Most individuals with children who make the decision to invest in the public school system consider it a given that their child will thrive and proceed in school from elementary to high school and eventually graduate. But what about the children who come from an impoverished environment where parental support and direction is almost non-existent? What about a school without the creative trust-relationship building skills of a determined and talented staff?
While numerous methods to address this issue have historically been tackled from the academic angle through tutoring, lower level curriculums and other structures for help, a unique and refreshingly successful approach has been implemented through an entity named Jubilee Academy. Founded by Sandee Hensley in 2006, Jubilee Academy is a faith-based organization whose mission is to mutually turn the hearts and lives of inner-city children and their families to Christ and academic excellence.
Jubilee was born out of Heartworks, an afterschool and summer program whose aim is to make a positive difference in a child’s life and, thereby, positively impact the community. Initially funded with Sandee’s personal income, Heartworks started in a small home in one of Columbia’s poorest neighborhoods.
“Initially, my program was met with challenges and resistance from the neighborhood residents,” Sandee says. But eventually, her program thrived despite the challenges, thus proving her theory correct and her efforts sincere. She subsequently recognized that these children needed a vehicle to compensate for what they lacked in their home environment.
Firmly believing that academic success is directly linked to family involvement, expectations and support, and needing a remedy which the traditional educational school system does not address, Sandee felt led to establish Jubilee Academy. It is a year-round, full-time Christian independent school and is accredited by the South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA). The Academy, a 501-C3 non-profit, is named for the Year of Jubilee as mentioned in the book of Leviticus in the Bible.
The Academy is located on Pine Belt Road in a space donated by St. James United Methodist Church. Jubilee operates with a core staff of seven with Sandee serving as the executive director. “Our employees wear many hats,” Sandee says. “I would say they are graciously versatile, opening up their hearts to help every student we have.”
The Academy currently serves 20 families from various areas in Columbia which are zoned for schools delineated on “The Worst 25 Schools in the Nation” list. The school operates on monetary donations, in-kind donations and the small percentage of tuition that parents are able to contribute. Efforts are underway to secure a sustainable income.
Jubilee’s overall mission is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty through instilling academic success while addressing family and home dynamics through Christian faith. The Academy teaches its curriculum based on the Montessori Method, designed to give children specialized instruction in a non-traditional setting.
The staff works not only with the children, but also with their families. The effort’s collateral benefits reach beyond the student as it helps train parents to use more positive ways to cope with the dynamics of home and school.
Parents discover how to prevent negative reactions from their children on circumstances they don’t understand, thus, positively affecting their child’s growth, age appropriate behavior and language development. “We intentionally encourage parent involvement with family programs, regular family dinners and parental observation in the classroom,” Sandee says. “The result is that parent and child are both provided with a supportive, nurturing and educational environment that extends beyond the classroom.”
Sandee, however, cautions against taking a narrow view of Jubilee’s curriculum and encourages a broader understanding of the concept. “It is more than just Montessori academics,” she states. “Jubilee encompasses several components which include social training, sports, recreation and camps, travel exposure, family education and Biblical Christian life training. In short, it is catching up on cultural literacy, social skills and background knowledge — skills that most individuals take for granted.”
The Montessori-based academics are designated by age group instead of grade level as found in traditional education. Starting from newborn to 3 years of age, an emphasis is placed on guiding habits, perceptions and certain behaviors. This targets families with infants, toddlers and expectant mothers.
As students move forward from elementary to high school age, the core traditional courses are taught in each corresponding grade level: mathematics, geography, science, English grammar, English literature and language arts are covered concurrently with Montessori-based instruction — practical life skills, sustainable farming and exercises to scientifically observe, investigate and question the world. Parents participate in the instruction and observe when appropriate.
Independence is fostered with encouragement focusing on the Bible, learning Scripture and realizing God’s love. This concept becomes a present and future foundation of their experience at the Academy.
Should a student be older than 9 years when entering the Academy, the emphasis shifts to a “sooner than later” mentality, particularly when the family support network is missing or non-existent. Independent learning continues with exercises honing and strengthening the student’s focus, research skills and problem solving in all academic areas. Self-discipline and leadership skills are expected through school related maintenance chores, and assisting younger students. These elements play an important role in developing maturity, self-confidence and character.
Between ages 14 to 18, the student is expected to be capable of making good conscious choices that remove him or her from the cycle of dependency, poverty and social stereotypes. The Academy allows and assists students to further their education through transition to a SCISA affiliated school, public school or boarding school. Higher education to a college or technical school is encouraged.
A unique and exciting dynamic of Jubilee Academy is the generous support of area churches, civic groups such as Junior League and Kiwanis and several corporations, including British Petroleum, AFLAC Insurance, Compuscripts and The Columbia Development Company. Recently, BP sponsored a week-long trip for several middle school age students to tour and study in Williamsburg, Va. as well as an additional trip to Washington, D.C.
In return for St. James United Methodist Church’s donation of all operating space, the Academy volunteers labor to help improve the building. For the more technical matters, the Academy seeks the advice of Vern Eaton, a retired architectural engineer who donates his time. Math teachers and language therapists from USC volunteer their time to assist students where necessary and numerous church groups in various denominations volunteer their help, as do the Boy Scouts.
Todd McClinton is a middle school teacher at Jubilee Academy as well as the director of physical education and a role model. He is the epitome of why Heartworks and Jubilee Academy exist. A graduate of C.A. Johnson High School, Todd, under Sandee Hensley’s guidance and direction, became one of the top 100 highest ranked tight ends in the country. He attended Clemson University and played football under Coach Tommy Bowden. He graduated in 2005 with a degree in sports management.
Sandee sums it up this way: “Our effort is to establish a lifestyle with high academic standards and social skills that are faith based.” When asked what the one thing she would like for people to know about Jubilee Academy, she answered without hesitation, “It wasn’t my idea … it was God’s.”