Charter Schools: A New Frontier in Ministry





Family Praise Center is a model of how a church can use a charter school to impact the practical and spiritual needs of a community.

Driving onto the sprawling campus of Family Praise Center in San Antonio, I was intrigued by the number of portable buildings scattered everywhere and workers scurrying here and there. It seemed they were preparing for something of gigantic proportions. I jumped out of my car and gave myself a partial tour of the grounds--which house a church and a charter school--receiving many "Good morning! How are you?" greetings along the way.

Inside the main building I discovered many more people hurriedly walking to their destinations but always pausing to offer a friendly, "Hi, may I help you?" The main building housed administrative offices for the school and the church, as well as a cafeteria and classrooms.

"Dr. Linda Britton's office," I inquired. "Down the hall to the right," was the reply.

It was just a few days before school was to begin, and preparation was the top priority. Everywhere I looked there were people with purpose and excitement on their faces. As I rounded the corner, I found Britton's office--a charter school hub full of people and conversation.

I was quickly introduced to Britton, the school superintendent, who greeted me with a warm smile and a confident hello. She escorted me into a large room and explained, "This used to be the church sanctuary; it should be quieter in here."

We began a discussion on Texas Charter Schools, a division of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Charter schools were created to offer an alternative to the mainstream public education system. Most states have a similar division and though regulations may vary, the purpose of these schools is fairly uniform.

There are two basic types of charter schools in the state of Texas: open enrollment and at-risk charter schools. These schools are funded by the state, and limited federal funds may be available. Open enrollment charters may be granted to nonprofit organizations with their 501(c)(3) exemption or to a university, college or governmental organization. In some instances parents have organized, obtained their nonprofit status and been awarded a charter.

While charter schools may take on a variety of faces in their expression, all charters fall under the state educational regulations. The specific regulations may vary from the public school system but are more apt to fall to additional sources of accountability. This is designed to help assure the success of these schools rather than to create additional requirements for them, according to the TEA.

Family Praise Center's charter school, The School of Excellence, was birthed in the hearts of pastors Rick and Robin Hawkins, who believed that one of the best ways to serve east San Antonio was through education. They wanted to reach out to the community surrounding the church and minister to families with at-risk children.

"It all starts with a vision," Britton told Ministries Today. "The house [Family Praise Center] has always had a vision for equipping the family for ministry, and that often begins with the children." She shares how the Hawkinses had a vision of ministry to young men and women.

"I first heard about charter schools from a friend in Houston and thought perhaps this type of school could work together with the Hawkinses' vision of ministry," she explains. "The Hawkinses and I met for Sunday dinner, and we talked about the possibilities, and Pastor Rick told me to go for it."

Britton says San Antonio had two charter schools in existence at that time. She visited both. She also called officials in the state capital of Austin and talked to the TEA, gathering as much information as possible on charter schools. At that time applications were only offered in cycles rather than yearly or monthly.

"We finally received, and then filed, our application in 1997," Britton recalls. "We were granted our charter in March 1998 and our School of Excellence began with 307 students in August of that same year. When school started in August 2001, our enrollment was about 1,200 students. We now have two campuses and are making plans for a third."

Open enrollment charter school populations may include any student who is accepted in the public school system. Schools must accept any student who applies for entry, as long as the school has not reached maximum occupation. The number of student capacity is established by the TEA when charters are granted. The exception is if a student has been removed from public school for disciplinary action or has been convicted of delinquent conduct.

The charter school population in Texas depends greatly on the location and focus of the school. There is a broad base of ethnic diversity as well as socioeconomic factors. According to the TEA, there are approximately 50 percent more gifted and talented students in public schools compared to charter schools, and the special education student population runs 33 percent higher in public schools. These figures include charter schools with populations of at-risk students.


REACHING AT-RISK CHILDREN

At-risk students are defined by many parameters. The student may be at least one grade behind, a member of a single parent home, live in a home where English is not the primary language or have delinquent behavioral problems.

There are charter schools designed specifically for the at-risk student population, which may skew certain comparisons to the public school system. All charters have to include a certain percentage of at-risk students, but the percentage is not as high in open-enrollment charter schools.

Rick Hawkins has a heart and vision to reach all segments of the student population and has greatly influenced the school to reach out and meet the needs. Says Hawkins: "We are an integrated society, and the church must follow suit. We cannot become fully mature until we embrace integration, and we must begin to impact our children as we demonstrate integration."

It is hard to start any venture without capital, and a school is no different. Family Praise Center sowed into the school's beginning, and they believe they are now receiving great compensation. They built the facilities and invested significant amounts of money, resources and time. When launched, the school rented back the space from the church. Virtually all of the initial sowing and risk was completely carried by the congregation, which had determined to meet the needs of its surrounding environs.

A great harvest has been realized. The initial charter school of about 300 students has grown to more than 1,200. Through friendships among students and parents, many of the unchurched families in the school began visiting church services, ministry events and children's and youth activities.

The church has also grown, in part, as a result of the relationships with school families. Some 3,000 worshipers now crowd into a new worship center just a few miles down the road from the school. The School of Excellence has now fully occupied the old church facility. The church is building new facilities and selling the old property to the school.

Recently Family Praise Center hosted an all-day parenting seminar for both school and church parents on a Saturday at the new church facility. More than 300 attended, with as many parents from school families as from church families. While many of the teachers and families in the school attend other churches, there is a positive, dynamic, healthy interchange between the church and school communities.

Many testimonials confirm the benefits of a partnership between a church and a charter school. A mother who did not attend Family Praise Center but sent her daughter to the school called the church wanting to speak with Pastor Rick. She said, "My daughter is doing wrong, and Pastor Rick needs to pray with her."

As any mother fighting for her kids, she was insistent. Did the School of Excellence have an impact on an unsaved, unchurched family? The staff and their stories yield an absolute "yes" and "amen!"

Chesarae Garza, an at-risk junior high school student, began attending the School of Excellence in his eighth-grade year. "My mom was working, and I was attending public school," Garza says. "Kids would offer me drugs, and they were always getting into fights. One day I called the School of Excellence and asked if I could go there. They said they didn't have room right then. I told them I had already withdrawn from my school, and I needed to go there."

A few days later, they found a way to enroll Garza. He withdrew in his high school years to play football in the public school system. A few months into the year he transferred back to the School of Excellence. "Too many drugs and fights," he claims. The School of Excellence has plans for a 2A football team next year.

Garza says he did find one student at the school who wanted to sell drugs. "My friends and I, we straightened him out. We don't act like that here!"

Timothy Johnson, a seventh-grader, started with the School of Excellence in his fifth-grade year. "I like this school," he says. I asked what he liked the most.

"I like art, math, computers, piano, basketball." I got the picture. He was happy, and he felt secure. There are many other stories, and they all affirm how students are being impacted by the school and the staff.



STARTING A CHARTER SCHOOL

Charter schools, just as public schools, are funded by the state. A monetary figure is assessed according to the school district, and that amount is what the charter school receives per student from the state. There are additional funds available for special needs students. Additionally, there are designated funds for specialized programs in the areas of reading, math and more.

Research and determination can uncover a variety of resources available to anyone looking to begin a charter school. A tremendous amount of information has been compiled and is readily available via the Internet by using a search engine. The education agency in each state has specific instructions for local areas. There are national, state and regional statistics and studies available.

Web sites provide a lot of invaluable information, including how to start a charter school, information on charter systems for each state, listings of charter schools in each state, networking information, and national, state and local regulations.

By contacting the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), one can find out how to set up a nonprofit corporation and even receive tips on bookkeeping. Local school districts can also provide direction to appropriate informational resources.

Alternative curriculums are also available and fundable with state funds. Pathway Publishers, at www.pathway- publishers.com, is a company that provides a computer software curriculum for third grade through 12th grade. It is top-notch and has a proven track record. It offers courses such as English as a Second Language, Videophonics, core subjects and much more.

Britton offers the following suggestions on how to begin a school:

**Run the school like a business. Keep the separation between church and school clean and well-defined.
**Establish and define your vision.
**Find someone on the team with knowledge of educational law or be willing to know it yourself.
**Love what you do.
**Understand the needs of parents, children and the staff.

Rick and Robin Hawkins believe that if God gives the vision, He also gives the talent and ability to accomplish it. "When people come to our church we plug them into their gifted area," Rick Hawkins says.

"In Dr. Britton's case, she had worked for the San Antonio school district for 20 years and is a resource that God gave us," he continues. "Henry Bernal is also a God-given resource. He was previously employed with the public school system, and he is now principal of the high school and The Nehemiah Institute."

The Nehemiah Institute is the first of its kind in the charter school systems of Texas. With an enrollment of 26, its design is to service at-risk kids with behavioral problems. These problems reflect the scope of societal woes experienced today, such as sexual abuse, drug addiction and gang-related behavior.

Bernal, with the help of two mental health workers and a teacher, currently conducts class. When a guest enters the classroom, the students are instructed to stand and greet the guest, one-on-one, eye to eye.

The students file past the guest and return to their seats, where they wait for permission to sit. It may seem a bit militaristic, but as we observed, respect is communicated teacher to student, student to teacher and student to guest.

This program was birthed in an effort to keep students in school who would probably drop out or, at least, fall between the cracks. The program deals not only with reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also with the emotional and psychological needs of the students. The institute is charting new waters and making great strides.

So, how did the Family Praise Center get from the inception of a dream to the fulfillment of the vision? These are some of the practical steps they took to move from vision to reality:

**Searched to find the right people among their membership who had related gifts and anointing. They were willing to be flexible through the working out of the vision.

**Counted the cost, knowing state funds would not be available until the school opened. They planted seed money, knowing that seed always produces after its own kind.

**Employed a good business manager and paid their bills on time. "Keep expenses down," Britton advises. "Research, research, research--this is a business and must be run as a business," Hawkins adds.

**Met regularly and prayed, believing God would guide them through this unusual partnership between church and state.

Each state has information on how to start a charter school. Included will be current research, FAQ sections, details about the application process and sample applications.

There are agencies that will help explain the funding issues--and they can be tedious--but the information is essential. The requirements of space and facilities will also be addressed. Preparation is the key to success.

Family Praise Center's vision for a charter school has grown into the School of Excellence, which currently enrolls more than 1,200 students with seven administrative staff, 59 teachers and 19 teachers' aides. They provide a lunch program in which many of the students receive free breakfast and lunch. After school care is also provided along with a day-care facility.

A second campus is in operation, and a third campus is being planned for hundreds of additional students. Strong administrative and teaching teams along with a hands-on school board of church members constitute an effective leadership group for growing the school.

What about separation of church and state? Britton explains: "There is a mandated number of hours the state requires each day. Beyond that, we have voluntary chapel time, and children are allowed prayer time. No one is required to pray, and no one is denied the liberty to pray."

Leaders of the Family Praise Center and The School of Excellence are believers in a Christ who moves today into the community and ministers to the multicultural needs for education. The Hawkinses know this is a fulfillment of their hope and vision--the vision to impact young men and women, to equip the family for ministry, and to rebuild the walls in a godly and practical way.

Charter schools--can this become a fulfillment of the vision God has given you?


Kyler Thomas is a free-lance Christian writer in San Antonio. He visited Family Praise Center in August to file this report.

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