Cover Story

Real graceland

With America in campaign mode, education has leaped to the top of the political agenda. Democrats want to throw more money at public schools. Republicans want to give parents and local authorities more options. A small school in Memphis, its $500,000 budget raised almost entirely through private contributions, illustrates a compassionate conservative approach that starts with volunteers willing to work sacrificially and trust God

Issue: "Beating the school rules," Sept. 23, 2000

Dressed in pink linen topped by a double strand of white beads, Jo Walt is a quintessential southern gentle lady, but she has a steely core under her magnolia veneer that's apparent when an obstacle gets in the way of a task to which she's been called. Although she was leaving Memphis in four days for a year-long mission trip to China with her husband, the 68-year-old Mrs. Walt did not appear at all rushed. She was glad to take a curious reporter on a tour of The Neighborhood School, the Christian school she founded in Binghampton, one of the poorest areas of Memphis.

The students are drawn mostly from the Walnut Park housing project, a government-funded apartment complex within throwing distance of the school. It's a place where dads are rare-five years ago four married couples lived on the premises, today none do-and drugs are common. Kids in the neighborhood spend their afternoons unsupervised: Some sit before a television, while the more adventuresome roam the neighborhood looking for trouble.

Mrs. Walt marched into the neighborhood eight years ago, convinced that God wanted her to start a school. It wasn't to be an inner-city school for bright kids trapped in failing public schools. It was to be a school for kids clearly heading for failure. Kids who would never survive in a classroom of 30. Those with the worst behavior and learning disabilities. Only later would she find out how singular her calling was. Although WORLD and the folks at The Neighborhood School have searched, no other evangelical schools in America appear to be targeting the very toughest kids, those most likely to fail.

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It didn't take Mrs. Walt long to realize that the job was bigger than she was. She had been a missionary to China with her husband, a retired lawyer, in the late 1980s. She had helped start another school the year before. But she wasn't prepared for the problems facing The Neighborhood School. She remembers praying six weeks before its scheduled opening that God would give the school to someone else to run: "I have no teacher, no students and no place to have it," she said.

On Aug. 30, 1993, the school opened in temporary quarters, the gym of a Roman Catholic church, with a teacher and 15 students. A month later a new crisis developed: The board needed to replace the original teacher and no qualified replacement could be found. At the last minute, Alex Davis, a minister and former football player at Purdue University, telephoned her. He began teaching the next day. He stayed for five years. At one point during that first year the school's enrollment dropped to six students. But Mrs. Walt knocked on doors at the housing project and by the end of the year enrollment was up to 13.

Since that somewhat shaky start, The Neighborhood School has grown steadily. Mrs. Walt credits the school's survival to "lots and lots and lots of prayer and knowing this is what the Lord has called us to do." For the past seven years the school has been located in a two-story building on Tillman Street, which now houses the lower grades and administrative offices, and another building, located behind the original one, that houses the older children, the library, and the cafeteria. Between them is a concrete schoolyard. Last year 106 students made up grades 1-8.

Dressed in white polo shirts and black or navy slacks, The Neighborhood School students look clean-cut and ready to work. They give friendly smiles to a visitor and waist-high hugs to Mrs. Walt. The crisp uniforms cover up some troubled boys and girls. Some have criminal records. Others have been abused. Parents are sometimes the biggest problem: "Many of our children would be asked to leave other inner-city schools because the parents are not cooperating," school president and academic administrator Carol Herring said.

Yet three years ago the school decided to make its task harder: "Up until three years ago we took any child who came to us ... but three years ago I decided we'd only take Binghampton children," Mrs. Walt said. "We wanted to reach the children who needed it the most...." Limiting the students to those who live in Binghampton guarantees that the school will have to work with the toughest children. "They lose their innocence before they enter kindergarten.... The school doesn't take any children past the fifth or sixth grade," Mrs. Walt said. "If they are hardened that long, we can't reach them."

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