If Paige Pitts, the principal of New Hope Academy in tiny Franklin, Tenn., had opening-day jitters, it wasn't evident to the three rows of children seated cross-legged on the floor in front of her.
Minutes before, the six fifth-graders had scrambled to transform their classroom into a chapel, moving their desks and chairs to the side of the room in 22 seconds, fast enough to tie, but not beat the time from the day before.
Minutes later the third- and fourth-graders, neatly dressed in plaid jumpers and polo shirts and khakis, filed in. Although it was the first full day of school, they already seemed to know the drill: Sit quietly and face the front where Mrs. Pitts, a slender auburn-haired dynamo, proclaimed: "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice."
New Hope Academy has a lot to rejoice about. Now entering its fourth year of operation, it has added a fifth grade and plans to add three more grades in the next three years. Its classrooms are full (except for the fifth grade, which is half-full). It owns 19 acres of land for an eventual building, which will allow it to move from the rented quarters on West Main Street that it is rapidly outgrowing. Its vision is spreading: Mrs. Pitts gets calls regularly from schools in places like Indianapolis, York, Pa., and Charlotte, N.C., wanting to know how New Hope does what it does.
And what does it do? Provides an excellent classical education to all kinds of kids, rich and poor, black and white, gifted and average. From its inception, New Hope has been committed to a school that would bridge chasms of race and class. Mrs. Pitts, who is also the school's founder, cites Proverbs 29:7: "The righteous care about justice for the poor." She argues that providing Christian education for poor as well as affluent students is a matter of justice-but it is also good for all. Racial and ethnic diversity, she says, makes for a richer school environment.
Franklin, Tenn., is about a half-hour south of Nashville. It's a leafy exurb, a bit more rural than suburban with a quaint downtown that has attracted many wealthy people and businesses eager to get away from Nashville's bustle. But it is also a town with poor folks and housing projects, and unlike urban areas where the rich and poor never meet, in Franklin they live within walking distance of each other. Proximity doesn't equal interaction, though. Even the churches are largely segregated.
Six years ago, Mrs. Pitts started dreaming about a school. She envisioned a school that "would provide excellent Christian education for those of lower economic means." But she did not want an inner-city school that would reach only the poor. The question was how to create a school that could appeal to all.
New Hope found that the key to attracting affluent families is offering an excellent Christian education. The school offers a classical curriculum rooted in the medieval trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) and grounded in a biblical worldview. Children learn history, art and music appreciation, and Latin alongside more traditional elementary subjects. The school has a waiting list of parents willing to pay for that kind of education.
But excellent education is not enough to attract poor families. The $5,000 tuition price tag would put the education out of reach of those families if the school, from the beginning, had not determined to reserve 40 percent of its classroom slots for low-income students.
Just as the school planned for a way to include poorer students, it also planned to embrace racial and ethnic minorities and go out of its way to recruit families to fulfill that mission. Mrs. Pitts says that starting a school with an inclusive vision is easier than changing an existing school because the parents of the low-income students who come to New Hope know they are not an addendum to the school's mission, but are central to it. They know that the affluent parents involved with the school chose it because they wanted their kids to go to a school that reflects the diversity of the Kingdom of God.
The school has enriched the classical curriculum's emphasis on dead white males with a generous sprinkling of black heroes. Students learn about ancient Greece and Rome, but they also learn about Martin Luther King and black inventors. On the wall in the school foyer is a framed copy of a newspaper article about the school and its celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, not something found in every Christian school. Mrs. Pitts says, "These are important people. I would include them even if there were no African-American children in the school. It's important to our white children."
In order to make sure that all kids have a chance to succeed in the school, New Hope offers a Pre-K class limited to 10 culturally disadvantaged students. Small classes and one-on-one tutoring provided by parent volunteers make it possible to meet the needs of all the kids. Mrs. Pitts is quick to note that the need for tutoring is not determined by race or income.
Operating this kind of school costs money. In order to pay its bills, New Hope must raise two-thirds to three-fourths of its annual budget-a huge task. The school holds fundraisers and banquets, and carries on an annual campaign to raise money from churches and individuals. Last year it raised $300,000 for scholarships.