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Donna Dukes founded a school that makes a difference in lives of young people

Donna Dukes, founder, Maranathan Academy (Amarr Croskey Photo, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times


Donna Dukes admits she may have been a bit “idealistic” when she came up with an idea to help students who had been expelled from one public school get enrolled in another.

“That’s when I found out that, at least in Alabama, when you’re expelled from one public school, the rest of the public-school systems in the entire state have the right to not enroll you,” said Dukes, who was working at a Jefferson County detention center when this notion occurred to her. “So, still young, idealistic, [I said, ‘I’ll raise money] and get them into a private school.’ I started calling around to the private schools, and that’s when I discovered that no private school would take an expelled student.”

Many of the schools didn’t even want the students who had been suspended, and all the schools had GPA requirements. “That knocked every baby out that I had met,” she said.

Soon after, Dukes felt the Lord changed the direction of her life: “I started feeling like I needed to start a school for these kids who nobody wanted, who nobody wanted to work with.”

Her prayers led to the founding of Maranathan Academy, which Dukes opened in September 1991, four months after she graduated from Miles College. While volunteering at the juvenile detention center, she also realized that 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.

“Really Need Our Help”

Maranathan Academy is a school that caters to critically at-risk students—some with little or no support system, others who have been expelled from school, had trouble learning, or may not have the best home life. Thanks to Maranathan, these young people can look forward to a bright future. Currently, 14 students are enrolled, and 52 students are on their waiting list “that really need our help,” said Dukes, a Woodlawn High School graduate.

The program accepts children from sixth through twelfth grades, and students are grouped by age: grades six, seven, and eight; grades nine and ten; and grades eleven and twelve. The school used to be in the home Dukes’ mother grew up in. Her mother purchased the house and told Dukes she could use it, “so that’s what I did,” Dukes said.

“One student, one table, four chairs, and now, 27 years later, [Maranathan Academy] has graduated more than 300 young people and had a positive impact on more than 1,500 lives and counting. I love it!”

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. The school remained in her grandmother’s house in the Kingston community for 22 years and has since outgrown its original home and now operates at Southside Baptist Church in Five Points South.

Every year, Dukes sees 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,” she said, adding that it is rewarding to see “my precious babies go on to great things, to see a kid who literally did not have hope morph into a productive, contributing member of society.”

“You can look in someone’s eyes and see what they’re feeling. Critically at-risk youth have no hope. They don’t know how to dream. They don’t have hope. In order to have dreams you have to have hope, in order to have hope you have to feel safe, in order to feel safe, you have to feel loved and valued. They don’t feel any of that. After working with them at Maranathan, they know they’re safe, they know they’re loved, they have hope.”

Role Models

Students get a chance to pursue their dream careers and also meet role models in the Birmingham metro area. Last week, Eric Essix, jazz musician and recording artist, was their guest speaker. He said he was “moved” by the experience.

“I saw myself in them because I had some rough patches growing up. If it hadn’t been for a good mother who understood the need to be in an environment where I could be away from certain things, I don’t know where I would be,” Essix said after speaking with students. “As I was watching them and listening to them talk about why they were here, I couldn’t help but relate it to my own personal experience.”

He also applauded Dukes for her work with the young people: “[It is] amazing … to watch the energy and the connection between [Dukes] and [the students] and to see the respect they have for [her],” he said.

To learn more about Maranathan Academy, visit www.maranathanacademy.com or call 205-591-8100. To donate, visit www.maranathanacademy.com/ways-to-get-involved; checks and money orders can be mailed to Maranathan Academy, P.O. Box 320321, Birmingham, AL 35232.

Updated at 9:33 a.m. on 4/1/2019 to fix a word in a quote.