IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - It’s part worship service, part pep rally and part personal affirmation.
When the small student body at Faith Academy gathers each morning, they begin the school day in high-spirited fashion. There’s singing and clapping, often a Bible lesson, and on this day, an energetic recital of the academy’s declaration.
“For I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength,” the nearly 30 students shouted in unison on a recent morning in an activity room. “I can be a teacher, a lawyer, a parent, a missionary, a doctor, a musician, a coach, a business owner, a computer programmer or a poet.”
That’s a message Pastor Doug Fern, the head of the school, and his staff are ingraining in the young students at this small but growing Christian school tucked away on the backside of Pepperwood Plaza in southeast Iowa City.
Fern said the mission of Faith Academy - a ministry of Iowa City-based Parkview Church - is to provide a rigorous, faith-based education for families who otherwise might not be able to afford it, and help low-income students overcome the achievement gap facing many in the classroom.
“The job of our staff is to take godly principles and weave that throughout the culture of the school,” said Fern, who leads Parkview’s local outreach efforts.
The academy, which is in its second academic year after opening in the fall of 2013, currently has three classes of about 10 students each in kindergarten through second grade. The hope, Fern said, is to continue expanding through sixth grade in the coming years, provided the fundraising can keep pace.
While there are other established religious schools in the area, Fern says Faith Academy is unique in that it covers the bulk of all of its students’ education costs through its fundraising efforts and the assistance of parent and community volunteers.
Arwen Revis, whose family lives a few blocks away from the school, opted to enroll her 5-year-old, Logan, in Faith Academy’s kindergarten this year rather than nearby Grant Wood Elementary. She said the small class sizes, low tuition and Bible-rooted learning environment made it an appealing option.
“When we moved here, we were looking at the different school options, private and public,” Revis said. “There’s no way we could have afforded a private school, and this made it affordable. It’s not in a fancy big building or anything, but you have teachers who love their students and are really invested in their students.”
The idea for Faith Academy, said Fern, was borne out of The Spot, Parkview Church’s decade-old youth center that also operates out of the Crosspark Avenue facility. The program provides a number of services for elementary through high school students, including after-school support, mentoring programs, summer camps and sports teams.
Fern said that a couple of years ago, a difficult reality began to come into focus for program leaders: “We’ve been investing in these youth for so long, but we’re just not seeing the kind of transformation we were hoping to see with some of the kids,” he said.
“So as a team we said, ‘What are some of the biggest challenges our families and our students face?’ Over and over again, the issue of education kept coming up.”
Fern said that while Iowa City is known for its quality public schools, leaders at The Spot saw many students they worked with still struggling to succeed, both in and out of the classroom. Fern said that through prayer and faith, church leaders began to discuss establishing a private school of their own with the Bible serving as the foundation, with hopes of making an even deeper impact in young lives.
To spread the word about the school, Fern said they reached out to families they knew through The Spot and went door-to-door to connect with parents.
“When we first started the school, it was a balancing act to get parents to sign up for a school that didn’t exist and that didn’t have any money, then getting people to give money to a school that didn’t have any students,” Fern said. “So we were running after all those things at the same time, and it was hard to sell that to people.”
Faith Academy opened two falls ago with two certified teachers, and it had an inaugural class of about a dozen students between kindergarten and first grade. This year, the school added a third teacher and expanded to second grade, bringing aboard nearly 18 more students. The school also employees three support staff members and two van drivers.
The academy estimates that it costs about $7,200 per student to operate the school, though it currently charges just $500 a year in tuition, or $50 a month for 10 months. In future years, the academy plans to implement a sliding scale tuition rate based on income, family size and other factors. Parents who are unable to make the monthly payments can volunteer at the school - helping out in the lunchroom, cafeteria or classrooms - for a $10-an-hour credit.
The academy’s budget, which Fern describes as “shoestring,” is supported by the church, which pays the rent, and private donations from local businesses, church members and others in the community. Parkview also has a partnership with Veritas Church of Iowa City, which provides volunteer and financial help for the school.
While its three teachers are certified, the academy is not state accredited, Fern said, meaning that in the eyes of the state, the students are essentially home-schooled. At the beginning of the year, parents must fill out a form stating that they’re opting to home-school their student by a certified teacher.
The school uses the same curriculum for math and reading that is found in public schools, as well as the same assessment tests as the Iowa City Community School District. The academy, which has a pair of vans to provide busing, operates on a traditional academic calendar, and an additional six-week summer school session, the Iowa City Press-Citizen (https://icp-c.com/1GmSGD7 ) reports.
Parents sign a covenant committing themselves to their child’s education, and twice a year the academy hosts a Saturday school in which the entire family spends the day with teachers and staff members. At the events, the academy brings in speakers to talk about parenting, incorporating God into family life, and raising the value of education in the home, among other topics, Fern said.
“That’s been a highlight this year for me - watching so many of the parents step up,” Fern said. “There’s some where it’s really easy and natural, and there are others where we have to exert a little more energy and effort for them to live up to the covenant they sign.”
Faith Academy leaders say their students are making measurable academic strides. According to Fern, only 41 percent of the students started at the school reading at their grade level. Today, 82 percent of the academy’s students are reading at or above grade level.
Tracy Reichter, the academy’s kindergarten teacher, had previously worked as a student-teacher at Twain and Wood elementary schools in Iowa City while finishing college. But Reichter, who had also volunteered at The Spot, said it was often a challenge to connect individually with students in crowded classrooms.
“I found I enjoyed working with this population, however I struggled with the large class sizes as well as just not being able to share my faith and not being able to make that a huge part of the curriculum and relationship with kids,” Reichter said. “So I really enjoy the fact that we’re able to look at the whole child and dive into the roots of some of the issues they may have in their lives.”
Mike Whitt, who teaches first grade at the academy, had met Fern while attending Parkview Church. Like Reichter, he has been involved from the early stages of creating the school, and is seeing firsthand the positive impact the academy is making in the families’ lives.
“The kids are definitely bringing it home,” Whitt said. “If the memory verse we’re working on is about honoring your father and mother or respecting your parents, the kids are bringing that home and talking to their parents about it. Hopefully it doesn’t just stay within the walls, but they’re teaching their brothers and sisters.”
Missy Disterhoft is among the Parkview Church members who spend time volunteering at the school. Her work includes one-on-one reading time with the children, whose skills she says have blossomed over the course of the year.
“It’s been wonderful,” Disterhoft said “It was an immediate bond when I got here in the fall, with all the kids. They’re just so loving and so genuine. … Definitely there’s been progress. The kids just need love and to know that someone is going to be there for them on a regular basis.”
Revis, the mother of the kindergartner, said that more than anything, it’s the helping hand Fern and the teachers offer parents, and the personal investment they make in the lives of the families, that set the academy apart.
“They’re not only interested in academic achievement, but how they’re doing in their personal development,” Revis said.
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