Jay Blogs – 50 First Days

50th Anniversary Logo

Fran Rodebaugh remembers what it was like to be a junior in high school, beginning her first day of class at Grace Community School (then known as Christian Heritage) in fall 1973. “We weren’t divided by grade level. I sat between a 7th grader and a 3rd grader. There were only two other juniors, and only one senior. And, she was already married!”

Schooling at Grace was pretty rudimentary back then. Students sat in cubicles, and worked self-paced packets. The 62 students were supervised by 3 teachers, who provided assistance, accountability, and supplemental teaching as needed. School extracurricular offerings were bare, as well. “We were told there would never be any sports, cheerleading, or anything like that,” Fran recalls, laughing.

Despite these spartan beginnings, Fran knew she belonged at Grace. She had been attending Evangelical Methodist Church (Grace Community Church’s original name) since sixth grade, and by her sophomore year in a local public school, she found herself dating a guy she now knows she shouldn’t have. “Something told me I needed to be at Grace,” she said. So, she told her father she was ready to come. Even though she only spent two years at Grace, her tenure there bore fruit. Immediately after graduation, she took a trip to the Holy Land.  “The Lord got hold of my life there, and I know he used Grace to prepare my heart for that.”

Fran’s father, Clyde, still an elder at Grace, says that he and Fran’s mom were looking for something different from what other Tyler area schools had to offer: a truly Christian education. “It was Bible-based, and we knew she could study the Scriptures at Grace,” Clyde said.

This year, we’re celebrating Grace’s 50th anniversary. For 50 years our school has flourished, struggled, flourished again, loved and served this community well. Grace exists, and has always existed, to help guide our students into a relationship with the Triune God, to learn what it means to follow Him, to discover what is beautiful, good, and true, and to join in God’s invitation to create beauty that reveals God’s goodness and truth, leading others into reconciliation with Him, all as an act of worship of His Name.

I was thinking about how, through those 50 years, while staying true to that central focus, Grace has grown and adapted to become what our community needed when the community needed it:

In the early days, concern swept across our country over “God being taken out of schools,” following several court decisions on school prayer. Whether it was truly Jesus in our public schools, or a merely a civil concept of God, the feeling that something was missing nevertheless quickened in the heart of followers of Jesus at this church and others the desire to have a school, that would partner with parents to raise their kids to know God’s word and His truth, a place that would provide a truly Christian education. From that desire, Grace Community School was born.

Clyde says that, even back then, Grace was intended to assist parent in raising their children to serve the Lord, not trying to take their place. He sees that played out in the mission of the school even today. From the beginning, we’ve believed that our most important responsibility as parents is not to protect or provide for our kids, or even get them into a good college, although all those things are important. First and foremost, God entrusts us to disciple our children to love and serve Him. And, from the beginning, our school was intended not as a place for parents to outsource their kids’ education and discipleship, but as a partnership with parents, to serve them, to come alongside them in their work of discipling their kids.

In the 1980s, when our community boomed then busted as oil, real estate, and banking collapsed, we were a low-cost, affordable alternative to families seeking a Christian focus for their children’s education. In that season, as challenging and difficult as it was, principles of wise stewardship were formed, of being faithful with the things, and people, with which God entrusted us.  And, because we were suffering the loss of students, it caused us to look deep inside ourselves, and to realize that we were just a place doing school to kids, and not with them. We needed to become a true community, one that not only loved kids, but engaged them and their parents in the life of the school, and that modeled love and care. In the very late 80s, the “community” in Grace Community was truly fostered through everything from potluck dinners to the birth of our athletic program. We never departed from building and fostering community.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, our school grew dramatically. As the Reagan-era Nation at Risk report highlighted the troubled state of public education in America, giving way to multiple reform efforts, local families sought an excellent education different from what they were getting elsewhere. In those days, our school began being recognized as an outstanding academic institution, one that focused on the integrated humanities, teaching kids to read and write and think, 21st century skills materializing at the end of the 20th: a quality education, yet from a distinctively Christ-centered focus.

In the 2010s, we became, in many ways, a school in full, recognized for excellence not just in Tyler but throughout the country, receiving recognition by national accreditation agencies and the U.S. Department of Education for excellence.  And, as families sought out a Christian school that would educate their children as a whole, not just their minds, but their spirits and their bodies, athletics and fine art at Grace reached a level of prominence and excellence they have not only maintained, but grown upon. Families wanting a complete education for their children could get it here, and get it as well or better than anywhere, all from a distinctively Christ-centered focus. We began saying then that “Grace exists to teach Jesus,” although that’s always been the case.

In the years leading up to and beyond the COVID pandemic, as the community around us changed demographically, as children’s academic needs became more diverse, and as Tyler became increasingly a blend of cultures, Grace has grown to meet those needs as well. Grace is becoming and has become a school that reflects Revelation 7: After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”. It has become a school that commits itself more fully to loving all the kids that Jesus loves, and who are and will be standing before His throne one day, a school that serves a broader cross-section of the body of Christ from the standpoint of cultural diversity, neurodiversity, and economic diversity than ever before.  Grace has become a school that stands for unity under the gospel of Jesus Christ in a surrounding culture where divisiveness and tribalism is the order of the day.

When COVID shut down schools, our teachers stepped courageously into what was then unknown territory, not knowing whether doing so was safe or would expose them to harm, because they believed God’s truth that education is discipleship, and that discipleship is life-on-life, incarnational, and that love required stepping into uncertain territory and taking risks to love children well. As a result of in-person schooling from day one, the children at Grace did not experience the post-COVID academic drop-off noted elsewhere. Their families did not experience a loss of school community, because this is what our people needed, and that’s what love required of our community.

By God’s grace, our school has grown from 3 employees serving 62 students on one campus when we started, to 100 employees serving 900 students on three campuses when my wife and I arrive, to now, 325 employees serving nearly 1600 students on seven campuses, who, together with their moms and dads gives our school family an amazing opportunity to disciple nearly 4,500 people for the gospel of Jesus, the only ministry in East Texas with the opportunity to impact that many students and their families every single day.

Our school has graduated hundreds of students in 24 years, and many more in the years before 1999, when the “new” high school opened. Grace alumni have discipled thousands of people for the gospel of Jesus, serving as missionaries, pastors, elders of this church, and everything else, on mission for the gospel. Over the years, Grace’s leadership team and teachers have been involved in every area of leadership of private and Christian schools throughout the country, and around the globe. It’s no exaggeration to say that our school has grown from being a ministry impacting very few in Tyler, to one whose influence has literally impacted the teachers and students of all 900 private schools in the State of Texas, thousands of teachers and students in Christian schools across the country, and over 3 million students in tens of thousands of Christian schools in over 100 countries worldwide.

It may seem a long time since Fran Rodebaugh began her first day at Grace, way back in 1973. But, to her, it seems like yesterday. Today, her granddaughters Sloan and Shaila are beginning another first day at Grace. Sloan, a second grader this year, is excited to get back to school and see her friends. What she says she loves most about Grace is that her teachers seem to really love working here, and that they love her well.

Despite all that Fran has seen change at Grace since that first day of school in 1973 (like athletics, including cheerleading- be careful, administrators and parents, about what you say will “never” happen!) she says what’s never changed is what Sloan still sees even through her young eyes–the love and care Grace teachers show every day for students like her granddaughters. “That love comes from Jesus. It can’t come from anywhere else,” she says. “So, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure those girls are at Grace.”

God’s hand over has been over this first day, and every first day we’ve ever had at Grace, including the 19 that we enjoyed as a family while my girls were growing up here, and every one your family has the opportunity to enjoy, as well. Thank you for being like Fran– doing whatever you can to give your kids a place they are loved and taught God’s Word daily in everything they learn–disciples of Jesus making disciples of Jesus–as it has been for 50 years. Let’s celebrate that together, and keep it going.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.