A place for longer education reflections and position pieces, generally titled Thoughts of Hope.

From Garbage Dumps to Graduation: An Amazing Story of God’s Handiwork

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“Ten years ago, I was digging through garbage dumps for food. Today, I’m on my way to college. I stand before you now as a living testimony of God’s amazing handiwork,” shared Ephraim Bird in his Hope Academy graduation address.

Running a 9:26 two-mile and having placed second in state, it would be simple for Ephraim to find his identity in his amazing running ability. Instead, he chooses to find his identity in what God has done in his life. As he puts it, “knowing that God has given me this talent has helped me to glorify Him instead of myself.”

On a deeper level, a remarkable aspect of Ephraim’s story is that his journey of developing a Christ-centered identity didn’t begin on a cross country track in Minnesota — it began in a garbage dump in Ethiopia.

 

 

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“Whatever we needed to do, we did to survive,” he explains. As a seven year old orphan and caretaker of his younger brother, it was not uncommon for young Ephraim to go door-to-door seeking scraps, eating out of garbage dumps, and begging for money in order to provide food and necessities. “Sometimes we would steal,” he shares. “Stealing was a big part [of our survival].”

Following the death of the boys’ father and mother within an eight month period, Ephraim and his brother were in a time of turmoil, shuffling between relatives, foster parents, and orphanages in an already poverty-stricken area. During this time, Ephraim describes himself as a “cheater and a liar.” He would often work together with his brother and friends in order to steal or cheat others, even creating their own language so that no one else would understand.

In an area with limited education, Ephraim struggled to learn and was disruptive in class. Although the boys’ orphanage taught the Bible, he says that it had no impact on his life. “The Word was there, but it wasn’t implanted in me yet.”

 

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While in fifth grade, Ephraim learned that his younger brother would be adopted by a family in Minnesota. Though at first Ephraim was very sad to be separated from his brother, he was soon informed of an unlikely surprise — the family that adopted his younger brother would like to adopt him as well.

After a three-year transition period, Ephraim finally landed in the United States on December 7, 2008, when he officially became part of the Jeff & Widdy Bird family. Completely fresh to American culture, Ephraim struggled to keep up, initially placed in fifth grade at Hope Academy (while his age was equivalent to eighth). “Everything was new for me. I didn’t know any English. The culture, the people, everything was totally different.”

Regardless of the disadvantages that he faced, Ephraim was determined to succeed. With the help of his supportive parents, friends, and family, Ephraim worked hard to improve his skills. That summer, he jumped two grade levels and was promoted to the eighth grade class the next fall.

During the next year at Hope, Ephraim was greatly impacted by the Christ-centered education he received from godly teachers. “God opened my eyes to see spiritual things at Hope,” he describes. “My teachers’ care for me reflected the goodness of God.”

That same year, Ephraim also gave his life to Christ and chose to be baptized. “I had never really accepted Jesus nor had I professed faith in Him before. It was a new walk. I know that my life has a purpose, has a meaning, and it is meant to glorify God in all that I do.”

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Ephraim says that teachers at Hope have taught him that men and women of God, like Jesus, are called not to be served, but to serve. He desires to use the talents, skills, and experiences God has blessed him with to make a difference in the lives of children like him. “A big part of my past is how people have poured into my life, and I want to do the same,” he shares. Ephraim would like to return to Ethiopia to bring hope to the orphans in his home country, as well as support local adopting families. His mission, as he proudly exclaims, is even a part of his name. “My name, Ephraim, actually means to be fruitful and multiply… and I take that seriously. Hope Academy has equipped me to be a man of God.”

“Lord-willing, I’ll return to Ethiopia to bring hope and opportunity to the orphans of my homeland. And maybe someday, there will be another little orphan standing here at this podium [on graduation day].”

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Black Lives Matter at Hope Academy

In a year of Ferguson protests, mounting racial tensions and even riots sweeping the nation, Hope Academy is making one of the strongest possible statements in our land that “black lives matter.”

So do the lives of Latinos, Somalis, European Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and everyone else.

They matter for a very important reason. They matter because of the dignity accorded to all persons who are created in the image of God.

Fueled by the belief that each person has immeasurable value as an image-bearer of God himself, we are all the more impassioned to make a public statement that black lives count.

And, as a diverse Christian community, we fulfill the law of Christ by bearing the burdens of those who have suffered – both historically and systemically – from a disparity of justice.

So how does a remarkable, God-centered education for inner-city youth shout louder than just about anything else that “black lives matter!”?

In three ways. By the costliness of the investment, the greatness of benefits secured, and the freeness with which it is offered.

A costly investment. It takes millions of dollars each year to sustain the work of Hope Academy with inner-city youth-a cost to which many supporters and families contribute joyfully and sacrificially. But beyond that, it takes love. Costly love. Tough love that says “Try again; I know you can do better.” Real love that initiates hard and healing conversations. Love that daily lays down a life for a friend.

Immeasurable benefits. The work at Hope Academy demonstrates that “black lives matter,”  because we are laboring to give African-American boys and girls, young men and women, what many regard as the single most important right of a human being-the ability to learn for oneself. An ability that opens the door to a universe of opportunities.

Accessible opportunity. One of our greatest joys is to make Hope affordable for all. And while every family has some ‘skin in the game,’ we are throwing a feast of education and opportunity at a price that turns no family away.

By supporting Hope, we believe your contributions are of the utmost importance in turning the tide to affirm the God-ordained worth and value of all peoples. Thank you for your invaluable partnership in this work.

-Russ Gregg
Head of School

A Stable Miracle & Giving at Christmas

by Russ Gregg, Head of School

Over the last fifteen years since God called us to start Hope Academy, I have been guided by three convictions regarding education.

  • First, true education begins and ends with God.
  • Second, with schools, small is beautiful.
  • Third, liberty and effective learning are often stifled by bureaucracy.

I was reminded again of these three convictions with the recent resignation of Bernadeia Johnson as superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. I have admired much of Dr. Johnson’s leadership these last four years, but I was not surprised by the news. Facing so much bureaucracy and factionalism in public education, the average tenure of a big city public school superintendent in our country is just 3.6 years.

For these last fifteen years, your generosity has helped provide stability in providing a classical, Christ-centered education to our city’s most important and endangered resource: inner city children.

As you consider end-of-year giving, we are still asking the Lord to provide more than 40 Day Sponsors for a class of kindergarteners ($540/day); one full ($6,000) or two half ($3,000) Partners for more than 25 students – including Jonathan, Alejandro, Sienna, LaKylee, Gideon, Jay’Veonna, and Ma’layiah – and three more Boaz gifts ($50,000).

All told, we are asking the Lord for about $250,000 of our $2,975,000 fundraising goal this year as we serve more than 400 inner city youth in grades K-12. You can click here to make a gift online.

More than 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ entered our human history in the most unlikely of circumstances, as a baby in a stable on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

Fifteen years ago, God began our unlikely story of stable redemption, right here in the Phillips neighborhood. Thank you for your partnership as we together see how God’s story of Hope unfolds over the next fifteen years.

Character, Poverty, Health & The Gospel

Note: This article is adapted from Russ Gregg’s opening address to the staff and faculty of Hope Academy on August 18, 2014.   

Fifteen years ago, Jeff Bird and I were in a cabin on Lake Huron talking about how to start Hope Academy. We made a roaring fire, but as we put on a few additional logs, the fire was smothered. We took this as a sign that however Hope Academy was would grow, we were going to grow slow, with the gospel as our fire.

While we have grown slow, today it is hard to believe. We started with 35 students in grades K-2, and today we serve more than 400 K-12 students, 200 families, we have nearly 70 staff, a $3.3 million budget, and we are helping lead an education reform movement around the country. Today, I believe more strongly than ever that the Gospel is the source of our success. Let me explain.

The Gospel & Character

This summer, our teaching staff read How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Writing about education reform, Tough rightly puts forward the character hypothesis over against the intelligence hypothesis. He writes:

When looking for root causes of poverty-related under-achievement, we tend to focus on the wrong culprits and ignore the ones that science tells us do the most damage. The science is saying that conservatives are correct on one very important point: character matters. There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths of conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.

   However, from my view, Tough is relatively clueless about how to develop this hidden power in children.

   Ultimately, he believes character is developed by:

  The mundane, mechanical interaction of specific chemicals in the brains and bodies of infants as parents lick and groom them like rats, so that their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well.

A chemical and genetic view misses the source of how character is formed.

True grit, Biblical grit, is not primarily genetic trait. It is an acquired character trait that is forged in the fires of adversity and faith in the gospel.

One writer, Jon Bloom at Desiring God, put it this way,

The Bible’s terms for grit are steadfastness (1 Cor. 15:58) and endurance (Luke 21:19). Steadfastness is the determination to remain at your post come what may. Endurance is the determination to keep moving toward your desired goal despite external challenges and internal weariness.

True godly grit is able to strive hard and stand fast because it is empowered by God’s grace. That’s why Paul could say things like, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me”(1 Cor. 15:10).

The Gospel & Poverty

So we possess the most powerful weapon in the war on poverty and character development—the gospel.

In Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice, Keller quotes an essay by Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf.

After visiting an inner-city ministry, Volf began to imagine for the first time how the gospel could change the self-understanding of the poor in life-changing ways.

He discovered how the (seemingly) dead doctrine of justification by grace contained untapped resources for healing:

Imagine that you have no job, no money; you live cut off from the rest of society in a world ruled by poverty and violence; you are pre-judged for the color of your skin—and you have no hope that any of this will change. Around you is a society governed by the iron law of achievement. Its gilded goods are flaunted before your eyes on TV screens, and in a thousand ways society tells you every day that you are worthless because you have no achievement… But the gospel tells us that we are not defined by outside forces. It tells us that we count; even more, that we are loved unconditionally and infinitely, irrespective of anything you have achieved or failed to achieve. Imagine now this gospel not simply proclaimed, but embodied in a community. Justified by sheer grace, the community seeks to “justify” by grace those declared “unjust” by a society’s implacable law of achievement…. A dead doctrine? Hardly!

We, at Hope Academy, already possess the most powerful weapon in the war on poverty—the completely unmerited grace of God. And paradoxically, it often produces the fruit of achievement that society is looking for, but with a radically different source.

The Gospel & Healthy School Culture

The gospel is not just central to character and poverty, but organizational health as well.

Our leadership team is reading Pat Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else.

Lencioni makes the case that organizational health surpasses all disciplines in any organization as the greatest opportunity for competitive advantage.

We may be smart at Hope Academy, but we are not much smarter than our brothers and sisters down the street.

Our real advantage is the health of our community—our spiritual and emotional health.

According to Lencioni, a healthy organization is one that has all but eliminated politics and confusion from its environment. As a result, productivity and morale soar, and good people almost never leave. Health is as tangible as anything an organization does, and even more important. Why? Because the smartest organizations and schools in the world will eventually fail if it is unhealthy.

By God’s grace, Hope Academy is a relatively healthy place, but I am proposing the following eight commitments to strengthen and sustain the health of our school.

Eight Commitments of the Hope Academy Community

1. We’re going to express our love for God and our dependance on him everyday together.

2. We’re going to invest the precious time needed each day to really listen to and care for one another.

3. We’re going to actively collaborate to help each other become the best teachers and leaders we can be.

4. We’re going to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus to the students and families we serve.

5. We’re going to celebrate the work of the Spirit, whenever we see one another caught in the sacrificial act of laying down our lives like Jesus.

6. Even when it’s difficult, we will endeavor to speak the truth in love to one another, seasoned with grace and generosity of spirit.

7. When sinned against, we’re going to forgive one another just as God has so lavishly forgiven us, in Christ.

8. We are going to faithfully honor our commitments to one another and invite one another’s help in holding ourselves accountable.

What an advantage these eight commitments would give us!  If we live them by God’s grace and wield the gospel in all things—God will continue to grow character and end the cycle of poverty in our community.

A Window Into Remarkable Teaching

The following remarks were shared by Peter Ziegler at Partner Day. Mr. Ziegler provides teacher coaching throughout Hope Academy, and so has had opportunity to see teaching in progress schoolwide.

What a wonderful day the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it! And you get spend part of the day with the students of Hope that you have partnered with!

I have five grandchildren who attend Hope and I want to thank you for your spiritual, personal and financial support of this school. Like you, my wife and I are also supporters of Hope. But I have had a unique experience here, as an educator.

I have been involved with education for a long time. This is my 42nd year working in schools. Do the math that makes me old.

First I was a classroom teacher, next I worked with schools to improve curriculum and instruction. Then I worked as the executive director of an education district.

In retirement I have worked as the executive director of an education non-profit. I estimate that I have been in over 1000 classrooms during my career.

The highlight of my career came three years ago when my son Nathan, the Upper School Principal and his staff called and asked me to come to work with them as their instructional coach.

As a coach in both the Upper and Lower Schools I work with them in their Professional Learning Communities studying topics that will help them improve their instructional skills. Several times a year I observe them in their classrooms.

We meet before their lesson to discuss what I am going to see. During the lesson I make observations, take notes and video tape. After the lesson we meet to critique the lesson using teacher observations, my notes and the video.

I have never worked in a school system where every teacher takes part in such a rigorous professional development program. The teachers of Hope Academy work very hard to continually improve.

I have personally watched all of them teach – now I would like to take you to see what I see. So put on your imagination caps, and let me take you around the building.

If I was to share all of the great things I have seen here it would take days. We will visit a few classrooms to get a sampling of what happens here.

First stop – first grade where we see Jose and Stella who do not speak English. Their teacher is teaching them not only to speak English but to read and write it. While we are here please take a look this writing by Angel. She reports in her journal that she has been “Inspired” by the writing lesson that day. This is the first month of school and her writing is a couple of pages long, shows a personnel voice and has vivid details.

Shhhh. Now we’re entering a third grade classroom, where Theodore, Isabella and their class are engaged in a Socratic Seminar, I don’t want us to interrupt. These third graders have read a difficult piece of text and are now coming together to discuss it. In the seminar you will hear them support their view, make references to the text they read, build on what their classmates have said – and look – they are taking turns speaking.

Now let’s go into a fifth grade room — Jasmine and Anthony are in a writing conference, learning to critique and edit not only their own work but the work of others. Let’s see if we can get close enough to hear what Jasmine is saying. “Wow those are juicy words Anthony! I feel like I am actually there!” A bit later in the discussion, “Anthony tell me about what you are trying to say here. Listen as I read it to you – does it say that? Can WE find juicy words to make this more precise?”

These are fifth graders, working together, for each other’s improvement. I think this looks and sounds like the type of world that God has envisioned for his servants.

Now let’s go up the stairs to the Upper School, to a Bible class. This interaction was caught on video, unbeknownst to the teacher and me. The class is engaged in a discussion about grace. After Sam gives his interpretation we see Isaiah, on the video reach across the aisle and say “Great answer SAM! – Right on!” and then give Sam a high five.

Mind you these are middle school boy’s high-fiving over an interpretation of grace. Tell me that HOPE isn’t a great place for us to share our blessings.

Down the hall we are going to step into a Middle School math classroom. One of the techniques that our teachers have studied is No Opt Out – students are not given the option to say: ”I don’t know.” A while back the teacher called on Ellen. “How can this fraction be reduced – Ellen?” Ellen – “I don’t know.” “Ellen I am going to ask another student for their response and I will come back to you. Listen carefully.” The teacher asked another student and then came back to Ellen. “I don’t know.” “Ellen I will come back to you. He asks another student and comes back to Ellen – “You already asked me twice – I DON”T KNOW!” “Ellen I will come back to.” Patiently the teacher calls on yet another student who responds and we are back to Ellen – a defining moment. Ellen gives huge sigh and says “Ok all right already here is how you do it.”

Pay attention to Ellen in class today. There she is in the second row. Look at that, she just answered the teacher’s question the first time he asked. The will of this teacher is a testament to our Lord – “I will stay with you and together we will work this out.”

I am very pleased to have this teacher working with my grandchildren.

Now let’s move on to a high school room and peek in the door – notice Nicole who is engaged in her pre-Calculus class. All the students are gathered around tables. Look around – they are all working – or are they? At closer observation you see that they are all playing a game designed by the teacher – Mathopoly. In the game they proceeded around the board drawing Chance and Community Chest cards that require them to solve a complex problem.
I am not sure they even know we are in the classroom, and guess what – they all passed the test. These are the children of the inner city and their teachers are assuring that they will achieve great things.

As the student(s) you sponsor make their way through Hope Academy – I can assure you they are in incredible hands – yours, God’s and these teachers.

I have seen many good teachers in my day, but I would be hard pressed to find an entire staff as committed to their own self-improvement and the improvement of their students, as the teachers here at HOPE.

As you have a chance, thank them for all they do for the children of Hope and for the Kingdom of God.

Thank you.

A Snapshot of Urban Education

Russ Gregg, Head of School

The below remarks were given by Russ Gregg at The Minneapolis Club on Thursday, May 16 for an event entitled “Faith-Based Schools and the Achievement & Opportunity Gap” highlighting the work of Hope Academy, Risen Christ School, Ascension Catholic School, and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

Welcome everyone to a very special evening. My name is Russ Gregg, and I’m one of the founders and the Head of School at Hope Academy, a K-12 academy serving nearly 400 inner-city students at 23rd and Chicago Ave. Twenty-two years ago, my wife and I bought our first home and moved our family into the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis. While we were well aware of the pervasive poverty and the rampant crime and violence we were moving into, we soon came to understand there was an even greater crisis hiding beneath the surface.

The Urban Education Crisis

Right in the heart of the “education state,” our state—the state with the highest ACT scores in the country, there is a dark under-belly. Students of color in Minneapolis are the lowest academic performers of any major city in the entire country. They are dead last! Today only 33% of African-Americans and Latinos, and 22% of Native Americans in our city’s public school system will graduate high school in four years.

Do you know of any business that would tolerate a 70% failure rate? And of the 30% of students of color who do graduate from our public high schools, their average reading level at graduation is only eighth grade.

Minnesota has now been singled out nationally as the state with the largest achievement gap between white students and students of color. We are number one. What this means, is that for students of color in our city, most will achieve less academically than students in states like Mississippi or South Carolina. In the midst of all our prosperity, this enormous gap in achievement is a kind of benign racism, and it is scandalous.

And just when you thought this sad story couldn’t get any worse, we must understand that this crisis is increasing at an increasing rate. City planners estimate that Minneapolis’ population will grow by 65,000 people between now and 2025, and that growth will be almost exclusively among people of color—those currently suffering from the greatest disparities in academic achievement. So, if we don’t take dramatic action, the achievement gap we find totally unacceptable today, will be dramatically bigger in 2025.

 The Cost of Failed Education

The public cost of failed education in our city is just staggering. The Minneapolis Foundation estimates that the failure to graduate students of color at the same rate as white students will cost Minnesota’s economy $1.3 billion a year by 2020. Today, 1 out of every 9 African-American men in our country, between the ages of 20-24, is in prison tonight. And several states have figured out the link. They are building prison capacities based on 3rd grade reading scores. They’ve learned that if you aren’t reading by 3rd grade it greatly increases the likelihood of being incarcerated.

Waiting for Superman. Really?

Two years ago, when filmmakers made a major documentary exposing the crisis of urban education in our country, do you know what title they gave it? They called it, “Waiting for Superman.” Now, except for the spiraling growth of the federal deficit, I’m not aware of any other problem facing our country that’s so urgent and where leaders have felt so hopeless that they’ve started calling upon superheroes for help. When people are “waiting for Superman,” then you know you’ve got a crisis on your hands.

The Heart of the Problem

Many of you must be asking yourselves, why is this particular problem so different to solve? All of us in this room solve problems like this every day. Surely this one can’t be that difficult to fix. Can it? Actually, it is impossible to fix if you don’t understand the true nature of the problem.

In the beginning, I thought I had some ideas about how to solve the crisis of urban education, and some of those ideas were valid. But what I didn’t understand until later was what’s really happening in the urban family today.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what happens to most inner-city kids. JaShawn was one of the 86.6% of African-American children born in Hennepin County to a single mom. His mother had high hopes for him and brought him to Kindergarten at their neighborhood school. JaShawn had a vocabulary of 500 words compared to a typical suburban Kindergartener who has a vocabulary of over 5000 words.

JaShawn is already way behind his suburban counterparts. In first grade, JaShawn began to learn to read. However there weren’t any books in his home, and his mom never read with him.

In second grade JaShawn began to get home work but there was no one at home to help him. The TV was always on and lots of strange men kept coming in and out of his apartment. Several times these strange men beat up JaShawn’s mom.

JaShawn often had to hide because he was afraid, and he really had a hard time concentrating in class the next day.

By third grade, JaShawn was already a grade and a half behind where he should be. And his teacher didn’t know what to do. Mom’s cell number was always disconnected. And she didn’t ever attend her son’s Parent-Teacher conferences.

By sixth grade, JaShawn found a new family to belong to—the Gangsta Disciples, and he started dressing in the colors of his new family. School was no longer interesting to him. Mom moved three times that year, and JaShawn attended four different schools.

Meanwhile JaShawn’s school spent $12 million to research and implement a new reading curriculum that they hoped would improve reading scores in the district.

What does JaShawn know in sixth grade? While driving in the car with his mentor, he heard a story on the radio about the London Philharmonic. His mentor asked him, “JaShawn, do you know where London is?”

“Don’t know.”

“England?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Well, what’s the largest city in the United States?”

“Las Vegas? O wait, I think that’s a state.”

By 10th grade JaShawn has dropped out of school. He has been in juvenile detention and fathered a child. He smokes weed most every day and is getting into more serious drug activity. JaShawn’s likely on his way to jail.

Why Widows and Orphans?

Have you ever wondered why God commanded his people to look out for and help the widows and the orphans among us? It must be because God designed every child to need both a mother and a father.

A child without a parent needs to be the special focus of our charity and our efforts to restore the urban family. Any effort to solve the problem of urban education that ignores the family is doomed to failure. Parents are the problem, and parents must become part of the solution.

Conclusion

Tonight you will be hearing from four non-public, faith-based schools, all located in the inner-city of Minneapolis, who are not “waiting for Superman” to solve the crisis of urban education. Instead, our schools have attacked the problem head on, and day after day, we are seeing the same high-poverty, “at-risk” group of students beat all the odds and become successful beyond our wildest dreams.

We believe that community leaders like those of you in this room, people who care deeply about giving equality of opportunity to all our citizens, would want to understand what makes our school’s approach so unique and so successful.

(12.23.13) George Müller, Christian Schools, & "Giving at Interest"

A man whose life inspires our Gospel work here at Hope Academy is George Müller (Sept. 27, 1805-March 10, 1898). Müller asked the Lord to provide, and God provided in miraculous ways. Müller’s Ashley Down orphanage cared for more than 10,000 orphans during his lifetime, and Müller also helped establish 117 Christian schools that educated more than 120,000 children, many of them orphans.

 On August 30, 1849, Müller received a fifty pound note from a donor (~$7,000 today), who had been a long-time supporter of his work. The gift was accompanied by these words: “This will be the last large sum I shall be able to transmit to you. Almost all the rest is already out at interest.”

 Müller knew that by ‘out at interest,‘ the giver meant that he had given nearly everything away to the Lord’s work — and was storing up for himself — at interest — treasures in Heaven (see Matt. 6:19-21).

 But in fact, it was not the donor’s last gift. Müller writes:

Since that time I have received other donations from the same donor, and much larger still. He used for God the means with which He was pleased to intrust him, and contrary to this brother’s expectation, the above fifty pounds was not the last large donation; for it pleased God soon after to intrust him with another considerable sum, which he again used for the Lord.

This did not at all surprise me; for it is the Lord’s order, that, in whatever way He is pleased to make us His stewards, whether as to temporal or spiritual things, if we are indeed acting as stewards and not as ownershe will make us stewards over more.

I am personally so grateful for all of our supporters, and your faithful stewardship in helping urban youth receive a remarkable, Christ-centered education since our founding in 2000. The past fourteen years and our nearly 400 students are just one evidence of the Lord’s honoring your generosity.

Our prayer, though, is that you would know that you are storing up treasures in Heaven — and you are doing so at interest. May the Lord make you stewards over more — to supply more of His work for eternity.

The Root & The Fruit of Education

Russ Gregg, Head of School

The phrase “The Peaceful Fruit of Righteousness” comes from the book of Hebrews, and it describes the design of God’s discipline in our lives. Though his discipline seems unpleasant at the time, the Lord is always seeking our good, and for those who are trained by the pain, God’s discipline produces this amazingly important fruit of righteous character.

Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, persuasively makes the case that the qualities that matter most in determining why some children succeed while others fail have more to do with the hidden power of character than high IQ—they have more to do with virtues like perseverance, optimism, grit, conscientiousness, and self-control. Character—not cognition—is central to success.

However, these same researchers seem clueless about just how to develop these all important virtues in the lives of children today. The problem as I see it, is that these educators are expecting to harvest the fruit of virtuous character apart from the root of the knowledge of God.

We all know what you get when you cut a tree from its roots.

The Book of Galatians tells us that you get “the desires of the flesh,” which are contrary to the Spirit.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

Sound familiar?

On the contrary, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

These are the very virtues researchers see as necessary for success.

Decades ago, C.S. Lewis foresaw the destructiveness of severing the fruit from the root, of separating the virtues we demand from the knowledge of God. In his treatise on education called The Abolition of Man, he wrote:

We continue to clamor for those very character qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a newspaper without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.

This fundamental disordering of our schools has indeed had disastrous effects on education, especially on the education of inner-city children.

Fourteen years ago, God led a small group of us to start a radically different kind of school for the children of our city. By God’s grace, and the help of people like you, we started a remarkable, Christ-centered school for inner-city children. And today, nearly 400 youth, from kindergarten through the 12th grade are receiving an amazing education that will prepare them to become the future servant leaders of our city.

Hope Academy has attacked the problem of urban education quite literally at its root — and day after day, we are seeing the same group of high-poverty, “at-risk” students beat all the odds and become successful beyond our wildest dreams.

 

The Loss of Truth in Schools

Russ Gregg, Head of School


Our campaign to grow Hope Academy will enable us to serve more than 500 students with a God-centered education by 2017. As we have learned these last thirteen years, we are dependent on God working through you, our Partners.

So I want to convince you and encourage you today. First, I want to convince you that growing Hope Academy for inner city youth is more important than ever. And second, I want to encourage you that your compassion is making a difference in lives here.

First, why is growing Hope Academy more necessary now?

Child Poverty is on the Rise

According to the U.S. Cen- sus Bureau, child poverty rose 56% in Minnesota during the last decade. In 2010, one out of every ten Minnesotans lived below the federal poverty line —annual incomes of less than $22,050 a year for a family of four or $10,830 for a single adult.

More recent figures suggest that poverty rates have increased even more, especially within Minnesota’s communities of color: 24.4 percent for Latinos, 37.2 percent for African-Americans and 39.5 percent for American Indians (footnote: link).

And we know that economic forecasts are predicting that this rise in child poverty is not going to change soon.

Despair & Death Among Teens

Also, teenagers are dropping out of school in record num- bers, joining gangs, and killing one another. In the last thirty days, four teenagers have been murdered in this area.

Despairing over one of the murders, a local parent said, “This is a group of kids that isn’t even old enough to drink, drive, or pay rent. I just want all the violence to stop.”

The Phillips neighborhood saw a 41% spike in theft, and a 25% spike in homicide rates from last year to this year. (footnote: link)

The most compelling reason to grow Hope Academy, however, is the loss of truth in our schools.

“Harvard is a case study of how the greatest univer- sities have lost their educational souls at the same time as they have achieved dazzling excellence.”

In 2006, the former dean of Harvard, Dr. Harry Lewis, wrote an important book called, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education. Lewis argues that true education is not the same thing as classroom teaching. He writes:

Over the years I have been at Harvard—nearly forty, if my student years are included—the quality of everything at the University has improved, except the most important thing. The students are smarter, the faculty more distinguished, even the pedagogy is better—but students are less challenged than ever to grow in wisdom and to become the responsible leaders on whom the fate of the nation will de- pend. Harvard is a case study of how the greatest universities have lost their educational souls at the same time as they have achieved dazzling excellence.

The great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote similarly in his essay, “The Purpose Of Education”:

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think in- tensively and to think critically. But educa- tion which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gift- ed with reason, but with no morals.We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. A complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.

Students at Hope Academy learn not only how to read and write with excellence, but also that they are created in the image of God, and therefore subject to God. They discover not only who they are, but also that God has a great purpose for their lives and how to live their lives in order to bless others.

Growing in Compassion

Second, I want to encourage you in your compassion for inner city children these last thirteen years.

Compassion is a beautiful thing in a person’s life. As a matter of fact, it’s God-like. When God declared his name to Moses, He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 145:8). Compassion is God- like.

But how does God grow compassion? I think two things are required for compassion to flourish in a person’s life.

The first is a sense of God’s blessing and his call on every one of us to be a blessing to others. Four thousand years ago, God chose a pagan man, Abram, and his wife, Sara, to become his covenant people. In calling Abram, God told him how he would both bless him and also make him a blessing to others. In Genesis 12:1-3 we read,

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you…I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

The second thing necessary for compassion to flourish in a person’s life is a sense of shared suffering.

Compassion is developed in our lives when suffering becomes personal. Many times it’s suffering in my own life or the life of someone close to me that helps me to empathize with the suffering of others.

But I can also be touched by the needs and challenges of a complete stranger.

The key, I think, is making it personal.

For those of you who are Partners, you are compassionate because of your sense of God’s blessing in your life, and because you have made the hardship of a student here intensely personal.

Hope Academy is only possible because of our “compassionate and gracious God” working through you.

In addition to thanking God for his work through you, would you join me in asking the Lord if he might grow

his compassion for inner city youth in the hearts of hun- dreds more?

By 2017, our Long-Range plan is to serve 160 more inner-city students—a total of 550—with a God-centered education. May God’s compassion spill over from our lives into others.

Should it be His will to achieve it, may God get all the glory.

Minding the Achievement Gap

by Russ Gregg, Head of School

If you’ve ever ridden on the London Underground, you’ve heard the recorded message warning travelers getting on the train to “mind the gap”.

Here at Hope we are minding a very different gap-the achievement gap. But not all educators seem to mind.

Earlier this month I participated in a roundtable discussion coordinated by the Junior League of Minneapolis. The topic was how to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color, and I was one of four panelists-two of whom were public school educators.

After I defined the achievement gap, sharing that the size of the gap is larger in Minnesota than in any other state-I expected a substantive discussion on methods our respective schools are using to close the gap.

To my utter dismay, however, the other three panelists proceeded to deny that the achievement gap was a significant problem.  I sat stunned as they explained away the poor test scores in a whole variety of ways, saying things like:

“Standardized tests only measure a very narrow kind of intelligence…”

“There are plenty of people who don’t test well, but who still end up being successful in life…”

 “So many students are English Language learners, and so results on standardized tests are going to be low…”

This is my favorite-

“My students have so many issues outside of school, that they aren’t motivated to take the tests-they are really much smarter than how they test…”

I couldn’t help but feel pity for the students attending these schools, and I was convinced again of how vitally important our work is here at Hope Academy.

Here at Hope, standardized testing is important for holding teachers accountable, for demonstrating student mastery of academic content, and for targeting our interventions on students who are not making the grade.

By God’s grace, we are seeing amazing results in closing the achievement gap, with 97% of our high school students with 2+ years at Hope reading at or above grade level; and 88% of these same students performing at or above grade level in math.

The greatest evidence of closing the gap, however, are the post-graduation plans of our first class of seniors, who are graduating this spring. For many, they will be the first in their family to attend college. Here are just a few examples of their plans:

Merhawi Temnewo, for example, has received the $20,000 Horatio Alger Scholarship, and is receiving additional scholarship help to attend North Central University.

Giovanni Herrera has been offered a $40,000 scholarship to attend Concordia University (St. Paul), and hopes to receive a similar offer at Northwestern College, where he is accepted.

Leah Ferguson, a National Merit Finalist, has already been offered a full tuition scholarship to Cornell College (IA); and hopes to receive a full-ride offer from either Princeton or Dartmouth.

Alyssa Zink has been sworn in to the most selective military branch, the United States Air Force.

And all of our other seniors have been accepted at places like the College of St. Catherine’s (St. Paul), the University of Minnesota, Bethel University, Crown College, or Minneapolis Comm. & Technical College.

I am so grateful for your partnership in this important work of growing oaks of righteousness here in the inner city of Minneapolis.

One of you recently thanked me for being here in the front lines of the social justice movement in our country. All I could think to say was “right back at you.”