Cover Story

Indiana acorns

A new Christian school is helping neighborhood residents reclaim Indianapolis' "Dodge City"

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

When Rutha Powell moved into an inner-city northside neighborhood in Indianapolis in 1965, homes were close together and neighbors knew each other. That all changed over the next 25 years: Abandoned houses, vacant lots, and increasing crime led people to call the neighborhood Dodge City. The federal government's "Model Cities" programs didn't stem the decline.

Rutha, now 68, and her husband Ernest, 91, remained active in the neighborhood and raised eight children there, but didn't know how to fight property abandonment. Owners of houses "lived in California or somewhere else," she recalled: "They didn't have the property management to take care of their houses, and the city just tore them down."

But an unusual alliance between a federal housing initiative and faith-based ministries is creating new hope. The Powells' neighborhood has become a "home ownership zone" through a program of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city has purchased many vacant lots and built new homes on them, while renovating older ones. Habitat for Humanity also has built several new homes, with individuals putting sweat equity into the homes.

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The new initiative's success will depend not just on housing but on other community institutions as well, and here's where the recent growth of neighborhood churches and a new Christian school is significant. The private Oaks Academy offers an unusual blend of Christian and classical curriculum, combined with a goal of racial reconciliation. The student body, about half white and half black, has grown to 142 students in three years, with scholarships attracting students from the immediate area.

Tim and Terri Kroeker saw the school's opening as providential. The Kroekers were expecting a third child and wondering about public-school alternatives as they renovated an old home in the area. "It was a great way for us to get a house," said Mr. Kroeker. "We didn't have the funds, but we had the sweat equity. We're doing 95 percent of the work ourselves."

The Kroekers, who are white, grew up in rural areas with little contact with people of other races. "For her (their daughter Kathryn) to be able to interact with people of other races and for it to be natural seems to be a big advantage to me," said Mrs. Kroeker. "It's something I have to work at and cultivate, but she won't have to do that. She'll just grow up with it."

Marvin Gaynor, who is black, is dean of students and family at Oaks. He is also an Atlanta native who has been a missionary in Mexico, knows several languages, and is fluent in Spanish. Part of his assignment is to help parents develop a sense of responsibility for the behavior and academic performance of children. "There's lots of homework, memorization, and classroom discipline," he said. The curriculum includes Latin and grammar. "We have had some parents say, 'Isn't that too hard?'" he noted. "We don't buy into that."

When Bill Stanczykiewicz, head of the Indiana Youth Institute, describes what the combination of school, churches, and new houses is doing in the Powells' neighborhood, he uses the term "collective efficiency ... people coming out of their houses to work together, in churches, community centers, youth agencies, parks." When that happens, he says-and a Harvard University study backs him up-"crime comes down." After living in the area 35 years, Rutha Powell put it another way: "Our prayers are being answered slowly but surely."

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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