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After 30 Years, Maranathan Academy Continues Focus On At-Risk Students

Donna Dukes, Founder and Executive Director, Maranathan Academy with students, from left, Devin Bridges, Coreyun Clark and Calvin Alexander. (Amarr Croskey, The Birmingham Times)
By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times

Rita Davis, a Birmingham native who grew up in the Smithfield community, recently attended her first Maranathan Academy event. It won’t be her last.

Davis was in the audience at The Fennec, a dining-and-entertainment venue located downtown Birmingham, for the Focused and Fabulous 2022 Scholarship Luncheon and Fashion Show, hosted by Maranathan Academy Founder and Executive Director Donna Dukes.

The Academy—which opened 31 years ago with one student, one teacher, and four chairs—now has 30 students, nine teachers, and around 30 chairs. It has graduated thousands of critically at-risk students, some who have been expelled from school or have trouble learning and some who have little or no support system or may not have the best home life.

One of the ways the school supports its students by hosting first-class fundraising events like last month’s fashion show, which attracted Davis.

“[Maranathan Academy] is a very needed [institution] within our society,” she said. “Education is very critical, and so many kids need a second chance at life.”

The fashion show, which drew nearly 100 city officials and citizens from Birmingham and the surrounding areas, also appealed to folks beyond the Magic City. Among them was the event’s honoree, actress, entrepreneur, and humanitarian LisaRaye McCoy, who hails from Chicago, Illinois. Like everyone else in attendance, she was impressed.

“I must say, in this room I’ve felt so much grace, emotion, love, and support. … I live in Hollywood, [California], and it is not there—it is here, it is among the people that really have compassion and passion,” said McCoy, who has appeared in films like “The Players Club” and “The Wood” and on television shows like “All of Us” and “Single Ladies.”

She added, “I just happen to be an actress. I just happen to do what I do, but I wasn’t always here. I am much like the young people we are helping now. I came from a humble beginning in which I had to learn where I was, where I was going, and what I wanted.”

McCoy ended her speech by looking over at Dukes and saying, “I want to be part of your team. Please let me be part of your team.”

In addition to the fashion show, Maranathan Academy hosts another signature fundraiser: Jacquelyn’s Jewels. This year’s event, which will be held on August 18 at the Alys Stephens Center, is a jazz concert that will honor four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross and feature the musical genius of internationally renowned jazz pianist Alex Bugnon.

The event is named in memory of the late Mrs. Jacquelyn Bates Dukes, mother of Donna, who helped found the school and worked tirelessly as an instructor and guidance counselor until her death on Thanksgiving night 2004. 

Evolution of the Mission

Dukes founded Maranathan Academy in September 1991, just four months after completing her degree in political science at Miles College. (Dukes also has a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Management from Harvard University.) Asked how the school has changed since it’s founding three decades ago, Dukes said the evolution of the mission of Maranathan Academy is “… directly correlated to the struggles within the critically at-risk populace.”

Years ago, when an expelled student would come to the Academy, he or she would be accompanied by a parent, who would not only be at the school during the enrollment process but also participate in parent meetings: “They wanted to be involved,” Dukes said.

“As the years progressed, I have witnessed some parents overcome with depression and apathy, parents overwhelmed with their own struggles, [all of which] go with being dependent on government assistance,” she added. “[Some of these parents] don’t participate in their child’s education. … They do not come to parent meetings. They will not participate. We have to do home visitations get them to sign off on necessary paperwork because they will not be involved. … [Some don’t even attend] their own children’s graduation from middle or high school.”

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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.

The name came into play when Dukes settled on 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 at the time. “So, still young and 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 out every baby that I had met,” she said.

Soon after, Dukes felt the Lord change 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. 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.

Community Partners

Maranathan Academy does not receive any city, state, or federal funding and is privately funded, so events like the Focused and Fabulous 2022 Scholarship Luncheon and Fashion Show and Jacquelyn’s Jewels are among the ways the school raises money to serve its students.

Support is also provided by Alabama-based foundations, such the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Daniel Foundation of Alabama, Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) Foundation, and the Susan Mott Webb Charitable Trust.

Local churches play a key role in furthering the mission of the Academy, too.

“We have been blessed to be selected as a community partner of The Worship Center Christian Church, [which has campuses in Bessemer, Alabama, and Birmingham, as well as a vibrant online presence],” said Dukes. “They epitomize the kind of outreach that makes it possible for residents in underserved communities to experience change. … Life-changing, positive change.”

Other houses of worship that support Maranathan Academy are Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where Dukes is a member, which is on the western side of Birmingham; Cathedral Church of the Advent, located downtown Birmingham; Third Presbyterian Church, on Birmingham’s Southside; St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama; and All Saints Episcopal Church in Homewood, Alabama.

Another important recent partnership has been established with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to serve as the pilot school and partner on a grant for mindfulness training, “which is very effective in helping to positively modify behavior,” Dukes said.

“That has added an entirely new dimension to our school,” she added. “We already have yoga, and now we have mindfulness training. … I’m proud to say the results have been more than successful, and the grant was renewed.”

Over the years, Maranathan Academy has received financial support from anonymous donors, as well.

Meeting Needs

The funds raised through events and community partnerships go directly to Maranathan Academy’s students. A full scholarship is $10,000 per child each academic year, which lasts from August until July of the following year. Orientation for the current year began on August 6 for the 30 students who are enrolled; 26 remain on the waiting list because the school has only enough funding to allow 14 returning students and 16 incoming students.

“That keeps me up at night. Although I don’t have the funding at the moment for a student to enroll, I keep in touch with them,” Dukes said. “Telling them no breaks my heart.”

Scholarships cover standard uniforms, which include polo-style shirts emblazoned with the royal blue–yellow-and-white Maranathan Academy logo, khaki-colored pants, and oxford-style shoes; navy blue sweaters are provided in the fall. The funding also covers hairstyles and haircuts, breakfast, lunch, snacks, and a food-distribution program, so students are able to have food at home. The students live at or below the poverty line, so the scholarship also covers a food pantry, textbooks, and field trips.

Dukes’ dream is to provide a blazer for every child, but the Academy’s current budget won’t allow for that expenditure. For now, blazers are given to each student who earns an ambassadorship.

“To be selected as ambassadors, students have to meet certain criteria, such as consistent adherence to the dress code, minimum to no negative behavior exhibitions, and an enthusiasm for learning,” she said.

Dukes added, “I have events, such as [the Focused and Fabulous 2022 Scholarship Luncheon and Fashion Show], jazz events, and others to raise money for our students.”

Gennia Baldwin, from Birmingham, attended the recent fashion show. After hearing Dukes discuss her reason for founding Maranathan Academy, Baldwin decided to become a volunteer.

“I want to support because I have a skill set to offer, whether its mentorship or leadership development that can add to what Maranathan Academy is already providing,” Baldwin said. “I feel the need to just be of service to the organization.”

Updated at 12:30 p.m. on 8/11/2022 for edits.

Maranathan Academy, located at 200 Beacon Pkwy W., Suite 206, Birmingham, AL 35209, focuses on critically at-risk students, some who have been expelled from school or have trouble learning and some who have little or no support system or may not have the best home life; the school does not receive city, state, or federal funding and is privately funded. To learn more about the school and how you can support it, visit maranathanacademy.com/ways-to-get-involved. To learn more about or purchase ticket for the upcoming Jacquelyn’s Jewels 2022 fundraising event, visit jacquelynsjewels.swell.gives