When it was his turn to choose his path to a future in 1981, Kirby Jones enlisted in the U.S. Marines alongside his “best friend in the whole wide world” rather than answer acceptance into N.C. Central University.
Now, he dedicates time, energy and resources to make college priority one for children in Southeast Raleigh, some of whom some of us would least expect to go to college, let alone pursue professions in math and science.
“Looking back on my own life, having not gone to college out of high school, I recognize now what an incredible lost opportunity that was,” said Jones, 49, noting college as a time most often free of life responsibilities – bills and work, spouses and children. “Right out of high school is the most convenient, most opportune time to pursue a two-year or a four-year degree.”
That’s a cornerstone of The Daniel Center for Math and Science, a licensed, 5-star, child care program. Jones founded the program in 2009 to motivate children to learn, get excited about math and science, and prepare for college studies and careers in the field.
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A month after the center’s opening in March 2011, it had four children enrolled. Today, the center teaches 31 at-risk and economically disadvantaged children, ages 5-12, in after-school, track-out and summer camp tutoring sessions. The center’s capacity: 32.
The nonprofit Daniel Center rents space from the church where Jones is pastor, Williams Grove Baptist Church at 735 Rock Quarry Road. Its name, he said, borrows from a story in the Book of Daniel that describes young Daniel and his friends as well-learned in wisdom, knowledge and science, and able to stand before the King.
The rest, however, is all academic.
“We motivate and encourage these children not only to graduate from high school, but also to go on to a post-high school education,” Jones said. “They have to want it. They certainly have to have the academic skills, but for many of these children, it takes changing their outlook on who they are and what they can achieve.”
Williard Jones was the Daniel Center’s first student – and close to failing his grade. By the start of the next school year, Jones recalls, “he ran toward me in the parking lot to show me his Academic Achiever’s Award.”
That’s not all, said Natalie Wilson, Williard’s mom, who had watched her son struggle to steady fluctuating grades.
“He ended his fifth-grade year with a 4 in reading, a 3 in math and a 3 in science,” she said, who recently enrolled her youngest son, Jamieson, 5. “The Daniel Center has made a difference.”
Williard, now 11 and a sixth-grader at Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy, told me why.
“I’m more excited about the Daniel Center because I learn more about math and science here than at school,” he said. “This will help me get to college – and a good job.”
Under the tutelage of math and science professionals, and college students, children delve into creative math, science and technology lessons and activities. Each aims to help students learn basic processing skills, connect math and science to their daily lives, and provide opportunities to use technology.
Students, including the youngest, are required to choose a college they’d like to attend when it’s their turn, even if it’s just based on their affinity for the school’s colors.
“We don’t deal with them from the perspective of if they go to college,” Jones said. “We deal with them from the perspective of when they college.
“It sets them on a course of success, even when there are challenges in life,” he added. “Many of the children in our program do not have that as a default setting.”
In addition to academics, there’s a focus on interaction with tutors and mentors. And field trips.
“All of these things open up a world to these children outside of Southeast Raleigh,” Jones said.
What Jones and the Daniel Center do is important to our community, considering research that links poverty to lower academic achievement and higher drop-out rates. And consider that statistics also show Southeast Raleigh has more than twice as many families living below poverty than the rest of Wake County. Many are minorities; the area is made up of about 70 percent African-Americans and close to 10 percent Hispanics.
Jones believes the right messages and educational opportunities can change that story.
So does Shanon Daniels, who works for the state Department of Public Instruction. Her daughter, Nyla, 7, a student at Bugg Elementary, was recommended for the Daniel Center by her first-grade teacher at Barwell Elementary who recognized her acuity for math and science.
“Her zeal for learning is more noticeable,” Daniels said. “She’s excited about the Daniel Center, and she’s excited about science and math because she’s learning a whole lot. We’re just looking forward to the future.”