WATERLOO — The applause and cheers of Royal Legacy Christian Academy staff and other supporters of the school greeted students Tuesday as they arrived for the first day of classes.
The adults lined the entryway to the kindergarten through sixth-grade school, located at 715 E. Fourth St. in the Harvest Vineyard Church building. As each of the 24 children enrolled at the school approached the door, the adults called out their names and gave them high-fives.
After children had a chance to meet their teachers in one of the two classrooms, they filed into the church’s sanctuary. School co-founder Chassidi Martin, an associate pastor at Harvest Vineyard, welcomed them.
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“I’m going to be teaching you in this room every morning,” she said, noting they would worship and “learn more about the Bible and God.” In their classrooms they will learn subjects like math, reading and science.
“You know what?” Martin said. “All of those subjects, God is at the center of them and we’re going to teach you how they all connect.” While academic subjects will meet the standards of the Iowa Core, she noted “our curriculum has a Christ-centered theme throughout.”
The school also is focused on serving people from all income brackets, offering sliding-scale tuition and fostering cultural diversity.
“I’m so happy that our school is here on East Fourth Street,” said Martin, and part of the Walnut Neighborhood at the north end of downtown. “I’m really expecting our school to be a really bright light within our community.”
Part of the effort to foster diversity is a Spanish immersion program where only that language is spoken in the classroom. Among the area’s schools, only Lou Henry and Highland elementaries offer something similar — French and Spanish dual immersion programs, where instruction is evenly divided between English and the foreign language.
Royal Legacy’s model is “early total one-way Spanish immersion,” according to Spanish teacher Kendall Helmer, the school’s other founder. “It’s the most effective in learning the second language,” she said.
In the early grades, 100 percent of academic subjects are taught in Spanish. In third grade, some English instruction is included. That increases until lessons are equally divided between the two languages by the time students reach middle school.
The immersion program is starting this year with a kindergarten and first-grade classroom that includes 14 of the school’s students. The other 10 students are in the grade three through six classroom and enrolled in the school’s English-speaking program.
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Originally, organizers planned a K-2 English-speaking classroom for the first year, as well. Martin noted that families with children of that age all wanted to enroll them in Spanish immersion classes, though. Grade levels are expected to be added for both programs in future years, but the school will only accept kindergartners into the Spanish program.
The school has a total of five staff. Helmer is assisted in the classroom by Miguel Pineda, a pastor licensed as a Christian education teacher in Columbia. The English-speaking classroom teacher is Jodee Cahoe.
Principal Amber Robinson oversees academics at the school. Martin’s role, along with leading worship and Bible teaching, is as a community liaison and fundraiser.
The school also is providing physical education and music classes led by volunteers who are retired teachers. Weekly American Sign Language lessons will be offered by a hearing-impaired parent volunteer.
Physical education classes, for the time being, will be outside on church property or indoors in case of inclement weather. Eventually, Martin said, they are hoping to partner “with nearby neighbors” to provide the school’s gym space. Organizers hope to provide art classes, as well, but are still looking for a teacher.
Martin said the school has “quite a few people who have supported us” financially so they can offer tuition on a sliding scale. “But we have not met the fundraising goal.”
An effort has been underway to raise $150,000 for school operations. “Most of our students qualify for the minimum amount (of tuition), which is $50 per month,” said Martin. “The cost is $500 per month.”
She added, “The great thing is that our students are here, which means they were looking for another option.”
Natalie Bennet-Milton said she liked the school’s small classes and one-on-one setting while dropping off her son and nephew. “You don’t have to worry about them understanding,” she said. “Plus, it’s a Christian school and that’s where we’re coming from.”
LaTasha Frost-Kirarei said she was “super excited” about her daughter, Eastyn, starting kindergarten at Royal Legacy. “I like the inclusion and diversity,” she said, as well as the religious aspects of the school.
“I always dreamed about my children being in bilingual (classes),” added Frost-Kirarei, who also has 2- and 3-year-old sons who could be future students. “We want to give her an opportunity to enhance her brain.”