Public schools plan for virtual start to school year gives fledgling Christian school an enrollment boost

MARION — As Living Hope Christian School prepares to start its second year for grades pre-K through 10 enrollment has more than doubled — thanks in large part to Somerset County Public Schools.

One day after the Board of Education voted to restart schools in September online only for the first several weeks the attendance at Living Hope’s open house the following evening exceeded expectations.

Before the week was through, all classes were full and the board was working on a plan to admit more students.

“Overnight we went from 20 to today when we’re over 50 children,” said Lebron Palmer, administrator and pastor of Living Hope Ministries of the Eastern Shore. “I think we would’ve topped 40, but we wouldn’t have seen the turnout like we’ve seen tonight,” with demand the highest for kindergarten and grades 5-7.

Did the action by the public schools influence that?

“I know that it did,” Pastor Palmer said. With 20 minutes left before the open house was to end, “they’re still coming through,” and there is a waiting list.

“There were a bunch of people here and classes were full and there wasn’t anything we could do about it,” he said. So now the search is on for temporary classroom space, and assisting is a former vocational school principal whose grandchildren are attending. If that comes through, and it’s filled, “then we’re pushing close to 100.”

With just 20 more students, however, that would cover the additional building and staff requirements, with room to grow. “We’re trying to maintain a teacher/student ratio of 1:10. “That’s the advantage of a smaller school.”

The size of the school and its Christian foundation are immediate appeal for some but others who may not have considered it before wanted their children in school. One father said his youngest son “needs the instruction” plus his options were limited as both he and his wife work.

A mother with two children enrolled one, saying the older sibling can handle work online. Either way, Pastor Palmer said tuition should not be an obstacle because there are church members willing to provide assistance.

“This is a ministry,” he said.

This year the Abeka curriculum will be used for most grades. It’s a challenging curriculum “and more teacher led than teacher assist,” he said. Chapel is weekly, with Christian and Bible teachings in each day’s lessons.

Bentley Evans, a rising fifth grader, said it’s not only fun but “challenging.” “You learn a lot.”

Classrooms are now inside the main church building. Nearby is a multi-purpose building which is nearing completion. It’s not meant to serve as classroom space but instead as a fellowship hall, lunch room and place for physical education.

When a school is built, the multi-purpose building will grow by 60 feet and provide a high school regulation gymnasium.

Soccer and field hockey are planned on the field outside.

School starts Sept. 8, and in-person learning will take place with attention paid to the coronavirus. “We understand COVID is not a joke,” Pastor Palmer said. There will be temperature checks at the door for staff and students, testing requirements for those who are feeling ill, and daily cleaning will be more intense. Masks will not be mandatory. When not socially distant desks have dividers so students are separated from each other by a barrier.

If there is a regional spike in cases the school will close if necessary, “but our goal will be to finish the year.” A parent night on Aug. 20 will go over the rules and expectations. The school is located at the church, 27331 Crisfield Marion Road.

Pastor Palmer got his start in Christian school educational leadership in Alaska some 40 years ago, leaving as the assistant administrator. He moved to Florida and led a school with over 300 students until called to Chincoteague where he also started a school.

In 2009 he came to Crisfield to lead the Church of God which at that time operated Crisfield Christian Academy, leaving about year later to found Living Hope. CCA graduated its last class in 2012.

This year Living Hope will not be part of a home-school network as it had in the past, instead focusing on its enrolled students.