By Philip Ross:
The very beginning of Bright Futures started with a radical life change for my wife and I. We had at that time been married for 10 years, and tried to have kids. We weren’t able to have kids, so based on that lack of responsibility of raising a baby girl, which was what I wanted, I lived irresponsibly. I sunk all of our money and efforts into race cars, boats and booze. Those three things don’t bring a great rate of return. But, that’s what I did. I found myself, at 38 years old, broke and desperate. I realized that I needed to make some changes. The best way for me to do that was make a radical life change, inside and out.
I had been raised in the Catholic Church and went to Catholic schools. I knew the church would be a great place for me to start. I ended up visiting churches and found one where I made a transformation. Interestingly, the day I accepted Christ, they were having a goodbye party for the associate pastor. They were sending him into the city to close a church in downtown Atlanta. I ended up connecting with him and started coming downtown and volunteering with him. That was Midtown Mission Church. After volunteering with him for six months, he asked me to work for him. I said, ‘what the heck.’
I took a job with the pastor, making less money than I ever made in my career. I started working down in the inner city community housing apartments, the projects. I started working heavily in those and starting school programs and summer camps. Then my wife started joining me and volunteering. She said, if we’re going to work in the ‘hood, we need to live in the ‘hood. So she started driving up and down Bankhead and found an unbelievably cool piece of property, two acres in the middle of the ‘hood, surrounded by hardwood forest.
After three years of working with Midtown Mission, we decided to branch out and start Bright Futures. We strategically bought our home right across the street from arguably the worst middle school in America. So, we were working with middle schoolers. We had middle school boys coming to the house after school and doing homework and devotion and character building. After a year of that, we felt called to expand to serve girls as well. My wife was working a regular job because somebody had to pay the bills. But at that point she quit her job. That really put us out there on the edge with no safety net. But God was there the whole time and provided.
We grew the ministry to 25 kids. Our basement was the art room. The garage was the weight room. Another section in the basement was the band. Our dining room table was girls devotion. The living room was boys devotion. That’s just how we lived. After about six years of that, we built a new house on the back of our property. Basically, the Bright Futures clubhouse. That served well for after school and summer.
“That’s when we realized that these kids need another option.”
Then, we had our first group of high school graduates. We got all six kids into college. What we didn’t realize, was they weren’t prepared to do the work in college. So, they didn’t do well. That’s when we realized that these kids need another option. If we’re going to really help our kids get out of the community, it was great we were raising them spiritually, it was great that we were raising them with life skills, but the only way to get them up and out of here, is they’ve got to learn to read and write. So, we started a school. My comment back then was, ‘I ain’t no educator.’ But we saw the need so we made it happen.
It started as a homeschool network, worked for 12 students, then grew to 17 the next year. This was happening on our property at the Bright Futures house. Year three we moved over to City of Refuge. They had a huge facility and they weren’t using all the space, so we rented out that space. Then they built out a space just for us. Fast forward to today, we’ve got a 25,000 square foot education facility, sitting on the City of Refuge campus. We’re the largest lease holders on the property besides City of Refuge themselves. We have grades 6-12 and are bringing on grade five next year. We’ve started dual enrollment this year with Point University and are also offering Atlanta Technical College dual enrollment next year.
We are offering kids in our community a choice outside of the regular public and charter schools. What we hear from the kids and parents, it’s a choice that’s necessary and working out very well.
“Giving someone more choices isn’t a bad thing.”
We’re just a small boots on the ground ministry in the hood. Our school served 100 kids a year. We are expanding every year and look to grow. From the standpoint of the state, because we are engrossed in the city, just giving a kids an opportunity to choose. That opportunity in itself, how can you say it’s bad? You’re giving them a choice. Giving someone more choices isn’t a bad thing. That’s where I have troubles with the opposition to the tax credit scholarship program, because what’s wrong with choice? But I don’t have time to get into politics. I just know what’s worked for us. And I see what’s worked for us and the school choice for the kids in our community, whether it’s our school or some other private schools in the community, it seems to be working very well.
“If we lost the Georgia tax credit program, Bright Futures Academy would close.”
The Georgia tax credit program has helped us grow, and offer more opportunities for the kids. Education isn’t cheap so having that Georgia tax credit program has helped us grow the school and continue everything with the same spirit of excellence that we’ve always had. During the last elections in the state of Georgia, there was buzz that if a certain person would be elected Governor, she was going to do her best to take away this choice, and it scared us because if we lost the Georgia tax credit program, Bright Futures Academy would close. We’ve worked so hard to get to where we are, and to back up would be very difficult. We don’t have all our eggs in one basket, we have other donors and sponsorships, but that in conjunction with the Georgia tax credit program, allows us to provide an education second to none. Facility second to none. So, without it, we would have to close our doors.
All of our teaching and administration staff here are African American. We think it’s important because these kids need to see successful people that look like them. This has just organically occurred over the last couple of years. We also sort of became a majority of male teachers too. We have 10 full time teachers and eight of them are male. That wasn’t on purpose, it just happened for whatever reason. Our kids have grown up in single parent families and 99% of the time it’s the mom. To have this many male role models around here, we believe it’s a positive.
The biggest thing for us is that we want to provide kids with real opportunities after high school. I personally don’t agree with the premise that every path is right for every kid. We’ve had kids we sent to technical schools, one man graduated, got a job, 20 years old, making $60,000 a year, no college debt. Another young man is the manager of a Kroger store up in North Georgia, he’s not even 30 years old, making $75,000 a year. While college is good for some, we’re not stuck on counting how many kids we have that are going to college. We want our kids to graduate high school, and go into a field that they want to go into so they can become successful young men and women.