Turning a School Around in Knoxville, Tenn.

Located in an aging section of Knoxville, Tenn., Inskip Elementary was a troubled school. More than 90 percent of the students lived below poverty level and qualified for free lunches. With only 400 students, the office received 1,700 referrals for disciplinary issues in one school year. Only half of the students were proficient in math.

Six years later, poverty remained a major problem and the school still dealt with the societal challenges of teaching and caring for kids who have little help at home or families struggling financially. But the environment at Inskip changed, thanks in large part to the efforts nearby Grace Community Church undertook to help.

By 2009, student behavior had improved and more than 90 percent of the kids were proficient in math.

“I don’t know how we could do it without them,” Principal Elisa Luna says, referring to the church. “It’s just help, and it’s genuine. There’s no red tape, just a relationship.”

That relationship has grown during the church’s ministry to the school.

When Pastor Mark Little came to Grace Community in 2003, he began to pray for 10 local schools he recognized on a list the local Child Evangelism Fellowship director gave him. Inskip was one of them.

The church’s first service project, a “Serve-a-thon” to raise money for a mission trip, involved painting the school’s library. Knoxville’s Operation Inasmuch, an initiative to mobilize churches to serve, provided other opportunities, and Grace Community always made sure Inskip was included for painting, mulching flower beds, building cabinets, and other projects.

With the help of Child Evangelism Fellowship, the church also planned Good News Clubs as an after-school program for the kids. As they prepared to pitch the idea to Luna, they were ready for a confrontation, but she loved it. “I knew I needed help,” she says. Two Good News Clubs exist now, with more than twenty kids on the waiting list.

Little later came to Luna again with an idea to mentor some of the worst kids one-on-one. He offered to make it a collaborative effort, giving Luna the opportunity to set up some parameters, but she told him, “That’s OK; I trust you.”

“You can’t do this right up front,” Little cautions. “This came after a year of just serving.”

Little is quick to point out that while many kids have made decisions for Christ and many of his church members are now involved in ministry, the church itself has not seen much numerical growth. “I heard once that we need to quit worrying about our seating capacity and start worrying about our sending capacity. In that regard, our church has really grown,” Little says.

In addition to transforming Inskip, the ministry has transformed the culture of the church, which staffs the Good News Clubs with volunteers before staffing Sunday school. For Grace Community, it’s all about service and outreach.

“This is our ministry,” Little says of Inskip. “Everyone in the church is involved in some aspect or another.”


FROM THE BEST OF OUTREACH: A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Outreach magazine.


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