4:00 P.M. EST June 16, 2010
Mark Smallwood, a music teacher at Red Bird Mission School, sings with students in an October 2006 photo. UMNS file photos by Ronny Perry.
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Daugh Sizemore attended a one-room schoolhouse until the fifth grade, when a fire destroyed the building and his chance for a public education in the remote mountains of southeastern Kentucky.
The county school district neither rebuilt the old school nor bused Sizemore and his classmates to the next nearest school many miles away. For the rest of the academic year, Sizemore received no schooling.
Red Bird Mission School offered deliverance for Sizemore and his fellow students. The school in Beverly not only provided free transportation; it also proved to be a gateway out of poverty and into a wider world.
“It was the means by which I became a Christian,” Sizemore, a 1964 graduate, said. “It was the teachers who taught me about the Bible and Jesus Christ, and through their actions, I wanted to live that kind of life.”
Now after 89 years of educating and shaping the faith of youngsters in rural Appalachia, the United Methodist school is at risk of shutting its doors.
In May, the Red Bird Mission Board voted to suspend classes during the 2010-2011 academic year. The other ministries at the mission — the clinic, work camps, craft store, community store and housing — will continue.
The kindergarten-through-12th-grade school, with operating expenses of about $1.8 million last year, is the mission’s most expensive ministry, and the board wants to build up its cash reserves after years of dwindling donations.
Still, the mission’s new executive director, Taylor Collins, has hopes the school can reopen this fall. He has set a goal of raising $1 million for the school by Aug. 1.
Collins, a 1966 graduate, returns to the school where he met his wife and served as a principal and director of education for 13 years. He most recently was superintendent of the West Orange-Cove school district near the Texas Gulf Coast.
“I’m working hard and praying that we will be able to receive the benevolent gifts of people who are very interested in Red Bird,” he said. “I’m particularly making a push for alumni donations.”
Sizemore, a science teacher at the school and president of its alumni association, is not giving up either.
“I had faith in May and I have faith today that there are people who are out there who will help us to keep it open,” he said. “I also have a lot of prayer.”
A Christian environment
In the most recent academic year, Red Bird Mission School had 220 students.
The school draws students mainly from three counties where most adults work in the struggling coal mining and logging industries and where as many as half the children live below the federal poverty rate.
The education at the mission school includes extracurricular activities like band and athletics as well as a full academic slate. Christian instruction also is woven throughout the curriculum with daily Bible lessons and weekly chapel services. Families pay on a sliding scale of $7 to $56 a month depending on what they can afford.
“Davie, one of my students, said he wants to be in a school where he can pray and read the Bible and he doesn’t want to go anywhere where he can’t do that.”
Each year, about 10 to 20 high school students also board at the school because their homes are so far away. If the school closes, many of the students will face an almost two-hour bus ride each way to the nearest public school.
Sizemore also fears the youngsters will struggle in their new environment.
“If we can’t start our school back in the fall, we are going to have to send our kids from our Christian school to a county school that has been declared in crisis because of low test scores,” Sizemore said. “Of course, a lot of those kids will drop out.”
Many students grieve losing the Christian component of their education, said Rebecca Smallwood, a fourth-grade teacher. She and her husband, Mark, have taught at the school for 22 years.
“Davie, one of my students, said he wants to be in a school where he can pray and read the Bible and he doesn’t want to go anywhere where he can’t do that,” Smallwood said. “That was a turning point for me when I realized if he wants it this badly, we have to do something.”
In its fundraising efforts, the school is already off to a good start. At the recently completed meeting of the Kentucky Annual (regional) Conference, Bishop Lindsey Davis announced that the conference had raised more than $200,000 for the Red Bird Missionary Conference.
Those funds will be divided among ministries of the missionary conference, but Collins said nearly a quarter would go to the school. He said the school also has raised about $97,000 from alumni so far.
Alumni often share stories of the difference the school has made in their lives.
Tim Crawford, Red Bird Mission’s development manager, said two-thirds of the graduates go on to a post-secondary education. Many of the alumni have become physicians, lawyers, accountants and engineers, as well as United Methodist pastors.
“The school propelled me all the way through a bachelor’s and master’s at Western Kentucky (University) and a doctorate at Vanderbilt,” Collins said. “Red Bird was critical to my success academically.”
Herman Asher, another graduate and the school’s principal, was the first in his family to earn a college degree. His father, who worked in logging and trucking, had only completed second grade.
The school continues to be critical to the well-being of people in the mountains.
“I think the church should recognize that this venerable institution deserves and needs to be sustained,” Collins said. “With the generosity of the people in the church, it can happen.”
Donations to the Red Bird Mission can be made through the Advance at new.gbgm-umc.org/advance. Red Bird Mission School is Advance #773728. Red Bird Mission is Advance #773726.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.