Frisbees and laptops connect, teach and inspire Durham students

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Students at Durham Academy and Durham Nativity already have a week of the new school year under their belts.

Some of the kids at the two schools have forged a bond without ever having met – through computers and Frisbees.

Solomon Johnson, 11, is one of the students in Durham Nativity’s brand new fifth grade program, which was added to the existing sixth through eighth grades.

“It’s been a little harder than a lot of the grades I’ve been in,” he said, sitting in front of a laptop in his new classroom and wearing a bow tie, an essential part of the fifth graders’ uniforms.

“To me it’s like a better learning experience,” he said.

Durham Nativity School is a tuition-free, independent school for middle school boys who cannot afford private school.

“I’m loving it so far,” Johnson said.

Across town, Alex Hoffman, a sophomore at the Durham Academy, loved what he’s heard about Durham Nativity.

He learned about the school last years from some of his classmates who graduated from there.

“I really was inspired by their mission, which is really cultivating the community by taking kids from local areas that wouldn’t be able to go to a private school or even college,” Hoffman said. “I haven’t really seen a school that doesn’t have almost any technology at all, especially laptops for the students, so I felt that I could have a greater impact there, but also I felt that they have a unique mission and this is different from every other school I’ve known in the area and I thought that I really wanted to help that school with such an incredible mission of bettering their students and the community.”

So, this past Spring, he organized an ultimate Frisbee tournament to raise money for laptops at Durham Nativity as part of his Eagle Scout project.

It brought in about $2,000, which along with some other donations and a discount from Lenovo, he was able to provide enough money to buy 21 Chromebooks for Durham Nativity students.

That’s enough for every single student in the inaugural fifth grade class, which has fewer than 15 students.

“There’s a lot of buy-in when they see their name attached to a piece of equipment,” said teacher Kevin Mahoney. “A lot of times we expect kids to know these things. We expect them, ‘Oh they grew up with a smartphone. They should know how to create a spreadsheet.’ They don’t. They need to explicitly be taught that and we still need to teach them the appropriate manner to use these tools to really be able to use them effectively.”

The students in Mahoney’s class will do about half of their schoolwork on the laptops this year, but the lessons on the laptops go beyond what’s on the screen.

“It just feels good,” Hoffman said. “I’m glad that the work I was able to do was actually having a tangible benefit and is helping some kid somewhere. That’s all I ever wanted from the whole project and I’m glad that it’s happening.”

Mahoney wants his students to pick up on that giving spirit.

“That’s what I want these fifth graders and middle schoolers to be like. We want them to take advantage of their education and to use their skills and knowledge to help other people,” he said.

Johnson already is noticing.

“Whoever did that, I would like to thank them for doing that for us – raising money. I think that’s a very good idea,” he said.

Hoffman plans to host another fundraising ultimate Frisbee tournament for Durham Nativity this year and his remaining years at Durham Academy.

Durham Nativity is having a big year.

Not only did it add the new fifth grade level, but it also moved into new renovated space.

There’s another connection between the two schools. The founder of Durham Nativity, Joseph Moylan, sent his children to Durham Academy.

His son, Brendan Moylan, is now a Board of Trustees member for Durham Academy.

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