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Letting them shine

2019 Hope Awards Southwest winner Little Light Christian School | This Christian school’s mission is to love the children of prisoners—but traumatic backgrounds make the work a marathon of trusting God

Letting them shine

Robin Khoury (Charissa Koh)

This story is part of our 2019 Hope Awards contest. To vote for your favorite regional winner, go to wng.org/compassion.

At the beginning of each school day at Little Light Christian School, kids crowd into a small room and wrestle their shoes off, leaving them in colored crates along the wall. “In the hood you can get killed for the shoes you’re wearing,” said Robin Khoury, the school’s principal. She decided to get rid of the status symbols and make the students trade their Air Jordans or high heels for Walmart tennis shoes when they arrive. 

The small private school is located in a rough part of Oklahoma City, the city with the world’s highest incarceration rate. To attend, students must have at least one parent in prison. They almost all struggle in school: feelings of guilt, shame, and sadness make focusing on class or homework difficult.

In a classroom in late March, Susan Fowler read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web to her third graders. Colorful crates of books sat beside the desk, and four kids listened at desks arranged around her in a semi-circle. A few rested their chins on stuffed animals. But one student was missing: Disobedience had earned him a trip to the principal’s office. When Fowler finished the chapter and told the kids to line up for music class, Khoury appeared with their missing classmate, a little boy in a blue LLCS T-shirt. Quietly, he offered Fowler a handful of weeds with purple flowers and apologized.

Khoury, 61, founded LLCS. She has thick blond hair and purple-framed glasses. The kids rush to give her hugs or high-fives whenever she enters a room. She keeps the student-to-teacher ratio low, so teachers are able to get to know students and understand what motivates bad behavior. When a child misbehaves, Khoury has learned, sometimes they need a consequence. Other times they just need a nap. 

Charissa Koh

After-school program at LLCS. (Charissa Koh)

Around 1990, Khoury left hairdressing to homeschool her children. She came to believe that God someday wanted her to start a school for poor kids. Almost two decades passed, and Khoury volunteered with a prison ministry. There she learned kids with parents in prison consistently struggle in school. “The next day I incorporated Little Light Ministries,” Khoury said—and in 2012 she opened the free Christian school.

The couch in her office has fluffy pillows and a stuffed pink unicorn. On the desk sit piles of books, papers, and another bunch of the purple weeds from a student. A potted plant and a mini piano sit in the corner. A bulletin board on the wall displays pictures of students with prayer requests like “God, please help my mom.”

A ram’s horn on a shelf came from Israel, her husband E.J.’s home country. Now E.J. works as the school’s cook: The kids’ family situation might mean there’s little to eat at home, so the school provides two meals and two snacks every weekday. “We realized there were children who were falling out of their seats on Monday morning because they were weak, because they hadn’t had enough nutrition over the weekend,” said Khoury. So on Fridays the staff sends the 28 students home with backpacks of food from the Oklahoma City Food Bank. The school also provides uniforms, winter coats, and shoes for students.

Charissa Koh

Susan Fowler reads to third graders. (Charissa Koh)

BESIDES MEETING MATERIAL NEEDS, staff members try to provide their students (ranging from pre-K to middle school) with a high-quality education from a Christian worldview. At LLCS, Khoury uses curricula from her homeschooling days, but the teachers also adjust to meet students’ needs. Many students never learned how to hold a pencil. The older students use Chromebooks to access lessons online and move at their own pace.

Even more than the educational quality, teachers see their mission as loving students and building relationships, a challenge when the kids come from such a different world. Khoury said she prays for God to send qualified teachers who reflect the student demographics: Half the teachers at Little Light Christian School are white, but most students are black. Most teachers are female, with one notable exception.

The third graders left Susan Fowler’s classroom and filed into the Fine Arts building. They waited for their music teacher with their backs against the hallway wall, shuffling their feet and whispering excitedly. Minutes later, a smiling Ernie Tullis—wearing a newsboy cap and a navy blue suit jacket with jeans—appeared around the corner with his class of middle-school boys. The kids shouted greetings and scrambled to find seats in the music room. Tullis grinned as he played the keyboard with ease and style. He led the kids to sing the first verse of “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” then without missing a note he told individual students to stand and sing the second and third verses solo. 

The students love Tullis, and he loves them back: “I get these kids, ’cause I was these kids. I split from home when I was 16 because home was bad. Hitchhiked to New Orleans, got a job playing piano on Bourbon Street, met Jesus there.” He played piano for Christian artists like MercyMe and Michael W. Smith, as well as Aretha Franklin and Charlie Hall: “pretty much whoever would have me. We would hit the road with one, go as far as Atlanta, wind up with someone else.”

Charissa Koh

Ernie Tullis (Charissa Koh)

But Tullis wanted to put down roots. Two years ago, Khoury asked him to teach music at the school, and he thought, “How can I not give back? … How can I not give these kids a chance?” Now he teaches music class for all the students and gives individual lessons for ukulele, drums, and piano. In mid-March 2019, Tullis added the role of middle-school boys’ teacher. His days are full, but rewarding moments abound. The morning’s Bible time, for example, covered the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When Tullis said God was in the fire, the kids asked to pray for their classmate, Semaj, whose mother was severely depressed. The kids said, “Semaj’s in the fire. Let’s pray that God will be there with him.” 

After class ends at 3 p.m., LLCS offers an after-school program to keep the kids until parents or guardians can get them at 5. Activities vary each day. On Friday kids spread across the small cafeteria, playing foosball, molding clay, and using combs and barrettes to do dolls’ hair. One 4-year-old girl, Joshia, asked to give her principal a hairdo. Khoury sat in a chair and closed her eyes, and the little girl started combing, a grin on her face. Joshia is one of the school’s two youngest students and said “Miss Robin” is her favorite thing about school.

The six LLCS teachers work hard to give kids needed affirmation. Shelby, a middle-school boy, asked Khoury to come hear him sing. He sang enthusiastically but off-key, and his friend Semaj, listening from the drum stool, covered his mouth to keep from laughing. When Shelby finished, Semaj asked Khoury to “hear my beats.” She put on headphones connected to the practice drum set. Semaj began, and Khoury flinched, then quickly smiled and complimented his drumming.

Khoury described one student who came to them a grade behind: “He was like this little volcano. If you look twice at him, he would just flip out. He would throw furniture, he’d run away, he’d get under stuff.” The teachers prayed and taught. When they showed him he could work ahead using the iPads in the classroom, he found his motivation. Now he has nearly caught up to his grade level, and the “rough patches” are fewer and further between. A fifth grade girl came to LLCS tight and guarded. Khoury said, “As she has gotten to know us, she has just started blooming in so many ways.” The girl started dancing, doing art, and having fun with the other kids.

Charissa Koh

After-school foosball. (Charissa Koh)

Teachers are trained to care for kids with traumatic backgrounds, and they try to de-escalate bad behavior before it spreads. Since older kids are often set in bad habits, Khoury said in the future she plans to accept more younger kids: “Because we have limited resources, like every organization, we want to be good stewards of that. We want to target the children that we feel like we can help the most.”

Funding is another major challenge, but Khoury has a long list of stories of God providing for the school. One donor gave just the right amount to purchase the property and current school building. Khoury doesn’t always know how she will pay teachers’ salaries, but she takes it one month at a time and trusts God.

Susan Fowler said the hard part about working at LLCS is “I want to take them all home with me, and I can’t. … It’s not my job to fix. It’s my job to help, encourage, and love them.”

LLCS

2017 income: $2,310,885
2017 expenses: $1,719,767
Paid staff: 15  Volunteers: 46
CEO’s salary: $33,946
Website: littlelightschool.org

Charissa Koh

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and a reporter for WORLD.