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Donna Dukes: Serving at-risk students who want to change their lives at Maranathan Academy

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Donna Dukes, principal and founder of Maranathan Academy.

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Donna Dukes, principal and founder of Maranathan Academy.
Donna Dukes, principal and founder of Maranathan Academy.

While working toward her law degree at Miles College, Donna Dukes wanted to work with juvenile offenders. But two days into volunteering at the juvenile detention center in Jefferson County, she realized something: If someone would work with young men and women before they commit offenses, they wouldn’t end up in the system in the first place.

On Sept. 3, 1991—four months after graduating from college—Dukes opened Maranathan Academy.

“I started with one student, one table, and four chairs,” Dukes recalled. “By year’s end, I had nearly 10 students, and [the program] has continued to grow in accordance with the number of young people we are able to service funding-wise.”

Maranathan does not just focus on children with behavioral issues, however. It focuses on victimized students, as well.

“These are kids who have been expelled, suspended, bullied, and abused,” Dukes said.

The school, which is housed in Ninevah Baptist Church in East Lake, has secured funding for 18 students this year. Currently, 64 students are on Maranathan’s wait list.

“My dream is to have enough [funding] for at least 30 students,” Dukes said.

Maranathan Academy has been able to operate with the help of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (CFGB), as well as various corporations and churches throughout the city.

Dukes chose the name Maranathan, which is Hebrew for “Christ is coming,” because her grandmother, Lena Bates, was in a Christian group that also used the name: Maranathan Christian Circle.

In fact, Dukes founded the school in her grandmother’s house in the Kingston community—and it remained there for 22 years.

“We moved into another facility a couple of years ago, and we moved into our current facility last year,” Dukes said.

Challenges and Rewards

While funding is one of the challenges Maranathan Academy faces, another issue is opposition from some families, especially parents.

“Unfortunately, we seemed to have raised an entire society of people who feel that they are entitled to things without the benefit of having worked for them,” Dukes said. “So changing mindsets is the key to us succeeding, as well as getting the word out that we are here.”

The reward is what makes it all worth it for Dukes.

“I have seen my students make incredible strides,” she said.

Although Dukes doesn’t have any biological children of her own, this past Mother’s Day was by far the best she’d ever had.

“On May 7, I went to Miles College’s graduation and saw [former Maranathan student] Jonathan get his degree,” Dukes said. “The next day, I drove to Talladega College to see my girl [former Maranathan student] Brionna get her degree; she’s now preparing to start law school at the Birmingham School of Law.”

Every year, Dukes can see her students mature.

“Whether it is a child who has come to me directly from the juvenile detention center complete with an electronic ankle monitor or a child who has been bullied to the point of attempting suicide, I’ve seen them change.”

Dukes helps student Breanna Ward, 16, study for an assignment. Maranathan Academy is for critically at-risk students in the Birmingham and its surrounding areas. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)
Dukes helps student Breanna Ward, 16, study for an assignment. Maranathan Academy is for critically at-risk students in the Birmingham and its surrounding areas. (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

Meeting Students Where They Are

Maranathan Academy operates like any other school. The day begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. Students take both core and elective classes. There are a couple of differences, though.

“We tailor ourselves to meet our students wherever they are,” Dukes said. “So if a 17-year-old comes to us reading on a second-grade level, we don’t pass judgment—we address the need.”

Behavioral needs are also addressed.

“If we find that students are in need of some form of counseling or behavior modification, we address that, as well,” Dukes said. “We deal with the entire child, not just the academic aspect.”

Currently, Maranathan has three full-time teachers, one part-time teacher, and three volunteer instructors.

“We welcome the presence of retired teachers, too,” Dukes said.

The Future

Dukes said she wants to see the school grow to its full potential.

“I visualize that down the road we will have our own free-standing building and an endowment support system sufficient enough to serve all the students who want to change their lives,” Dukes said.

Maranthan Academy is encouraged by the support it receives and welcomes new donors. To make a donation, contact the school at 205-591-8100 or visit www.maranathanflca.org.