The answer hit the first-year instructor like a slug to the gut.
Clif Adkins was teaching his career and character education course at Chester Middle School this fall, talking to students about the obstacles they face.
On the dry-erase board at the front of the classroom, he wrote each challenge, including gangs -- the topic that piqued the most interest.
"If you know your chances of dropping out of high school increases drastically when you join a gang, if you know you're going to get involved in slinging drugs, why in the world would you still want to join a gang?" the 24-year-old teacher asked.
Then came the verbal uppercut.
"Well, if Dad's gone and Mom doesn't care about you, who's gonna be your family?" a student responded.
"That killed me," Adkins said.
A West Virginia native fresh out of Marshall University, Adkins was green but determined.
"Maybe we can to do something here at school to give them a family," he thought.
His class had recently talked about Martin Luther King Jr. And earlier in the year, when he asked his students to write about their favorite movie or entertainer, many wrote that King was their hero. So, Adkins studied the life and teachings of the civil rights leader. He learned that nonviolent activism was his signature message.
Adkins wondered: What if a group of students practiced what King taught?
He mentioned the concept to a teacher who thought it was good idea and added the group to the mix of organizations being promoted on the upcoming club day.
Adkins knew the word "club" didn't sound cool to middle school students, so he called it a crew. He made the word an acronym, using the letters to represent the words commitment, respect, education and wealth.
He pitched the idea to a group of seventh- and eighth-graders in the school auditorium. He brought six signup sheets.
"If anybody would want to do this, come up here and sign the paper," he said, thinking that maybe 20 kids might come up.
Students poured out of their seats to sign the sheet.
"It was just unreal," he said.
Adkins was overwhelmed. He hadn't asked any other teachers to help him, and suddenly 190 kids wanted to be part of this group.
He developed a strict contract that requires kids not fight or even watch a fight. They must strive for higher grades. They must turn in the signed document on a certain day to join.
Surely, he thought, that would weed out the kids who weren't serious.
"Every one of them had a contract," he said. "It blew all of us away."
Eventually, some kids did leave the group, but after Adkins allowed sixth-graders to join, it surged back to about 200 members. He expects that growth to continue next year.
The overall group, which wears white bracelets, has met a few times, but because there are so many members, Adkins divided the kids into five subgroups, each with three student leaders.
Some students keep hallways clean of trash, others look after classrooms, bathrooms or courtyards. Another group writes journals. The groups and missions change each month to avoid monotony.
Adkins also offers his classroom as a place where angry students can cool off. They go there to think about their problems instead of using physical violence to solve them.
The capital letters along the front wall remind them: "Where there is not vision, the people waste away."
Having such a group in the school is "very important" because gang recruitment is becoming more prevalent in Chester County's middle schools, said Kim Carnes, a gang investigator with the Chester County Sheriff's Office.
The county has 25 gangs, which attract kids searching for a place to fit in.
"The gang becomes their family," Carnes said. "They're looking for somebody to look out for them."
Adkins hopes the CREW will eventually develop a mentoring program where middle school students help elementary school children. He wants to bring in famous guest speakers to talk to his students.
Most importantly, he wants to fight ignorance, apathy and hopelessness.
So far, kids have bought into the idea. They're teens such as Ciara Williams, an eighth-grade CREW leader who said she joined the group because she "wanted to help other people and become a role model."
"I would like to see it become a good movement in other schools and not just this one," she said of the CREW.
Emery Frederick, another eighth-grade leader, said the group "inspires me." Stefan Buchanan, also in the eighth grade, said he's here because "I want to be looked up to."
Not many Chester Middle students take school seriously, Stefan said.
Tony Wright admits he hasn't cared about school in the past. The 15-year-old said more kids in Chester are worried about the streets than the classroom.
But this year, he's participating in every activity he can to stay focused on school. He played wide receiver on the football team and shooting guard on the basketball team. He's in King's CREW, he said, because other kids look up to him.
"It gives me a chance to help myself and to help other people," he said. "If I succeed, I know there will be somebody behind me who will succeed."
What's the CREW?
The CREW is a group of students at Chester Middle School that study the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. in a career and character education course taught by Clif Adkins, right. CREW is an acronym for commitment, respect, education and wealth.