Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX


September 16, 2013

Private school caters to small clientele

RUSK — With just an 11-student enrollment at the local Christ the Redeemer Academy, folks often are surprised when they learn about the K-12 Christian school, but that’s okay.

Debra McCormick has seen first-hand the kind of impact that specialized attention offered at her “one-room schoolhouse” has made in the lives of her students.

Take, for example, the seven-year-old who hadn’t mastered reading, but still would be promoted to the next grade-level in his public school program.

At Christ the Redeemer, he blossomed because “we were able to take him through a phonics course, (using) sight words” to help him learn at an individual level, instead of going at the pace of the rest of the class, recalled McCormick, administrator of the school, which is operated by the church where she serves as pastor.

She and her staff hit upon the idea of asking him to help the kindergarten teacher every morning as she led her class through sounds of letters.

Because “he was the helper,” the lad’s experience was a positive one where he enjoyed learning, instead of “making him feel bad about himself,” McCormick said.

Located at 247 S. Barron St. in Rusk – in the historic First Baptist Church building located in the downtown district – Christ the Redeemer Academy opened eight years ago.

McCormick, her husband and their twin daughters Briana and Brooke (then 12), moved from Riverside, Calif., to Rusk.

“I was at a point where I was going into full-time ministry, and the way I could do it independently was to move to Texas, where we could live debt-free, compared to living in California,” she said.

The couple purchased the church property and a home, but not long after settling in, her husband died.

Reeling from their unexpected loss, McCormick knew she had to follow through on plans to start a new ministry here, so “I started services and started my girls (in the academy) right way.”

That first year, “we had one extra student,” giving the fledgling school a total enrollment of three. The following year, a preschool program was added, bringing in another three children.

“It was very slow-going,” McCormick recalled.

But she kept the faith.

Licensed for 50 in the preschool program, her highest enrollment was two years ago, when there were 48 students in the Christ the Redeemer program, but the following year the numbers fell when “the public schools got money for a three-year-old classroom” program and parents sent their children there, she said.

However, the academy's reputation as a Texas School Readiness Program has blossomed in the three years that it has operated at the Rusk school.

A Texas Education Agency program administered by the Children’s Learning Institute at the UT Heath Science Center at Houston, TSR fosters learning in such a way that “our students are meeting the goals that prepare them for kindergarten,” McCormick said.

According to the TEA website, components of this early childhood model include “high quality, developmentally appropriate and rigorous curriculum; continuous student progress monitoring; professional development for teachers; and creating and implementing a School Readiness Integration Partnership to coordinate services among school districts, child care providers, and Head Start programs participating in the Kindergarten Readiness System (KRS).”

“We want our children to be ready for kindergarten,” and Christ the Redeemer's dedication to the readiness program is grabbing the attention of parents who are educators themselves, like the local pre-K teacher “who came and enrolled her child.

“She told us, ‘because all of your children tested at least second semester at our level when they came, I know I want my child to be here because you have a great learning program,'” McCormick said. “And the principal of the (local) primary school has her granddaughter here. So, the schools know (just how effective the  school program is) because we’re feeding our student into their program, (and they see) they’re really learning here.”

Parents and students of upper level grades also like what they see at the faith-based program.

 “I think (program surprises parents) because it is different,” she said, adding that a huge concern is how the small program is able to meet a child's social needs.

“That … just shocked me, because as an educator and as a parent, I’d be doing flips if my child were in a class that small,” she said, then laughed. “You can’t make kids not be social – they grow socially like they grow academically, and to me, a small group actually is easier because there’s less conflict.”

The setting allows older students to not only help, but mingle with younger classmates, thus creating a sense of family.

“Depending on the nature of the mix of the classroom, I will assign a big sister or big brother,” McCormick explained. “And in the afternoon, sometimes kids like having a warm body next to them, and if they’re having trouble staying focused, we ask ‘Would you like a study buddy,’ and they can sit together. Sometimes I have a mix of older kids who love to do that, sometimes they don’t want to be bothered, so I have (to gauge) personalities.”

Her daughter Brooke, who along with her twin helps out with the school's toddler program, admitted that moving to rural East Texas from a large city in California took some getting used to, but added that her experience at the academy was an extremely positive one.

Recommending Christ the Redeemer program to parents, Brooke pointed out that the program is tailored to each individual to capitalize on his or her particular style of learning.

“If you like having your own course of study ... you could (study at your own pace) and you could catch up or you could work ahead,” she said.

It's something that Dakota Hughes is seeing first-hand as a new academy student.

While he was part of the program at the now-defunct Cherokee County Christian School, McCormick's program has been an eye opener because it's structured “like a boot camp,” he said.

 “You don’t get to (mess around) a lot,” he grinned, alluding to the program’s dedication to not only maintaining standards set by the Bible-based Accelerated Christian Curriculum, but creating structured classroom settings that incorporate accountability and time-management skills by writing out daily goals for their study.

“Their daily goals are like a contract between the student and myself,” McCormick said. “Each subject is written out exactly with which pages they will accomplish that day. Some students master four in each subject, others master (more). I guess we need to find out what is the particular norm for a student. And if they don’t complete their goals during the school day, they take it home for homework.”

However, she pointed out, “there’s no mandatory homework, because (they’re learning) a lifeskill (in setting and accomplishing daily goals). Occasionally, they do have to have homework, because they have to have mastery over addition and subtraction, or over multiplication tables, or they might have to memorize the functions of the parts of speech, so that kind of thing they take home to study. But (otherwise), there’s no mandatory hour of homework.”

And because students score their own work – except for final tests, which McCormick grades – the seven-member faculty don't have mountains of paperwork to score.

In turn, this honor system reinforces the concept of accountability.

“When they’re not honest, it’s usually reflected in a non-passing score. When I open the page, and start scoring with a green pen – so I can show what I marked wrong – and say, 'if you don’t get it here, you can’t master it.' So our first-level correction is to redirect and show them what we want to do, because the consequence is that they have blown the test, and they have to pay and buy that workbook again,” she said. “It's the only way I can do a one-room school, having everybody be responsible.”

Laughing, she recalled Hughes' boot camp comment from the initial interview she had with the teen and his parents, and described how she shows prospective families the academy's curriculum to give them an idea of what they're getting into.

“I tell them how it is and (students) have to tell me why they can handle it. Because if they’re older, they need to have a choice in being there – that’s what I tell them, 'I want you to chose with your parents,'” she said.

The college-prep program is now in its eighth year, and has incorporated into lesson plans subjects no longer focused on in public schools, like fundamental math and grammar, to give students a solid base of learning.

The academy also teaches cursive writing.

 “It’s important to me because all of our original documents of our country – the Constitution, the Articles of Federation – are written in cursive, and I want my students to know firsthand they can read it, because the rest of the population are going to be looking at hieroglyphics and trying to figure it out,” she said.

“I want my students to be empowered to do that. It’s still a superior form of writing, and it creates pathways in the brain to process information faster – that’s been research-based. So I have strong evidence for my reasons for keeping it,” she smiled.

While a small program, McCormick feels that the individualized attention Christ the Redeemer Academy provides its students will prepare them for the world beyond … including life eternal.

“To me, as pastor and administrator, the benefit of attending this school is knowing that your child gets to go to the house of the Lord every day,” she said. “Everything we teach comes from God’s knowledge … we have curriculum that is Bible-based, because God’s the author of mathematics, God’s the author of written language.”

She paused, then added, “we teach them to be successful for life eternally.”

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