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Charter school is ‘another choice’ for Youngstown’s urban children

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (BP)–Poorly funded public schools, expensive private schools or the challenge of homeschooling. Parents in inner-city Youngstown, Ohio, had few options for their children’s education. Until now.
This year, 624 students in urban Youngstown are attending their first year at Eagle Heights Academy, a public charter school privately run by Christians.
“We just wanted to give parents another choice for their children,” said Gary Frost, pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church and member of the Greater Youngstown Coalition of Christians, a group of area churches which have united to provide educational, social, economic and urban renewal programs to the community.
“GYCC felt that education was the key to permanent community renewal in Youngstown,” said Frost, a former president of the State Convention of Baptists in Ohion and former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Charter schools, also called community schools in Ohio, are public schools which are privately run — an option made possible by legislation to make educational charters available to approved organizations and communities. Each charter school receives a certain financial allotment per student from government funds, thus forming the school’s yearly budget. Groups running the schools hire their own administrators and staff and establish their own curriculum programs.
The Greater Youngstown Coalition of Christians received its school charter in early 1998 and currently, with classes in kindergarten through sixth grade, Eagle Heights is the largest charter school in Ohio. Four pastors and a Christian attorney form the school’s board of education.
“The challenge for us as Christians is that the school is non-sectarian and non-religious,” said Frost, who serves as the president of Eagle Heights’ board of education. “We won’t be teaching the Bible and we won’t have prayer, but we will exercise the rights available to us. We’re finding that there are a lot of things we can do and that our kids can do that do not violate the law.”
In mid-September, students participated in “See You at the Pole,” where they gathered at the school’s flagpole to pray for the nation. Teachers and staff can attend regular prayer breakfasts with parents and the community at a nearby church.
And the school’s curriculum emphasizes the nation’s complete history.
“A lot of school systems have been so intent on purging our history of any mention of God that they’ve warped it,” Frost said. “We want to talk about the faith of the pilgrims. That’s all part of history, and these children have a right to know it. We’ve committed ourselves to walking right up to the line and putting our toe on it. We’re not going to cross it, but many public schools have run away from the line for fear of offending someone. We’re not going to do that.”
After only a few months in operation, Eagle Heights Academy already has begun to positively affect the lives of students, parents and staff.
“I’ve been in education for 20 years, and there are few public schools which compare with what we have here,” said Jim LaRiccia, principal of Eagle Heights. “But it’s not what I’m doing or what any other person is doing, it’s what God is doing through all of us.”
More than 1,000 volunteers have helped renovate the facility — a school building erected in 1907 and abandoned six years ago — along with tutor the children, work in the office and serve in the cafeteria. “There’s constantly someone who is being called by the Lord to work with us,” LaRiccia said.
Many gifted educators also have accepted the challenge of working at Eagle Heights Academy, even though the starting salary range is nearly $4,000 less than other Youngstown public school teaching positions. Every classroom at the charter school has a certified teacher as well as an educational assistant, so children receive more one-on-one attention.
“When I accepted the position of principal in July 1998, I told the board there weren’t going to be any good teachers out there who would want to work for such a low salary,” LaRiccia said.
“But I was wrong. Our teachers are phenomenal. They’re enthusiastic and have amazing talent. Even on their small salaries they’re buying things for their classrooms. Some have volunteered to coach sports.
“When you go into the classrooms, you just sense the love. Many teachers have felt called by God to our school,” LaRiccia said.
In response to the school leaders’ commitment, the Youngstown community has poured out support and encouragement. Many parents have sent thank you notes, expressing gratitude for the hard work in launching the school. One mother sent a letter to a local TV station praising her child’s teacher and educational assistant. Her child had been suspended six times the previous school year, but had made a complete turnaround within a few weeks at Eagle Heights. The educators received an award from the station.
Other area schools, meanwhile, are taking notice.
“The Youngstown public schools are working harder to have a better product, because now parents have another option,” Frost said.
“Before, they didn’t have a choice. If they couldn’t afford a private or Christian school, then their children had to attend whichever public school was in their district. Now, we’re here. Any child anywhere in the city can attend Eagle Heights. That has spawned a competition, because parents are going to choose the school which best equips their child. Public schools now have to shape up.”
In the future, Eagle Heights plans to add one grade a year up to the 12th grade, as well as continue to develop its before- and after-school latchkey program. Set apart from the regular school day, the latchkey program has complete freedom for Christian teaching. Children can attend Bible studies and activities, plus have prayer together.
The Eagle Heights Academy board of education hopes that combining a solid educational foundation with optional Christian programs will help revitalize the Youngstown community through the minds of its youngest citizens.
“One of our big prayers is that not only will the community help us, but we’ll be able to help the community,” LaRiccia said. “Through this cycle, everything around us will start to flourish. We’re beginning to see it, but there’s no pressure, because it’s in the Lord’s hands, and that makes life a whole lot easier.”

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  • Kelli Williams