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Guiding Kids from A to Z at the Emily K Center

By David Boegaard

Every kid runs into trouble at some point trying to negotiate the winding course of formal education. Teachers and schools make the most of limited resources and parents do their best to provide support after long hours at work, but without a community of experienced guides to lead and support them along the path, kids often lose their way. These problems are often compounded for students who will be the first in their families to go to college. The Emily Krzyzewski Center, a non-profit located in Durham, NC, was started to create a network of support to help first-generation and under-resourced students succeed in school -- from elementary school through sophomore year of college and beyond.

The Emily Krzyzewski Center's three K to College programs provide year-round, out-of-school learning opportunities for low-income students from elementary school through sophomore year of college. "Students receive individualized academic tutoring and mentoring from certified teachers and trained volunteers in a safe, welcoming environment," says Lauren Gardner, COO of the Emily K Center.

The Emily K Center was founded in 2006 by Coach Mike Krzyzewski and was named in honor of Krzyzewski's mother, Emily. Ms. Krzyzewski pushed her son to do his best and work to achieve great things, despite growing up in inner city Chicago. Gardner shared that Krzyzewski frequently credits his family life in Chicago and the resources available to him at a neighborhood community center for much of his success in life.

Krzyzewski attended West Point, becoming the first person in his family to enter college. Krzyzewski, currently the Board Chair of the Center, often reflects on the parallels between his youth and the Center, "When I see our kids, I see me. I was a kid in the inner city who needed education and opportunity, and there were people there to help."

Emily Krzyzewski's spirit still inhabits the Center, suggests Gardner. "The Center's mission is built around her core values 'dream big, act with character and purpose, and become a leader.'"

You can see the fruits of that attitude in the Emily K Center today. The Center operates from a beautiful 29,000 square foot building located just down the street from downtown Durham and Duke University. Since opening its doors in 2006, the Center has welcomed thousands of children and currently serves more than 230 students from nearly 40 schools in Durham County in their core K to College programs. The Center has also sent its graduates on to more than 15 colleges and universities across the east coast.

The Emily K Center focuses on two goals, says Gardner, "First, to help first generation students succeed academically and graduate from high school college-ready and scholarship-eligible, and second, to serve as a transformative community center in Durham." In order to accomplish these goals, the Center runs three primary programs for students, each tailored to students' needs.

Students from 1st through 8th grade enter the Pioneer Scholars program. Pioneer Scholars takes place every day after school. Students don't come to simply work on homework, but rather they engage in academic activities focused on building strong literacy and math skills. "These activities are composed primarily of small group lessons designed to complement and exceed what they are introduced to in their classrooms," explained Gardner.

During the summer, the Emily K Center provides additional summer programming and camps designed to prevent summer learning loss and keep kids active and engaged. The Center also works to keep families involved throughout the year through a back-to-school orientation session, family night events, and a summer Project Fair.

The second core program at the Center is Scholars to College which currently has more than 120 high school students enrolled. Gardner described the goal of Scholars to College as "helping students realize success in and out of school, ultimately developing into graduating seniors who are self-assured, scholarship-eligible, and college-ready." Students meet each week with an instructor who reinforces grade-level concepts and then work individually with a Lead Counselor who acts as a mentor and advocate. Most students also meet periodically with volunteers who provide subject-specific tutoring. "Scholars to College provides the academic coaching and mentoring support necessary for students to achieve the goal of being the first in their families to enroll in college," says Gardner.

Scholars to College has seen great success. "We are proud to report that for the fourth consecutive year, 100% of our Scholars to College seniors graduated high school and enrolled in college," shares Gardner. "About 80% of these students will be the first person in their family to graduate college," she adds. These students have also earned a cumulative $3.3 million in scholarships and financial aid. They are certainly doing all they can to make their dreams a reality.

Once students leave for college they often find a new world with more freedom and new challenges. To help ensure that Scholars to College graduates make the most of their college experience, the Emily K Center created the Scholars on Campus program. The program keeps in touch with students largely through technology and works to strengthen the bonds that have formed between students and staff at the Center. During breaks from college, students regroup to reflect on their experiences, share insights, and celebrate the successes of their peers.

The Emily K Center's exceptional services wouldn't be possible without the support of their many volunteers. Each volunteer goes through a background check and training before working with students. The Center provides a wide array of volunteer opportunities, from one-on-one tutoring session to office clean up help. To get involved, visit

he Emily K Center in Durham, NC has shown that when a community comes together to support its youth, the results can be life-changing. "So many students are inherently capable of succeeding in school and growing into strong college candidates -- these programs help to ensure that happens," says Adam Eigenrauch, Executive Director of the Emily K Center. Today, if Emily Krzyzewski was to walk into this Center named in her honor, she would be incredibly proud to see how her life lessons have continued to be passed on to hundreds of students every day.

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