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Hope in the heartland

Our Midwest region winner balances discipline and grace

Hope in the heartland

(Photo by James Allen Walker)

Photo by James Allen Walker

Hope Academy is located in a former hospital and features an old coal smokestack out front.

Photo by James Allen Walker

Principal Russ Gregg (with guitar) leads staff devotions.

Photo by James Allen Walker

Principal Gregg with a Hope Academy student.

Photo by James Allen Walker

Music class with teacher Erin Rohde.

Photo by James Allen Walker

Teacher Scott Watkins talks with Rajah West.

Photo by James Allen Walker

Fourth grade teacher Melissa Hoilien.

Photo by James Allen Walker

Parent Marlene Thomseth with her son Treyton Bailey-Thomseth

Photo by James Allen Walker

Principal Gregg leads music during chapel service.

Bugg and his children (Photo by James Allen Walker)

MINNEAPOLIS-Peavey Park, in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, has a wading pool, basketball hoops, red-painted playground equipment, and soccer fields. The park doesn't live up to its potential, though, because it's a hub for drug deals, gang activity, and prostitution. Most children in the poor neighborhood of brick storefronts and aging blue, green, and gray homes don't live up to their potential, either: Only one out of five students at the nearby public school, Andersen, performs at grade level in math.

Hope Academy, a Christian private school, sits one block south of Peavey Park in a former hospital with an old coal smokestack out front. Every morning principal Russ Gregg greets arriving elementary students by name. "Is it raining out there?" he asks a girl, bending to give a hug. "You look so beautiful in this pink raincoat." Then he assures a third-grade boy that a good-behavior trip to McDonald's will come next week.

Hope Academy educated 325 K-12 students during the 2011/2012 school year. About three-fourths came from low-income families, and among them Hope has tripled the math proficiency rate. The 26 full- and part-time teachers at Hope don't just want to teach math, music, Latin, and rhetoric to poor kids, though. They want to shepherd them away from the false communities of gangs and drugs that beckon students emerging from neglect or turmoil at home.

Creation of a new community begins as school opens with 150 elementary students-boys in red collared shirts and girls in blue-and-green plaid jumpers-crowded around an overhead projector. A teacher strums an acoustic guitar while the kids sing "Praise the Lord with a big bass drum!" They beat the air with pretend drumming. When worship time ends, students enter into lines and file quietly to classrooms.

To open hearts, teachers work to balance discipline and grace, and admit to students when they make mistakes. In the fourth-grade classroom, teacher Melissa Hoilien apologizes to a student for not clarifying the difference between "collage" and "college" on a previous spelling test. As Hoilien administers today's test, her students bend their noses to their desks and try to spell "odor," "cheddar," and "zipper." They also discuss memory verses like Romans 8:28: A student who had moved in with an aunt and uncle because of family problems recently told classmates that God is working her trials for her good and showing how much He loves her.

Meanwhile, second-grade students are rehearsing for an upcoming recital. Rajah West, 7, stands on a plastic stool with his chin down, looking nervous. "Go ahead, Rajah!" one classmate says, and 24-year-old teacher Scott Watkins starts a crunk-style soundtrack with police siren sound effects. Rajah raps along, singing lyrics he wrote himself: "Every day is basketball time. It's hang time, game time, we keep it goin' a friend of mine. ..."

Hope is trying to form a new community with kids who carry emotional baggage from outside. Hope students sometimes call each other names, scratch one another, ostracize others, and occasionally have outright fistfights. School policy requires a student serving a detention to fill out a "reflection sheet," writing down what he did wrong, whom he offended, and what he'll do differently next time. The goal is to finish with a prayer for heart change. This year Hope lost about a dozen students by May through expulsion or through families moving away.

Some students come to Hope after years of educational abuse. "At my old school, we didn't really learn anything, and teachers would kind of just give you a grade randomly," said Teia Mosley, a sophomore with hoop earrings. When she first came to Hope five years ago, her grades dropped from A's to C's and D's because the work was harder and grades were not inflated. Now she earns B's.

Hope limits class sizes to 20 students so teachers can help individuals who fall behind. It faces the challenge of finding teachers from the minority groups that now make up three-fourths of the school: More than four out of five teachers are white. School counselor and Bible teacher Darrell Gillespie could probably draw a higher salary elsewhere, but as an African-American pastor he feels called to Hope because of his opportunity to dispel black stereotypes in the minds of minority and white students alike.

Finances need constant attention. Because low-income families in the neighborhood pay as little as $60 per month for a student to attend Hope, sponsors need to cover the remainder of the annual $7,300 tuition. Hope's network of corporate and private sponsors covered 88 percent of the school's operating costs this year. Partly due to budget restrictions, Hope still lacks a formal sports program for elementary- and middle-school students. High-school students play boys' football, girls' soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball.

Academic results from Hope students suggest the school is succeeding: Some 97 percent of high-school students who have attended Hope for two years or more read at grade level. Teachers also talk about the spiritual lessons both they and students learn. Hoilien tells how one of her fourth-graders persistently bullied a classmate, and she begged principal Gregg to suspend the girl. Gregg refused to do so unless Hoilien first talked with the girl about the gospel and gave her a chance to repent.

Hoilien says she didn't want to: "My heart was hard." She did, though-and a surprising thing happened. The bully broke down in tears and asked for her classmate's forgiveness. Then she asked for God's. Hope students here seem to hate one another at times, Hoilien said-but then "have these moments of glory where they see Jesus."

Parents also have moments of glory. One of Hoilien's students, Treyton Bailey-Thomseth, had it tough five years ago. I talked with his mother, Marlene Thomseth, who was recovering from drug addiction at a nearby halfway house at the time. She says she didn't want to care for Treyton, but she then attended a moms' Bible study at the school. She saw how kindly the parents spoke and acted toward their own children. She was surprised-and intimidated.

Thomseth said the moms and Hope teachers emailed and called her: They "patiently and so lovingly" taught her about the heart issues fueling disobedience in her son. Now she volunteers in Treyton's class as often as possible, and Treyton recently wrote a note to her on blue construction paper: "Thank you mom for loving me each and every day and forgiving me when I don't deserve it."

A job to do together

Before classes began at Hope Academy (hopeschool.org) one day in April, teachers at a men's Bible study sat in a circle and talked about Psalm 51 and confession. Second-grade teacher Scott Watkins told the group he had to teach some students how to say, "I'm sorry." No one had ever apologized to them before.

"I get frustrated and snap on kids in gym," added athletic director Hugh Brown. That becomes an opportunity to confess his own wrongs to students, he said, and maybe soften the hearts of those who harbor grudges: "Our students will try to mask what's going on."

Principal Gregg says the relationship-building needed to remove masks best occurs outside of school hours. He takes students out for cheeseburger Happy Meals and Minnesota Timberwolves basketball games. Hope teachers meet with students in mentorship groups and annually visit each school family at its home.

With some parents, deeds of kindness help break down ethnic barriers of mistrust. Gregg once corralled five volunteers and two pickup trucks on a Sunday afternoon to help a student's mom move out of her apartment, and in doing so changed her attitude: "The next week I was meeting with a completely different person."

Wayne Bugg, whose 12- and 13-year-old children attend Hope, speaks of how the school has helped him grow as a dad. Bugg meets with the school's board chairman one Friday a month to get guidance on finances, family, or Bible questions. The mentorship has prompted Bugg to make changes in his home, including monitoring what TV shows his children watch.

Even though it's inconvenient sometimes, Bugg appreciates Hope's annual requirement that all parents volunteer at the school for at least 10 hours and attend "Saturday School" twice: "They're not saying, 'Just give me your child and we'll raise him up.' They say, 'No, we've got to do this job together.'"

Money Box

• Hope Academy received $2.86 million in 2010, including special contributions for a building fund and rental income from Minnesota Teen Challenge, which leases the school's third floor.

• Expenses were $2.52 million.

• Principal Russ Gregg had a salary of $73,000.

• Hope's net assets were $1.86 million at the end of 2010.

• The school, which employs 24 full-time and 16 part-time staff members, has about 240 regular volunteers, most of them parents.

Listen to a report on Hope Academy on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Vote for the 2012 winner and read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2012 on WORLD's Hope Award page.

Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.