On a quiet, cloudy weekday morning, 8-year-old Bennett Wilkins was the ﬁrst to awaken in his family home. Concerned that his hurried movements would wake up the rest of the family, he moved cautiously getting ready for school. He’d forgotten to switch the laundry from washer to dryer the night before. Nevertheless, it was time to get dressed.
Wilkins tiptoed downstairs and removed his wet clothes from the washing machine. They were too damp for him to wear, but he was afraid to risk the rumble of the clamorous dryer, which would certainly wake up the slumbering household. Besides, he ﬁgured there was no time for the dryer anyway. Instead, he plugged in the iron, allowing a few moments for it to heat up to the highest setting. The iron got hot. Was it too hot? He wasn’t sure, but he took the iron to his damp clothes, more an effort to dry them than to straighten them.
Almost immediately the smell of burnt fabric ﬁlled the room, lingering like a bothersome cloud over him. Still, he pressed on, powering through the sizzle and steam, slowly straightening and drying his pants and collared shirt.
The excessive heat of the iron discolored the material, rendering it crisp and stiff, and the scorched smell would not be ignored. Wilkins learned that day that wet clothes and hot irons do not pair well. He dressed and walked to the bus stop, boarding with the pungent stench of singed cloth following him, haunting him to his seat.
When he arrived at school, he hoped a teacher or administrator — any adult — would approach him, offering some kindly wisdom to deliver him from his anxiety and embarrassment. The look and smell of his clothes and his unsettled demeanor surely revealed to anyone paying attention that something wasn’t right. Yet, no teacher came. No administrator stepped up to help him. As the day progressed, he found himself becoming an unwilling conversation piece among his jeering classmates, yet no adult seemed to care.
To this day, Wilkins wonders why no one offered him a new set of clothes or even approached him to make sure everything was all right. That enduring memory and its accompanying questions about the lack of adult engagement and intervention continue to propel Wilkinsto be the kind of educator and leader that not only notices when a student is in need but responds.
Wilkins, the new dean of students at Central Elementary for Ferguson/Florissant School District, received his doctorate in education leadership from MBU in 2021. He describes himself as being on a mission to make sure no student feels invisible. Such inspiration comes, in part, from the experience of being cared for by his grandmother, who Wilkins says excelled in making him feel special.
“All my life, my grandmother was a source of stability. She never rejected me when I made bad decisions. She made me feel signiﬁcant and she loved me unconditionally,” says Wilkins.
His path to success has not been easy, but his is a journey marked by resilience. After feeling neglected by the education system, he decided school wasn’t for him. At 17, Wilkins dropped out of high school. Years later, he found himself reevaluating that choice. He wanted to make his grandmother proud. He’d always credited her support, along with God’s faithfulness to him, as the building blocks of his life’s foundation.
As his grandmother approached the end of her
life, Wilkins knew he needed to make a change in his.
He wanted more for himself than he was currently experiencing, and he wanted his grandmother to see himsucceed. Wilkins knew what he needed to do in order to get where he wanted to be. He needed to enter again into the place that spawned so much self-doubt and insecurity in his early life. He needed to go back to school.
That’s when, at age 29, Wilkins found himself on the campus of Missouri Baptist University. The year was 2001 — nearly 12 years after dropping out of high school. MBU’s testing center was offering the GED, giving Wilkins a chance to earn a high school equivalency degree. Though he couldn’t have known at the time, that visit to MBU marked the start of an inspiring educational journey that included degrees from Lindenwood University, Webster University and, to bring it full circle, the doctor of education leadership degree (Ed.D.) from Missouri Baptist University.
Wilkins, who has also served as a restorative justice supervisor and dean of students for Conﬂuence Academies, has put the knowledge gained from his doctoral program into action. While researching his dissertation, titled “Measuring Successful Mentorship with Black Middle School Males in a Low-Income School,” Wilkins developed an educational approach that has already paid dividends in his academic settings.
A strong proponent of fostering intentional relationships with students and their families, Wilkins believes the strategy has led to increased student retention rates and fewer behavioral problems for students. When a student shows interest in a speciﬁc ﬁeld of study, Wilkins searches out someone in that career to connect with students through presentations and question and answer sessions. Not only has the speaker series initiative been a learning opportunity for the students, but he believes it has led students to feel more connected, valued and understood. Leslie Muhammad, principal of Conﬂuence Academy Old North, agrees.
“Dr. Wilkins has established a systems approach to mentoring and decreasing behavioral issues within the school. He maintains this from a proactive approach which has sustainability in the milieu,” said Muhammad. “He is on a mission to educate and expand the minds of his students. He is a rare ﬁnd.”
Ultimately, Wilkins just wants students to know that they matter.
“I want to be for my students what I never had,” Wilkins says.
His relentless pursuit of learning paired with this intentionality has led to impactful change at Conﬂuence, and Wilkins expects the same results in his new role with the Ferguson-Florissant School District as well. The data supports his hopefulness, but so does Wilkins’s own experience. His story is like a shelf full of educational victories, with key MBU moments as bookends.
“The staff members and faculty at MBU made my experience here great. They were intentional, encouraging, and spoke life into my life when I needed it the most,” Wilkins says. His goal is to provide the same for other students and families on their own educational journeys. Wilkins adds, “I want to relentlessly pursue an intentional relationship with my students and parents. I never had that, and I know my students need that.”