina focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

"These are STEM careers that could drastically change the quality of your lifestyle," says the program coordinator Ursela Jones.

Jones wants all the children in the STEM Academy to succeed - but she is particularly focused on young black men. Every morning, the first period of the day, Ms. Jones mentors a class of 30 boys.

Teacher Ursela Jones and her class during a recent 'Mentoring Monday.'
Credit Carol Jackson
Teacher Ursela Jones and her class during a recent 'Mentoring Monday.'

Today they are buzzing because they've received new shirts, ones that indicate that they are part of an elite program launched this year within the STEM Academy. They are STEM Scholars. Each boy was chosen because he's been assessed as very likely to succeed. The assessment was made using special software designed by SAS.

The software is now used in all districts in the state. It takes available statistical information (things like test scores), and uses the data to make predictions. For example, some use it to identify strengths and weaknesses in teachers or to determine how many children will be ready for Algebra 1 by the end of 8th grade.

The analysis can also be applied to individual students. It takes into account all of the student's previous achievement data in order to to determine the probability that the child "will be successful in reaching proficient or advanced," says John White, who heads up the program for SAS. "It provides an objective way of looking at [the data]."

Inside the program

This poster hangs on the wall of Ms. Jones' classroom.
Credit Carol Jackson
This poster hangs on the wall of Ms. Jones' classroom.

Once a student been selected for the STEM Scholars program at Neal, it's up to teacher Ursela Jones to make sure that he stays on track. She's designed the program to include a morning meeting that focuses on mentoring. Monday's meeting is math.

"So what I do is, I work with the 7th grade math teachers," says Jones. "They fill out a progress-monitoring  form for me, and then I take a look at that and decide what I will focus on for math on Monday."

The goal is to make the students proficient or above proficient in math.

"Our goal is to push them to the point where they are being successful and mastering everything that they need for 7th grade," says Jones.

Ms. Jones is paid a yearly stipend to keep a close eye on each boy's progress in every class he takes.

"They took their common assessments about two to three weeks ago and we progress-monitor them. Are they completing their homework? Are they organized? We know these things will help them be successful in school," says Jones.

From the student perspective

Devin Smith is 12 years old. For him, the fact that the program is all boys really matters.

"I'm not saying I don't get along with girls, but girls, they kind of like do their own things," Smith says, adding that the program brings the boys together "as a brotherhood almost."

Program founder, Howard Lee, with some of the students.
Credit Ursela Jones
Program founder, Howard Lee, visits Neal Magnet Middle School's STEM Academy.

Private funds

The founder and chief fundraiser for the program is Howard Lee, a two-term mayor of Chapel Hill and a former North Carolina state senator. Lee is 80 years old now, and still cares deeply about educational issues - his passion is addressing the crisis facing young black men at school.

The problem, he says, seems to start after the fifth grade.

'We've got to train these kids how to swim with the sharks and how to survive because when they go into high school, they will be challenged on why they're so smart.'

"We identify high-potential, underserved, low-income students who generally are placed in less rigorous courses in both middle and high school because of their zip code," asserts Lee. "People think they aren't capable of doing honors course work and therefore don't put them in honors courses."

These youngsters must  show that they have the potential.

"We are not out looking for failing students. If students are failing in the elementary school, the expense for our trying to recover that youngster is just too great," says Lee.

"We've got to train these kids how to swim with the sharks and how to survive, because  when they go into high school, they will be challenged on why they're so smart, or what was called when I was in school 'setting the curve too high' [or] making too good a grade," says Lee. "They need to learn how to survive that kind of pressure, of people being willing to cut them down."

Passion comes from personal experience

Howard Lee, around the age that his mother held him back in school.
Credit Lee family archives
Howard Lee, around the age that his mother held him back in school.

Howard Lee was raised on a farm in rural Georgia during the Jim Crow era. His grandparents were sharecroppers and his mother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.

Lee recalls that his mother held him back in the first grade, even though he had high grades, because she felt that he didn't put forth a complete effort.

"Her  reasoning was, she wasn't going to allow me to grow up thinking I just had to stay ahead of other folks. That if any time I had an opportunity, I had to do my best, and that is all she would accept."

Howard Lee aims to instill that same ethic, that thirst  for knowledge and for doing one's best, in the young men who are accepted into the STEM Scholars program.

He's found a kindred spirit in program coordinator Ursela Jones.

"Right now, we know … there's a huge void that needs to be filled for people that are entering into the STEM career fields, especially African Americans," says Jones. "What we're trying to do is take these African American young men and show them different aspects of STEM,  and let them decide if this is something that they  want to pursue."

Young Devin Smith doesn't know yet what he wants to do as an adult. Like many his age, he'd love to play in the NFL or the NBA.

"But my fall-back career will be an engineer," Devin says. "Yeah, I heard engineers make a lot of money."

That kind of talk is just what Howard Lee is hoping for.

"I have been really blessed by with a wonderful family, a fantastic wife,  good health, opportunities that I never thought would come my way, and success that I could not have dreamed of growing up in the South in the '30s and the '40s. I think that I've been left here ... for a reason and that reason is to pay it forward. To pay back what has been made available to me."

The STEM Scholars program is funded by grants and private donations. The program is expanding across the state at the middle school level and into some high schools. Find out more about the SAS Evaas software.


Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
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