Kindergarten in the Amazon?
As a teacher in the public school system in California for 13 years, I had always wished that I could teach my students spiritual truth as well as academic content. So many children were without spiritual direction in their lives, made obvious by their behavior in the classroom, and seeming to worsen each year. I dreamed about what it would be like to be able to teach from the Bible each day, pray with the students when they were having trouble, and give parents spiritual direction. Never would I have imagined that I would start a school that would do just that in the near future, in the Amazon, of all places!
My husband Aluisio and I and our two children moved to the Amazon area of Brazil in 2006 with the purpose of spreading the Three Angels’ Messages and supporting Seventh-day Adventist churches with revival and reformation. Since then, we have had the opportunity to preach and teach in several churches, host youth camp meetings at our rural home, give Bible studies to non-Adventists, host a prophecy series taught by Cody Francis in the middle of town, teach cooking classes, start a children’s choir, work with the indigenous community, provide special music for churches and teach a Last Day Events prophecy class with some enthusiastic Seventh-day Adventist young adults. We have confronted many difficulties and have sacrificed much in serving our Lord, but He has always provided for us and met our needs in miraculous ways.
After our third child was born, Aluisio’s sister Vânia and I felt moved by the Lord to open a private school for kindergarten-age children. The town in which we live is very poor, and there is little chance for academic success. Poverty, alcoholism, drug use, prostitution and all other manner of crime, plus low literacy rates, are stacked against the future of these children. We wanted to provide a safe haven for young children where they could learn about God and at the same time have the opportunity to develop pre-literacy skills so they are better prepared when they enter elementary school, which we also hoped to add in the more distant future. We also planned for how we could reach the families and awaken in them spiritual interest and provide academic support to their children. Vânia would serve as principal and secretary and attend on a daily basis, and I would train the teachers and give instructional support, teach English, and help plan and organize family outreach activities.
In August of 2009, Noah’s Ark Christian School was born. It started on a shoestring budget in a small rented house converted into a school, using my teacher supplies and Julie and Josh’s toys and books. That school year we had only three students, one of which counted for at least five and helped us to increase our patience and forbearance! We did not even have enough students to pay the rent. Vânia invested what she could to be able to pay the bills, with the hope that the next year would improve. When the new school year began in February of 2010, we changed to a larger house a few doors down. We offered morning preschool (pre-kindergarten) and afternoon kindergarten, and our enrollment grew to approximately 20 students. We were able to pay bills and the two teachers, and that is about all. This year, 2011, we have a morning kindergarten class, a morning preschool (pre-kindergarten) class and a morning and an afternoon preschool class for two and three-year-olds. Our student enrollment doubled to approximately 45 students, and we have a staff of four teachers, two aides, a supervisor (myself) and principal (Vânia). Julie and Josh help in the classrooms and JoyAnn, our three-year old, gives her support in the preschool class on the days I work. We continue to struggle to pay the rent, staff and other expenses.
What is in store for 2012? We will be offering first grade in addition to our other classes, and expect our enrollment to double again. We have had many requests for first grade ever since Noah’s Ark opened, and we are pleased to be able to offer it next year.
What makes Noah’s Ark unique? We are the only school in the community that offers small class sizes and a Bible-based curriculum. Our staff is Seventh-day Adventist and our dedicated teachers begin each day with worship in the classroom. Bible lessons are taught and Scripture verses learned to song. The students return home singing verses from the Bible, and families end up learning Scripture. Many children have learned how to pray, and this has made an impact on families. The teachers are trained in developing pre-literacy skills and in lesson planning and delivery. They apply these techniques in the classroom, which is literacy rich. Books, though few in number but chosen for their quality and content, are in each classroom, and the children daily spend time “reading” them and enjoying story time by the teacher. Most students have no books at home and are not read to by their parents. A different character quality is taught school-wide each month, and activities are planned around this theme. Portuguese pre-literacy skills and academic content areas are taught around a Bible-based theme. Family involvement is encouraged and activities are planned monthly to bring the family into the school. Some examples are family reading night, Mother’s Day presentation, Father’s Day outing, back to school night, open house, parent-teacher conferences (twice a year) and marching in the Independence Day parade, just to name a few. Nearly all of our family activities have a spiritual base and provide opportunities for parents to learn spiritual truth as well as parenting skills.
Believe it or not, one of my favorite areas of supporting our teachers is through discipline. When a student is unruly in the classroom, the teacher is to talk privately with the child and point out what the offense is and why it is wrong. The child is encouraged to confess and apologize for the wrong committed and the teacher and child pray together and ask the Lord’s help. If it continues or if the teacher is unable to give that attention at the moment, the child must leave the room and go through the same process with me, or Vânia in my absence. Never in a public school classroom did I have the opportunity to pray with the children. Generally, children’s hearts are softened, and the behavior improves, although they also learn responsibility for their behavior through the consequences they face afterward. Certain children have been a formidable challenge, but as the Lord does not give up on us, we do not give up on them.
Time after time, surprised parents have shared with us the positive changes in their children’s behavior at home since attending the Ark. Character traits learned at school are being transmitted to home, memory verses being sung, stories from the Bible shared, some children are bringing healthier snacks and many of these little children are teaching their parents to pray before they eat. A family of one of our students has been participating in Bible studies with Aluisio for several months, and their lives have been strongly impacted. Due to this family’s influence, more families not affiliated with the school have also been receiving Bible studies and attending church. We anticipate several baptisms resulting in the near future.
All this has been very encouraging and makes the struggle worthwhile. However, Noah’s Ark is in peril and in danger of sinking. We must add first grade next year to be able to stay afloat, and we have outgrown our school. Furthermore, the landlord has demanded to have the property back. The property is now in dispute, as we cannot simply vacate the building midyear with nowhere to go and need to have a location at the end of the year to be able to receive new registrations. It is very difficult to find property to rent in town, and very expensive. We are continually struggling, partly due to the financial drain on rent. We are in need of funds to purchase available, reasonably priced land (which is easier to come by) and build our own school. In doing so, we would no longer need to pay rent and would have money to be able to run smoothly. We would also have the space to be able to add a grade level each year until we have a complete elementary school. As part of our project we would also like to have a bakery on premises to be able to furnish a healthy snack for the students and reinvest a portion of all sales back into the school to provide scholarships for needy children and pay for further school construction. Furthermore, each class would have a small gardening project in which they learn to plant and care for a single crop. Sales of these (mostly to families with students at the Ark) would go towards purchasing books for our scant classroom libraries and paying for study trips and other special events.
Where the money will come from to fund this project, we do not know. But we do know that God is more than capable of providing the means if it is His will for the Ark’s doors to stay open. Our school has worked hard to earn a very good reputation in the community, and we cannot imagine it being His will to close it down and let the light go out that has benefited so many children.
Please pray for Noah’s Ark Christian School, and if you cannot come to the Amazon to visit us, please visit us at www.facebook.com/NoahsArkChristianSchool or our website, www.noahsarkchristianschool.org. Tax deductible donations may be thankfully received through Mission Projects International. May the Lord bless each one of His people as we all strive to hasten His soon coming.
By Sandy De Senna. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations for the De Sennas’ work can be sent to Mission Projects International, PO Box 59656, Renton, WA 98058, and marked “De Sennas.”