HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - A new Christian academy in Hattiesburg is helping low-income students improve their academics while fostering personal growth.
Hattiesburg non-profit United Christian Ministries started a bible study and mentorship program for children from low-income neighborhoods about 10 years ago, and turned those programs into United Christian Academy, a full-time school that opened in August .
"Our goal is to take children from single-parent families, and actually see them become leaders in their community, in their churches and in their homes," said Jack Kennedy, president of United Christian Ministries and United Christian Academy. "If we can see 80 percent of the kids we work with become that, oh that'd be great. Because they just need more. They need more than they're getting."
The school has seven students in fourth through ninth grades.
"A lot of schools will start with one grade, so they might say we'll have our first kindergarten class," said Callison Richardson, principal at United Christian Academy. "Then the next year, they'll have kindergarten and first grade, but we really felt like we wanted to serve the kids we were already discipling. We work with kids through partnerships with three churches - First Presbyterian Church, Heritage United Methodist and Temple Baptist – so these are kids that we've been working with for years and years. I have a 12-year-old in this school, who the ministry has worked with since she was 4, so long-term relationships. We know the parents or the mothers really well, and so out of the kids we were already doing bible study with, (we were) wanting to identify children that want to learn, that have respect for authority, and that want an opportunity to move forward in life."
Kennedy said, "We pick from the group that we're already working with because we know the kids. We know their families. Their families trust us. We wanted kids that wanted, we felt like, really wanted to move forward, wanted to learn, respect authority, respected property, and since we've already been working with them for several years, we could sort of select that group.
UCA provides transportation to and from school and two meals every day to students similar to a public school, but it is technically home schooling.
"The easiest thing to do, since we just started the school a few months ago, was we let the parents sign the children out under homeschooling, and we provide a full education package for them," Kennedy said. "You know, pick them up. Feed them breakfast. Give them a full education package. Plus, we work on life skills, and then take them home."
Since the school does not have specific private or public school requirements it is mandated to meet, it can focus on individual needs.
"Any child is going to do better when they have this one-on-one attention," Richardson said. "Obviously, our classes are smaller, so our kids are getting (that) chance. You know, we know where they were when they started, and we don't have to worry about grades here. Not necessarily A, B,C grades, but what grade level they're on. (If) we have a student who might be 12 years old, but is really on a third or fourth grade level, we can work with them there. Not that there's learning disabilities, but there are gaps for different reasons. We can actually kind of dig down into those details and move them along, so that's certainly part of it. Then we do a lot of mentoring, so every child in the school has a mentor who comes 30 minutes to an hour every week who just kind of does one-on-one work with them. I think absolutely it's the smaller environment, but it's also the values. Really, I mean, we're here teaching kids how to follow Christ too, so I think that's probably a large part of it."
Kennedy said, "I think we've got somebody on our side helping us out."
They saw they are already seeing academic and personal growth.
"Certainly we are able to point to very specific things," Richardson said. "Literacy skills going up, just a love for learning, a love for reading, wanting to be at school, and then while we do work in rigorous academic work here, the personal development and sort of the Christian nurturing that we can give in our school. We're seeing life skills, and we're working on everything from taking responsibility to respecting authority to managing your time. I mean, all of these are things we work on, so we're seeing a lot of growth."
Kennedy said, "The changes I've seen in three months with these kids compared to three years doing all the other is amazing. I mean, I've seen them move forward more in three months, but now we have them 40 hours a week. We're really building up their self-esteem. Our culture, our society puts kids down. You know, (saying) you're not important. You're not significant, and no, they are. They're created in God's image. God loves them. They're valuable, so we see this change. They're in here. They're learning. They're loving learning and loving reading. They realize they're valuable people. They get a lot of time, and if they don't know something, we help them individually move forward."
Richardson said, "They have so much potential. I think it's just kind of giving them a place where they're comfortable, and they feel safe and they feel special and important. You are getting to see them kind of just open up and come to life. I think they're finally realizing 'there's so much out there for me.'"
For now, Richardson said they see the bible study groups as the feeder for the school.
"We have identified three to five that we'd like to bring in in January from our current group of bible study kids, but we're always bringing new kids to bible study," she said. "We often might meet children when we're going to pick up someone for bible study. We meet all their little friends in their neighborhood, and (say) 'OK, let's bring them into the fold.' So it's certainly still an open thing, but the kind of entry into the school right now is sort of selecting students from the group that we're already working with. Folks can certainly connect with us through bible studies, and then hopefully, we'll continue to grow. I mean, we'd certainly love to be at 15 to 20 kids by next fall."