On a recent morning in Iowa City, a small number of students in uniform lined up to sing and pray. All kindergartners and first-graders, they recited a declaration of faith before taking turns telling their teachers what they were thankful for.
For now, the school boasts only one kindergarten and one first grade class, with a combined total of 13 students, all of whom would qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the standard commonly used to measure poverty for K-12 students.
That was deliberate, said head of school Doug Fern. He said the school came into being as an outgrowth of The Spot’s mission.
Parkview Church opened The Spot about eight years ago, offering Christian after-school programming for elementary, junior high and high school students, primarily from low-income families.
Fern said members of the ministry team were concerned because they kept seeing their students struggling - dropping out of school, or getting in trouble with the law, for example. The adults wondered if they could make more of a difference by opening a school.
“We have two goals. One, to make students fall in love with Christ. And two, to make students fall in love with education,” he said.
Those goals were enough to convince Dante Malone to pull his daughter out of Grant Wood Elementary School in Iowa City, where she attended kindergarten, and enroll her for first grade at Faith Academy.
She likes school and was doing well at Grant Wood, he said. But after hearing from Fern about the new school, Malone decided to give it a try, in part because of the small classroom sizes. The school’s goal is 15 students per class, though they haven’t reached those numbers yet. Fern said this year’s low enrollment was a result of being new and unknown by area parents.
Malone said he didn’t mind that the school is untested.
“She’s learning about God, how to apply that to life,” he said of his daughter. “And with more one-on-one time, I thought it would be better for her.”
Parents like Malone were recruited by word of mouth and door knocking in the surrounding neighborhood. Parents are currently paying tuition of $500 a year - or $50 a month for ten months. If they don’t have the $50 each month, they can come in and work, such as by serving lunch, and they will be credited $10 an hour, Fern said. The school provides door-to-door busing and a daily catered hot lunch.
Most of the school’s operating costs have been paid by donors affiliated with Parkview. During an initial fundraising campaign, supporters were told they could sponsor a child’s tuition for $7,200 per year.
If all goes well, Fern said the school will add one grade per year as they move forward. He wasn’t sure if that would eventually include junior high and high school. He would also like to eventually open enrollment up to students from wealthier families, perhaps on a sliding scale for tuition, with a goal of having 75 to 80 percent of the student body be eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Fern said he believes in Iowa City’s public schools - his own son attends City High.
“Education is incredibly valuable here,” he said. “We don’t want to be seen as rivals, or say we think we can do better.”
Faith Academy is just an adding another option for parents, he said.
“We’re just trying to fill a void, where parents can have religious education without paying high tuition,” the school’s family services coordinator Brandon Parker said.The school is not accredited by the state, but it’s two full-time teachers are licensed in Iowa. The state classifies students of non-accredited schools similarly to home-schoolers. Organizers said Faith Academy strives to offer a “Christ-centered classical education model,” which includes learning about the Bible alongside math, reading, social studies and science, as well as music, P.E. and art.