Words by Laura Drummond
Photos by Mary Fehr, Meryem Tunagur
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Christina Dykes joined Teach for America (TFA) in 2015. She was excited to work in an elementary school in her hometown, where she could have an opportunity to help her own community. Dykes taught kindergarten for three years, an experience that would influence her work and impact her career choices for years to come.
Hoping to deepen her impact beyond a single classroom, Dykes transitioned into a staff role at TFA. She worked to raise funds toward the organization’s mission of confronting educational inequity. “Students in low-income communities are no less brilliant than students in high-performing school districts,” Dykes said. “There is a difference in resource allocation and support.”
She went on to work at another educational nonprofit as a director of development, where she gained vital experience in how to tell the story of an organization’s impact. Dykes also worked in workforce development, which helped her learn about how student success can inform future success in the workforce.
Currently, she works with Bronze Valley, a nonprofit venture investment organization focused on supporting minority-owned businesses. In terms of her work experience, Dykes has had a full view of a student’s potential trajectory. “I’ve been through the K–12 pipeline, then on to college, and then to see what entrepreneurship and success look like for Black and Brown students once they graduate,” said Dykes.
All the while, Dykes has steadily centered her attention on how to improve outcomes for underprivileged students.
“What I’m focused on is creating more opportunities,” she said.
To create more opportunities for students to excel, Christina Dykes launched Genius MAP in February 2020. Genius MAP is a holistic effort to foster student engagement and growth. Not only does the organization seek to support students, but it also provides administrators, instructors, parents, and caregivers with tools and resources to facilitate learning inside and outside of the classroom.
The 501(c)3 organization saw multiple starts and stops, due to school closings related to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to lack of funding. In August 2021, a year-long pilot program focusing on emotional support for third-graders began in the same elementary school where Dykes taught during her TFA days.
During the summer of 2022, Genius MAP hosted a four-week academic camp, which offered rising second- through fifth-graders intensive support in math, reading, and emotional well-being. Based on test results, student competency grew significantly in that short time—they saw anywhere between two months to one year of gains.
Genius MAP launched a partnership with Birmingham City Schools in January 2023, providing resources to students in kindergarten through third grade across five elementary schools. While some students are encouraged to take part based on academic performance, any student with a growth mindset is welcome.
The three-pronged program blends academic enrichment, social-emotional support, and parent engagement. “We use all the tools around us to holistically work to unlock every student’s potential,” said Dykes. Genius MAP hopes to build strong foundations that will serve students through the rest of their education and beyond.
“Every student has potential to grow,” said Christina Dykes. “Genius MAP is focused on unlocking the potential in all students.” While all children may have potential, not all of them are given what they need to realize it. Genius MAP intends to change that—to nurture each student’s spark into a flame.
The idea for Genius MAP came to Dykes while she was working as a kindergarten teacher. “My students wanted to learn. They would grow in leaps and bounds, even if they had never been to any type of school or daycare before.” By the 2017–2018 school year, Dykes witnessed a shift among her former students who were then in first and second grade.
“Some of my brightest students were walking down the hallway with a frown on their face and the principal beside them because they were now a ‘behavior problem,’” said Dykes. “How is it that students are so strong in kindergarten, and then one to two years later, they make a 180-degree turn? We cannot lose these students so quickly.”
In trying to determine how to best help her own students, Dykes established a model that could work for all students—and she hopes one day it will. This model acknowledges that children do not learn in isolation, addressing social and emotional challenges that can impact academic performance. It also recognizes that learning does not begin and end in the classroom and provides tools to bolster parents so they can be part of their children’s paths to success. “I don’t want students to feel like they’re a project that we’re working on,” said Dykes. “I want them to feel empowered by a group of individuals—teachers, administrators, parents, and family members—who love and support them.”
To learn more about Christina Dykes and Genius MAP, visit geniusmap.org.