Athens, Georgia, is filled with dreamers. Boys who lie awake at night hoping they’ll grow up to be professional football players, basketball players, rappers. But when they get the question — what if it doesn’t work out? — their answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”

Ranked by the 2010 U.S. Census as one of the nation’s most impoverished counties of its size, Athens-Clarke County teems with single-parent families, jobless adults, high school dropouts, and children who will one day trade in school uniforms for prison garb. Ten years ago, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Athens started a sports ministry — Downtown Ministries — to reach neighborhood kids and families with the Gospel, and ultimately to change the community’s trajectory.

Starting with a single football team — the Downtown Falcons — the ministry grew during the next several years to include four football teams, four basketball teams, four cheerleading squads, a tutoring program, a job-skills outreach, and a Cub Scouts troop. Downtown Ministries became a separate 501(c)3 organization in 2007.

Despite all this relational, Gospel-centered ministry, in 10 years the ministry had seen only a handful of kids graduate from high school. Out of hundreds.

All In

“We were making poverty more pleasant,” explains Patrick Ennis, former Downtown Falcons basketball coach. “The kids are loved, have healthy relationships with adult men, have fun . . . but if they don’t have the educational component, they don’t have the tools to come up out of poverty.”

Last year, after graduating with a master’s in special education from the University of Georgia, Ennis got a job teaching sixth and seventh grades at an Athens public school. There he began to understand the pervasiveness of poverty in the lives of the young men he knew from the basketball court.

“In my class, there were 12 students who were from Downtown Ministries. At the end of the first nine weeks [of school], the teachers get together and decide [which students] are at-risk. All 12 of these students were at the highest levels of at-risk.”

What Ennis began to discover was that his students had fallen behind — not simply in the previous nine weeks — but over the course of their lives. With many of these children growing up in chaotic families and thrust into a school system that didn’t have the resources to help them truly learn, most fall behind early and never catch up.

This confirmed something that Redeemer had been observing for years: Even if a young person had been involved with Downtown Ministries for several years, the “culture would start to take over” at around age 14. Drugs, gangs, even prison.

The leadership began to take note. What could they do to go beyond building relationships with children and families and begin transforming a culture of poverty?

“The only way we’re going to change this stuff is to be all in,” explains Hal Farnsworth, senior pastor at Redeemer. The more they began to think about it, the more it became apparent that to be “all in” meant to get involved in education. In May 2012, the church formed a board to begin looking at options to start a school.

The ABCs

And so a vision for a private, academically rigorous elementary school was born. Dubbed “Downtown Academy,” the school opened its doors last August with Ennis at the helm as its first principal. Inspired by models such as Harlem Children’s Zone, the school goes heavy on reading, math, Christ-centered teaching, and relationships.

According to the National Research Council, a child’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade is directly linked to the likelihood of graduating from high school.

“If we can get our kids reading by [then], it sets them up to be successful,” says Ennis.

After the first quarter, first-grade students had sped through their reading assignments so fast that the school ordered second-grade reading curriculum before the class finished its third quarter.

Adding biblical teaching and character instruction into the mix ties the curriculum together. Ennis explains: “If we give our children the knowledge, but they don’t have the character to wield these tools properly, it’s a waste.”

To be sure, they do so with discretion. “We want above all for these children to be educated in a thoroughly Christian context, but not [necessarily] to make Christians out of them,” clarifies Farnsworth. “Only the Holy Spirit can do that.”

For its first school year Downtown Academy accepted a total of 17 students in kindergarten and first grade, with the intention of adding one grade a year until they reach fifth or sixth grade.

“You can’t build relationships with 30 kids [in a class], not really,” Ennis explains. “But with 15, we can begin to build relationships that go beyond the classroom.”

In addition to the connections that are forming between students and teachers through small classrooms, the Academy also fosters relationships between students and mentors from the community. A “lunch buddy” program matches adult members of the community — businesspeople, college students, retirees — with individual students during their lunch hour. The vision is that these mentors will influence students spiritually, emotionally, and socially, and ultimately build connections that will help them get into college, find jobs, and develop into mature adults themselves.

“As the child grows up, they [will] have social resources with people in the community, not just their neighborhood,” Ennis explains.

Putting Parents Back in the Picture

But the ties being formed with these children aren’t the only relationships that count. To create genuine change in a community the entire family unit must be engaged.

“As we’re building relationships with children, that can’t be isolated from building relationships with the family,” Ennis says. In fact, it’s vital to the school’s success that parents “buy in.” What Ennis and the Downtown Ministries board have witnessed for too long is a system that excludes parents from the burden of their child’s education.

“In the current system, parents are less inclined to be involved with their child’s education because [it] is free,” Ennis explains. “It decimates the idea that parents are responsible.”

To counter this notion and to remind parents that they’re responsible for their child’s education, the Academy requires parents (or grandparents) to volunteer at school on a regular basis and contribute income-based payments toward tuition, even if minimal.

“We want to help our parents understand that it’s their responsibility to make sure their child is educated,” Ennis says. “We hope that as they learn this, they develop a sense of pride that ‘I’m educating my child.’”

An “Athens Thing”

From its earliest days, Redeemer’s leadership has been intentional about not keeping Downtown Ministries just as a “Redeemer thing,” but making it an “Athens thing” by pulling in and depending on other local churches and businesses. And now, with the school, community involvement is broadening and deepening.

In October 2012, Redeemer’s announcement of its intention to start the school, it was an act of faith. Out of the blue that very week, Zaxby’s, the restaurant chain, donated $70,000. After that, momentum grew. Several more local businesses got onboard, and five other churches — including two PCA churches, Christ Community and Faith Presbyterian — committed to help fund the Academy.

“We can only do so much, and we can’t do everything,” says Ennis. “What it comes down to is enabling the church to build relationships with these children.”

One way they hope this will happen is through partnerships with groups like Young Life and Fellowship of Christian Athletes — Christian groups already involved in the local public schools — so that once students graduate from the Academy they will have a network of support in middle and high school.

The Tipping Point

Last year, as a kindergartener in a public school, Chedric wasn’t doing well. This year, he’s getting A’s and B’s. “With the smaller student-teacher ratio, he’s able to get more of the one-on-one stuff that he needs,” reports his grandmother June Barrows. “He can’t get lost in the crowd because there is no crowd.”

The attention students like Chedric receive is making a difference outside the classroom as well. “We hear our children’s parents and grandparents telling us about how their children are already speaking to them differently, using complete sentences and lots of yes ma’ams/sirs and no ma’ams/sirs. They are treating their siblings differently, too. One grandmother shared how her [grand]child, since coming to the Academy, is showing love and care for his little sister in a way she thought she would never see from him,” Ennis says.

There is a dream that 13 years from now Downtown Academy’s first students will be graduating from high school and heading to college. But that’s just the first half of what the founders have in mind. Ennis and others long to see these students come back home and invest their education in the community. “Eventually, we hope to reach a tipping point in the community where an entire neighborhood can be changed because of the work and relationships that are going on at Downtown Academy,” says Ennis.

With God’s help, they just may see Athens turned upside down. For now, they’re working on it one family at a time. “I’m grateful for the people over there,” Barrows says. “They’re not just school — they’re family.”

To learn more about Downtown Academy, visit downtownacademy.org.

Photography by Ben Rollins