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.
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."
Carol Herring came to The Neighborhood School three years ago after teaching in another Memphis-area Christian school for two years. Since her undergraduate days at Vanderbilt, she had wanted to teach in the inner city because "I felt like there is so little opportunity for people in poverty to receive a Christian education." But she wanted to get some experience before coming to a place like The Neighborhood School.
Even with experience, the transition was hard. "The numbers were so much smaller, I was surprised it was as difficult as it was," Mrs. Herring said, noting "the lack of respect and the lack of authority. It wasn't that the students necessarily knew they were being disrespectful. There is just no authority in their lives at all. That's how their parents act."
Part of what makes the job so hard is the environment in which the kids live. Drugs and alcohol are omnipresent, and many of the moms are depressed. They sleep a lot, leaving their children unsupervised, and when the kids come home from school it is to a dark apartment, with blinds drawn to shut out the light. Mrs. Herring soon lost her naïveté: "I thought [the students] just needed an opportunity to hear and when they heard they would respond, but they don't. It takes a lot of hard work."
That hard work includes individualized lesson plans, small classes, and one-to-one tutoring. Achievement test scores show that most of the students still score at or below the 50th percentile, but have improved from where they started. "We are seeing academic success," Mrs. Herring said. "There is a good handful of our kids who would never have learned to read. They're definitely learning, although they may not have skyrocketing scores."
But where the school has made its greatest strides is in the students' spiritual and social lives. Every child has two volunteers praying for him every day. Children are taught to think about themselves as made in the image of God. "You can't love until you've been loved," Mrs. Walt said. "The Christian knows that all love comes from Christ.... The love of the Lord is the only thing that's going to change them from where they are-and that has to come through people."
Students are changing behaviors-and many are coming to faith in Christ. Long-time volunteer Karen Andrews recalls the first year the school was open. "Children were bouncing off the wall. They were defiant and unresponsive," she said. When the school added a new student it was "one more wild child." Now, Mrs. Andrews said, "it's almost like when a new child comes in they fall in place."
She credits director Quinton Lytle, a tall black man with eight children of his own, with setting the tone for the school. The kids respect him because he's a godly man and verbal about it, and also a good athlete. He teaches them that men are to love their wives and be present for their children, and he models that behavior. He takes some students to basketball camp in the summer, and intervenes in family crises.
About 20 children have graduated from the school, having completed the eighth grade. All of them are still in high school, on track to graduate. Mrs. Herring recalls one boy who came to the school when he was nine. His drug-addicted mother had abandoned him. "He was wild, wild, wild," Mrs. Herring said of the boy. "But he has done remarkably well. He'll graduate from high school, I'm confident of it."
Last year the school, recognizing that some of the students' living situations were dire, turned the little house on its property into a dormitory for four children and a house father. After boarding at the school for one year, one first-grader's achievement test scores moved from the 6th percentile to the 70th. He had gained stability and a basic routine, good nutrition and sleep, and the basic home structure that was lacking in his life with his mother. The boarding students returned home one night a week in order to maintain ties to their mothers. The school has the money to build a larger boarding home-big enough for 60 students-but it is working to raise funds to run it.
The school is also trying to build up families in the area. Through a program called The Neighborhood Institute, funded separately by foundation grants, the school is able to provide parenting and GED preparation classes, along with computer and Certified Nursing Assistants training.
Since tuition costs only $11 per month, the school relies heavily on donations to pay the salaries of its teachers and administrators. M.O.S.T, a Memphis private scholarship program, pays $1,500 a year each for 18 students to attend The Neighborhood School. The Memphis food bank provides food for the breakfast and lunch program.
More than 200 volunteers provide everything from one-to-one tutoring for math and reading to art, music, and after-school classes. The afternoon program began when Mrs. Walt realized that a typical middle-class child had 1,000 hours of positive experiences, like going to the zoo or a museum, before entering kindergarten, but "our children would have 30." About half of the students stay for the afternoon program, which includes tutoring and enrichment classes. The example of volunteering appears to be rubbing off on the students. Last year the schoolchildren collected 1,054 cans, more than 10 per child, for the food bank, and then helped sort them. Last summer, four children went on seven-week mission trips with Teen Missions, two to Mexico and two to Haiti.
Mrs. Walt is now in China. Her husband told her they were called to go. But The Neighborhood School remains after overcoming the doubts of many in the neighborhood about whether the school staff had the guts to stick it out: "The buildings are here, they're permanent. We're not here today, gone tomorrow," Mrs. Walt said.