Excuses are not an option at Maranathan Academy, a fundamental principle instilled in Donna Dukes by her parents at a very young age. A Birmingham native with a heart for the critically at-risk, Donna’s mission to help young people and adults turn their lives around and graduate from high school has made an indelible impact on area families. We had the honor of sitting down with Donna at Maranathan Academy in East Lake to chat about everything from her greatest victories as an educator to her love of classic action films. Welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, the lovely Donna Dukes!
Where did you grow up? Share with us a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Birmingham. I attended Woodlawn High School and got my bachelor’s degree from Miles College. I majored in political science, and I was on the fast track to go to law school when I started Maranathan Academy.
What inspired you to start Maranathan Academy?
I wanted to work with juvenile delinquents, so I had a great idea. I decided that I would volunteer at the juvenile detention center. It only took me two days to discover that there were some of the best kids there, and they were kids who, if someone had worked with them before they ended up in JDC, their lives would have been totally different. I just felt the Lord change the whole direction of my life and it hit me, you know, I’m not going to go to law school. I’m going to start a school for kids who no one else wants to work with. And that’s what I did. I graduated from Miles in May of 1991, and I started Marnathan on September 3, 1991, with one student, one table and four chairs. This past September 3, we turned 24 years old, and that’s 24 years of seeing young people and adults, all critically at risk, turn their lives around and become contributing, productive members of society.
How many students are typically enrolled at Maranathan Academy, and how do they get referred to you?
Right now, we have 19 enrolled. We were slated to have 30 enrolled for this year, but the scholarship-granting organization with which we are associated had some funding issues and let us know that they wouldn’t be able to renew scholarships for students who were not zoned for failing schools, so that knocked us down to just four scholarships. We like to have at least 30, and we have a waiting list of 70 who need our help. But I have faith that it’s going to work out.
Students are referred to us by social service agencies, the family court system, police officers who know about us, and some are referred from graduates or students who are currently enrolled. I actually have students whose parents end up coming to me after the students have graduated. We try to form a relationship, and we find them confiding that they didn’t earn their diplomas either. One year, I had a mother and a daughter graduate in the same class, and that was very special.
What is the most challenging thing about your work at Maranathan Academy?
I would say that the most challenging thing is the opposition I sometimes receive from parents and family members. However, I am often encouraged after many months of working with them, to see their attitudes and perceptions change. The parents can be so resistant to their children being required to learn, behave, work and to be responsible for their own actions. Personal responsibility can never be stressed enough for anyone, but especially for critically at-risk students.
What has been your proudest moment?
There have been so many, it’s kind of hard to pick one. I would say my proudest moment was being privileged to see a particular student emerge from a very abusive relationship that had completely decimated her self-esteem. One day, she allowed the light of hope to come back into her eyes. I get emotional when I think about her, but my proudest moment was the day that she looked up at me and said “I can learn. I’m going to go to school; I’m going to be somebody for my children.” I had been working with her for months. She would come to school and keep her head down. I would ask her, “Give me a career that interests you, give me a college that interests you, let’s work on what you can do after this,” and she never could tell me because she never thought she could do it. I think every teacher has that moment, when you have a student and you know that there’s so much potential there and they just don’t believe they can do it, and all of a sudden that light comes on in their eyes and lets you know that hope has arrived. That was my proudest moment. Then, seeing her graduate and then getting an invitation to her college graduation. It changed not only her life, but the life of her children, and it changed the entire trajectory of that family.
What encourages you to keep going?
What keeps me going is that because of Maranathan Academy, entire families have been changed. Because of Maranathan Academy, the cycle of government dependence has been broken in many, many families. Because of Maranathan Academy, young people and adults, who others have written off, have a place where they’re welcomed and accepted and where they can change. One of the things that I think about when I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning is the fact that there are many more who need our services, and I definitely keep going to help the 70 that are on our waiting list.
What is your ultimate goal for Maranathan Academy?
There are so many things that I want for my babies. My dream is to have a freestanding building, enough support to eradicate our waiting list, to be able to provide transportation options for our students, and just to continue this amazing mission of, as my father says best, “bringing forth intellectual springs of water from what others have deemed to be dry ground.”
Shifting gears, what is your favorite thing about Birmingham?
I love Birmingham. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love the spirit of community that exists among our citizens. I love the quintessential Southern hospitality that still exists here. I love the diverse cultural opportunities, in terms of opera and museums and theater. I love how our citizens come together in times of crisis. I love the feeling of family that we have here. I have not encountered it anywhere else, and when people come to visit me here, they are often blown away by what a friendly, wonderful town it is.
What is one hidden gem that every Birmingham resident should visit?
Oh, you’ve got to go to the East 59 Cafe. It is headed by an amazing young lady named Amber, and it is incredible. It’s so much more than just a coffee shop; it’s coffee, sandwiches, amazing salads, breakfast, memorabilia. You’ve got to go.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
I love going to our local theater. I love the Alabama Theatre summer movie series and holiday films series and all of our local theater offerings. There are such amazing productions offered at the Alys Stephens Center and the Red Mountain Theatre and Virginia Samford Theatre. When I have spare time, that’s what I love to do.
What is one of your guilty pleasures?
My guilty pleasure is going to see action movies. I admit it, I love them!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
It came from my mother, Jacquelyn Bates Dukes. She taught for 40 years, and parents and teachers would often come to her for advice about how to work with a difficult student or situation, and she would say “listen to what they don’t say.” That’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten, because so often someone will tell you things, but behind what they’re telling you lurks the real problem for which they need the most help.
Aside from family, friends and faith, name three things you can’t live without.
The Food Network, Turner Classic Movies and time to cook
Visit Maranathan Academy for more information and details on how to get involved.
Thank you to Meg McKinney for the terrific photos of Donna Dukes at Maranathan Academy.