Birmingham almost missed out on Growing Kings, a mentoring program headed and run by Titusville native — and Huffman High School, class of 2003 graduate — Marcus Carson. Carson had been working as a financial analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina, after graduating magna cum laude from Florida A&M University and going on to earn a master’s degree in business administration in 2008.
“When I left Birmingham after I graduated high school I had no plan to come back to live permanently,” Carson said, speaking from his office this week. “But when I decided to embark upon the journey of Growing Kings once I was out of corporate America, my original plan was to have the organization operate in Charlotte — I’m actually incorporated in Charlotte — but I wanted to have some level of programming in Birmingham and have some friends of mine manage whatever the operations were. But as I completed the business plan and pitched it to the school system in Charlotte through a number of meetings, including charter schools, and I did the same thing in Birmingham, the school system in Birmingham was much more receptive.”
The program pairs at-risk male students in the Birmingham city school system with mentors who can help them through the obstacle course that they face in getting out of school. Carson had every intention of remaining in Charlotte, but his plans were cast aside by circumstance before too long.
“The Charlotte schools liked what I was presenting, but being a young guy — 24 at the time — with no experience in philanthropy or education, they didn’t necessarily think that I could do what I said I was going to be doing. But in Birmingham, they were eager to have some level of intervention for underserved male youth. At that time we were only looking to be in one school, working strictly with sixth through eighth graders; that was all I had at the time really envisioned for the organization. And so Ms. Burns — the principal of Wilkerson Middle School in Birmingham — she was the first respondent to an email that was sent out from the school system to, I believe, four principals, all working in at-risk schools.”
Still, this didn’t decide things for Carson, who still intended to keep his program anchored in Charlotte at least to some degree.
“Theoretically I had read up on how to start a non-profit organization and all those types of things, but actually what it took to have it up and running and sustainable was a totally different monster that really forced my hand to moving back to Birmingham.”
Birmingham city schools appear to be happy to have Carson and his program around, and the program has grown tremendously — and quickly, as well. Also, the population that Growing Kings serves was in serious need of assistance before Carson and his team showed up on the scene, assistance that the school districts themselves couldn’t provide without help.
“About 85 percent of our kids come from single-parent households — usually headed by a single mother — and they are three times more likely to drop out of high school, and you know, they don’t have that positive male influence in their lives,” said Amy Roberts, Growing Kings’ development director. “So we’re trying to just instill that in them, to … show them examples of men who are successful who come from similar beginnings, and just give them an idea of the different possibilities that are out there for them.”
“The special thing about us,” Roberts continued, “is we’re school-based, so that means all of our programs are offered during the school day, because we understand there are things that will keep kids from participating in mentoring programs like this — like transportation is always a huge issue, especially in an area like Birmingham. So, we get them during the regular school day, in what would be their unified arts time, or instead of going to P.E. they come to us, and we’re able to give them that extra enrichment [and] support that they need to help succeed.”
According to Roberts, a typical group session is once a week for an hour. The program runs on the theory that “long-term, consistent, constant engagement is what’s going to result in the best outcomes for this population of students.”
The methods of engagement are various, and they change depending on the age of the students. Growing Kings works with students from across the school system, from 10 of the local elementary, middle and high schools. Their program is organized in a feeder system so that they can track their students from elementary school all the way through the end of their high school experience. Roberts claims that they have seen success, which is measured by whether the student stays in school, makes good grades, stays out of trouble and graduates, in 100 percent of their students who have been with the program for three years or longer.
In elementary school, they work mostly on basic mathematics and reading skills, but once the students get into middle school and high school they focus on everything from character development and violence prevention to culture, civics and car maintenance. The objective is to turn out not just good students, but well-rounded and successful citizens.
As for the school system, Carson said, “I think the school system is headed in the right direction. From the time I was in school, the system just had a number of obstacles, and since that time we’ve just seen great improvement. I do think now that there’s a greater emphasis on school reform nationally that is definitely trickling down to Birmingham city schools as well. I also think we have a strong board of education — or a stronger board than what we’ve had in the past — that is diligent about ensuring that our students have the best opportunities.”
“But,” said Carson, “there are still a number of obstacles that hinder the learning that we need in place, the type of rigor that our schools need to have embedded within the curriculum, and those are some things that are much larger and make things more difficult. But I think the strategy that the school has in place — plus some stroke of grace and mercy — means we’ll be able to turn around much more quickly so that my daughter and my future children are in a position to not only be enrolled in Birmingham city schools, but in a system that is competing nationally with some of the more effective urban school systems.”
Carson laughed and noted the stroke of grace and mercy that they need, but if past performance is any indication of likely future results the grace and mercy might already be here, in the form of Growing Kings and its staff of dedicated mentors. He and his crew do not seem to have any intention of going anywhere; Roberts says they intend to be in every school in Birmingham soon, and Carson himself has national ambitions for the program. Whatever happens, they will leave many students and their parents happier than they found them and with a better chance at success.