I had just graduated from my private liberal-arts college and was working for a large St. Louis corporation when a friend asked me to volunteer as a tutor at Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club. That’s where I met Anthony, a second-grader attending school in an underperforming district that would later lose accreditation. His mom cared deeply for him, but the family had few educational options. She turned to Mathews-Dickey, a St. Louis nonprofit institution that has provided athletic, enrichment, and educational opportunities to children in north St. Louis for more than 50 years.
Anthony and I had very different backgrounds and lives, but we quickly found how much we had in common. For the next eight years, we met weekly. We talked about algebra and athletics, economics and comics, pie charts and pizza. I shared my love of books, and he shared his passion for art. I gave Anthony my perspective on the endless possibilities for his future, and Anthony helped steer mine.
I soon traded the corporate for the nonprofit world, as director of education at Mathews-Dickey. I met many talented, bright children with limitless potential but limited opportunities. I was inspired and determined to change their educational options. I’ve followed my mentor Martin Mathews’ advice “to provide children with the same opportunities that you expected for your own children.” Period.
We opened City Academy at Mathews-Dickey in 1999 with a belief that children, regardless of income or race, will overcome barriers with their determination, their hard work, and a support system of exceptional educators with bold expectations. (We have since expanded into our own facility across the street.) We have embraced Mathews’ message that children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, are the same everywhere, and it is our job to prepare them for a pathway toward success.
We start by instilling a love of books in students, so they can regularly visit new worlds, explore various cultures, and ponder their possibilities. Young children can always tell you what they want to be when they grow up—just ask any 4-year-old, and you’ll surely get a wonderful answer. We must keep these hopes alive for all kids as they grow and instill in them the awareness that the possibilities are endless.
Our students can see themselves as scientists and mathematicians, economists and engineers, artists and architects. I recently asked a sixth-grader what she wanted to be when she grew up. “A neonatologist!” she exclaimed.
To me, socioeconomic factors are responsible for our educational divide. We must provide all children with quality education, exceptional teachers, and a variety of comprehensive extracurricular activities. When we do, they will flourish.
I started City Academy because the students I saw each day at Mathews-Dickey were no different from their wealthier county counterparts. They were no different from my four kids. They just needed the benefits of exposure, exploration, and experience.
When you talk to Mathews, he doesn’t talk about black and white. He talks about preparation, opportunity, and possibility. When children are prepared and receive equal opportunities, their possibilities are endless; their futures are bright; and we, St. Louis, and the nation benefit.
Danforth co-founded City Academy and became president of the school when it opened in 1999. The academy describes itself as “the only private, independent elementary school in St. Louis and the state of Missouri providing scholarship support to 100 percent of admitted students.”
This article, written by Don Danforth III, City Academy Co-founder and President, appeared in the November 2014 issue of St. Louis Magazine.
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