Helping Children by Helping Communities

For decades, the Northside community of Spartanburg, S.C., grappled with high poverty and crime rates, poor educational outcomes and substandard housing. Once home to Spartan textile mills, the area was later unsettled by inner-city decline. 

In recent years, however, Northside residents have embraced an innovative effort to rebuild and transform their 400-acre community. With mixed-income housing, cradle-to-career educational opportunities, health and wellness facilities, and wraparound supportive services, the revitalization is aimed at creating a thriving place for generations to come. 

Place-Based Work

The Duke Endowment has supported the Northside Initiative as part of an organization-wide emphasis on early childhood. Endowment funding has focused on strengthening early childhood services, particularly through The Franklin School Early Learning Center, which opened in 2019 to serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers. 

The Endowment’s place-based grantmaking” has also included the Renaissance West Community Initiative in Charlotte, N.C. Both Northside and Renaissance West follow the Purpose-Built Communities model, designed to revitalize struggling urban neighborhoods by supplying high-quality affordable housing, an education pipeline and community wellness programs. 

Ready for School, Ready for Life

An ambitious 10-year strategy that uses large, targeted Endowment investments in early childhood to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Guilford County. 

The Endowment’s largest and boldest foray into place-based work is the Ready for School, Ready for Life (Ready Ready), a multi-year endeavor in Guilford County, N.C., to give every child a better chance at success in school and life. Working with Ready for School, Ready for Life, a leading early childhood organization, the goal is to improve individual and population-level outcomes among 55,000 children, prenatal through age 8.

The comprehensive nature of place-based work — ranging from education to health care to parental support — is consistent with the latest research on improving well-being for children,” says Meka Sales, director of Special Initiatives at the Endowment. Place-based efforts are uniquely positioned to reach all organizations, agencies and providers invested in building a stronger community.” 

400-Page Plan

Collective planning is key to successful place-based efforts, giving communities a roadmap to follow while allowing space for adaptations.

In Spartanburg, the nonprofit Northside Development Group serves to encourage and manage the community’s redevelopment effort, which includes a mix of affordable and market rate housing, economic, educational, recreational, health and social opportunities for residents. A 400-page community-led transformation plan guides the work.

The plan’s 18 goals are designed to honor the area’s rich history while creating the change the community would like to see,” says Michael Williamson, the organization’s CEO. Coming in from the outside, I had never seen a master plan that’s been followed as closely as this one.”

Previously the community development project manager for the City of Greenville, S.C., Williamson has led Northside Development Group since March 2020. Before he stepped into the role, the community had decreased the number of dilapidated structures and launched a burst of building projects on once-abandoned lots.

I can’t take the credit, but many of those 18 goals have already been met,” he says.

Later this year, for instance, construction will wrap up on a two-phase mixed-use commercial project that will serve as a new gateway to the community. The project includes offices for Northside Development Group, AccessHealth Spartanburg and BirthMatters, and a teaching clinic for VCOM (the Virginia-based Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine), which chose the vacant mill site across the street for its Carolinas Campus. Wofford College is using some of the space for its Community Sustainability Program. A rental housing development will feature 90 units.

Also opened in Northside is Harvest Park, a food hub with a café, an urban farm and a weekly farmers market. Outdoor recreational areas include the Butterfly Creek Park and Greenway. Just down the street is the Dr. T.K. Gregg center, completed in 2020 to provide community space, a fitness center and two pools.

Where Education is Valued’

At The Franklin School, a full-day, full-year early learning center, classrooms of children are delving into science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The $11.4 million center addresses the community’s limited access to quality childcare with both market-rate and affordable-care slots, including Head Start and Early Head Start. The school serves as a laboratory for students from the University of South Carolina Upstate to conduct research and learn about teaching practices.

The vision for Northside also focuses on The Cleveland Academy of Leadership, a local Title 1 school with about 420 elementary students.

Returning the community to its full potential means creating the best opportunity for children to succeed as they move through the educational pipeline into adulthood,” Williamson says.

Bill Barnet, Spartanburg’s former mayor and board chair of the Northside Development Group (and a Duke Endowment Trustee), agrees.

The goal for all this is the education of our children,” he says. But the reality of our journey is creating an environment around the schools where education is valued, parents and children are healthy, residents feel safe, businesses want to invest, and where families can feel at home.”

Special Initiative


Through our place-based work, we are partnering with communities that are expanding and aligning services for children prenatal to age eight. Our Special Initiatives team is focused on developing this strategy.

Partnering for Progress

The steady progress on Northside’s ambitious plan reflects deep commitment from the City of Spartanburg, Mary Black Foundation, Spartanburg Community Foundation, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, Wofford College and others.

It also reflects a unique partnership with residents, who have been key to the Northside conversation since its beginning in 2011. The Voyagers, a resident leadership team, serves as a community sounding board, shaping ideas and projects. President Tony Thomas also serves as community engagement coordinator for the Northside Development Group.

The Voyagers support a homeowner repair program and food outreach for seniors in need. During the pandemic, they worked with partners to fill gaps in a strained safety net. Thomas is now helping residents schedule vaccination appointments.

Working from sleek new office space on Howard Street, with a view of Spartan Mills’ idle smokestack, Williamson says Northside is at an exciting juncture. Blueprints have turned into brick and mortar; plans have evolved into programs.

The efforts over the past 10 years are becoming real,” he says. It’s a good time to be in the Northside.”

Advances in brain science have shown that early preventative intervention is more efficient than subsequent remediation. Research shows that a child’s development can be hindered in life-altering ways if exposed to the constant drumbeat of negative experiences known as toxic stress. Conversely, when we enrich early relationships and environments, research shows children are much more likely to flourish in school and life.

This attention to early childhood amplifies the existing strategies and initiatives in our four program areas. While the Endowment has long made early childhood grants, now we are working more systematically and collaboratively across the program areas to incorporate this emphasis in our work.

The comprehensiveness of a place-based approach — from housing to education to health care — is consistent with the Endowment’s whole child approach and combats the many causes contributing to poor child outcomes.

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