Written by T.K. Thorne
Photography by Beau Gustafson
When Wryn was 3 years old, her father pushed her behind him as he and her grandfather argued, but he couldn’t shield her from what happened next. Her world shattered with a blast from a gun in her grandfather’s hands, killing her father right in front of her. It was the beginning of a life too full of violence and heartache. When Wryn appeared on the doorstep of Maranathan Academy, she was physically tiny and painfully shy, as if she had learned the way to survive a brutal world was to be in it as little as possible. Her mother brought her to the school because she was a magnet for a group of middle school girls who taunted her and beat her on a regular basis. “She would sometimes just stop eating,” says Donna Dukes, the founder and director of Maranathan Academy, a small, private school that takes in the unwanted, the public school failures, the misfits. In her office, Dukes keeps a carton of nutritional shakes that Wryn likes.
Slowly, Wryn responded to the love, attention, and expectations at Maranathan. In addition to schoolwork, Dukes took her and the other students to places her students didn’t even know existed—like the downtown public library. She exposed them to magazines and to people from the community who talked about different career opportunities. To Wryn it was as foreign a world as the surface of the moon. Her life ambition had been to be a cosmetologist, but one day she announced to “Miss Dukes” that she had decided she didn’t want to be a cosmetologist anymore, because she couldn’t make enough money to have the beautiful things she saw in the magazines; she wanted to study medicine and be a nurse practitioner.
Anton came to Maranathan wearing an electronic monitor because he and his gang had beaten a gay student. James was a gay student who had been the victim of constant beating at another school. During one of the regular discussion groups at Maranathan, James told his story and Anton said in outrage, “They did that to you? If anyone ever bothers you again, you let me know and I’ll—” He stopped in midsentence and looked at Dukes. “Miss Dukes, that’s what I did, isn’t it?” She nodded. Anton and James became close friends.
Calvin was 17 years old, but still in the seventh grade when he showed up with his mother at Maranathan for the mandatory interview with Dukes. Dukes already knew that Calvin was a gang member, a drug dealer, and an addict, yet as they talked, she saw “a glimmer, a light there that wanted to get out.” She said, “You are a bright young man. Why are you failing the seventh grade?” He shrugged. “Because the work they give me is too easy, so I don’t do it,” he said.
At that time, Dukes’s mother, a retired and beloved schoolteacher and Dukes’s inspiration, was working with her at the school. Everyone called her “Mama Dukes.” Mama Dukes tried over and over to get through Calvin’s tough shell, but he was arrogant and wouldn’t try. Finally, frustrated and heartbroken, Mama Dukes broke into tears. “That’s the first time anybody had ever cried for me,” Calvin told Dukes. It took Mama Dukes’s tears to start him on a different path. Today, he is married, the father of three children, owns his own home, is working toward owning his own welding shop, and is studying to be a minister. Friends from his former life can’t believe it. They often give an amazed shake of their heads, and say, “Man, I thought you would end up in jail or dead.”
Donna Dukes inherited her leadership skills from her father, Frank Dukes, who led the students at Miles College in the 1962 boycott that began the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. He approved of his daughter’s plan to attend law school after graduating. In her senior year, however, she volunteered at a juvenile delinquent facility and within two days made a discovery that changed her life. “They were good kids, wonderful kids, and I knew I had to do something to give children like that a better chance,” she says. It took her father a while to come around and accept her giving up her plans to go to law school, but he is now a fixture at the school. Her mother, Jacquelyn Bates Dukes, was thrilled and became an instant partner. Together they opened the doors of a school in a house that had been her grandparents’ home. They named it “Maranathan” after the Aramaic phrase meaning, “Come Lord!” a greeting of hope exchanged by early Christians. This school was to be a place of hope and refuge. Mama Dukes made sure the school was recognized by college boards, ACT, SAT, the NCAA, and certified by the U.S. military. The space was crowded and money was sparse, but all were welcome. And one by one, they came.
Fourteen-year-old Michelle was raped by an older student at her school. Although it was reported to the police, it was her word against the boy’s, and no charges were brought. Michelle didn’t return to school. For more than four years, she sat at home, watching over her younger siblings. At 17, she had her own baby. She will be graduating soon and has found a college that will accept her and provides daycare for single parents. She wants to be a history teacher. Maranathan welcomes teen mothers as students. Several have confided to Dukes that they hadn’t really wanted to have sex—“I just wanted him to hug me.”
“These children need to know they are loved,” Dukes says. “It is terrible to see a parent who doesn’t want to touch her child. I’ve often suggested a child give his mother a goodbye hug, only to have the parent wave them away with a ‘I don’t want him huggin’ on me!’” The situations can be complex. In addition to the physical and emotional scarring and a constricted view of the world, in some cases, parents use their children’s names and social security numbers to set up utility or credit accounts. When that child is ready to step out into the world on his own, his credit is already ruined. “These children need to be saved from the chaos of their parents,” Dukes says, “but they [the parents] don’t think they are doing anything wrong. They are reflecting what they learned from their parents, who learned it from their own parents.”
By any standard, Maranathan Academy has seen great success. In the school’s 24 years of operation, more than 250 of these critically at-risk students who have fallen through public school system cracks have earned high school diplomas, with a graduation rate of 85 percent. (Birmingham’s rate is 78 percent as of 2014.) Of the graduates, 58 percent have gone to college, 18 percent have entered the military, and 24 percent have become certified and gainfully employed in a trade. “We started having eighth grade commencement exercises complete with caps and gowns,” Dukes says. “We discovered that graduating from the eighth grade was a big accomplishment to the kids, because so many of their peers drop out by then.” The school also has an Adult Studies Program that helps adults earn their high school diploma.
“There have been failures,” Dukes reflects. “I mourn them, but they have all been related to the parents, not the children.” Parents have actually withdrawn their children because they were learning too much. A child’s classification as a slow learner can allow the parent to draw a subsidy from the government, supposedly for extra tutoring, but the money rarely is used for that. A child’s progress in school would mean not getting “their check.” Dukes does not hesitate to confront the culture of entitlement she has encountered and hopes to change: “When children come in with that attitude, we knock that chip right off their shoulders. We let them know that the problems in their lives are not due to their perceptions about ‘what white folks did in the 1960s.’ They have to take responsibility for their own decisions and take advantage of opportunities.” Dukes has made an award-winning documentary film called Stand! Untold Stories from the Civil Rights Movement, in which civil rights leaders talk about the student boycott and how members of the white community supported and helped their efforts. “We show them the film,” Dukes says, “and they are surprised. It changes their attitude.”
Running the school is not without risks. One day, a mother burst into Dukes’s office. Furious that her beautiful daughter had decided she no longer wanted to be a stripper, she threatened Dukes—“I’m going to get you! Who do you think you are?” Not sure how to handle the situation, Dukes fell back on her mother’s wisdom: Don’t go to their level and yell back. She remained silent, letting the woman vent. Fury finally spent, the student’s mother demanded, “You’ve seen that body. What else is she going to do with that body?” Duke took a breath and replied, “She’s going to be a nurse.”
Tamethia was 12 when she came to Maranathan. Overweight, disliked, and bullied at school, she had tried multiple times to kill herself. At first, she did well, responding to the individual attention and acceptance she found at the school. But one day, she acted out with an unusual rebellious, smart aleck attitude. Exasperated, Dukes asked her, “What happened to that little girl that was here yesterday?” Silent for a long moment, Tamethia responded, “She’s not here today.” Stunned, Dukes asked, “What’s your name?” “Tammy,” the girl declared. Dukes immediately called Tamethia’s father with concerns the child might have multiple personality disorder and needed psychiatric help. He was not surprised, “You think Tammy is bad,” he said, “wait until you meet ‘Tubb;’ that’s the one I can’t stand.” When Dukes urged him to get her professional help, he replied, “I don’t believe in that. I told her she had to pick the one she wants to be.”
With no other choice, Dukes kept working with the child. “We got so we knew when another personality had come to class,” she says. “Tamethia always dressed modestly, but Tammy would come in looking like a street walker.” The day after Tammy had been to school, Tamethia would have no memory of the lessons from the day before. “Then one day, Tubb showed up,” Dukes says. “She made Tammy look like a girl scout. Tubb lined up all the scissors she could find and threw them at the boys.”
Dukes’s aunt was a nurse with a graduate degree in psychology. Dukes convinced Tamethia’s father to allow her aunt to do an assessment and talk with his daughter. “She showed Tamethia coping skills, methods she could use when she felt herself becoming enraged or upset,” she says. The nutritional courses taught at the school helped Tamethia make healthy eating changes, but Dukes realized she was always going to be a large woman, so Dukes worked with her, helping her to love her size and be proud of herself. “Tammy” and “Tubb” disappeared. Tamethia has graduated from Maranathan and is currently enrolled in college, where she is thriving.
As a private school, students daily recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Maranathan Academy Mantra:
I am a Maranathan Academy student. I believe in God, love myself, and my family. I attend a school that doesn’t look at my past, but is preparing me for the future. I am a part of an academic family that expects excellence from me at every level. I will study hard with my teachers and will make a positive profound impact on my classmates. I am brilliant. I am respectful, and I take personal responsibility for my behavior. I will be a productive, contributing member of society and a credit to my country.
Mama Dukes died in 2009, leaving a hole in the hearts of the children she had taught over her career in public school and her years at Maranathan and leaving a deep chasm in her daughter’s life. But Donna Dukes continues the journey and vision they began together. The desperate and forgotten needed her. After 22 years in the family home, Maranathan recently found a new location in the community of East Lake, but bus passes allow students to come from all over metro Birmingham. Most of the students enrolled at the school cannot afford the $5,000-per-year tuition it costs to be there. Dukes has scrambled to find money for scholarships for them. Seventy children and adults remain on a waiting list. They are on Dukes’s mind every day. She knows her kids are a reflection of a broken community and that, too, weighs on her.
Meanwhile, she makes a change, one child at a time.