Story and photos by Andy Warrener
New Tampa was a vastly different place in the early 1990s, home to more wildlife than people, more trees than homes and Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. was a two-lane, eight-mile “road to nowhere.”
As we all know, that changed quickly. From 1990-2000, the population in New Tampa increased by 273 percent, from 7,145 residents to 26,634, according to the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Division. Getting in on the ground floor of the population boom was a tiny Lutheran Church with big ideas.
In November of 1999, Family of Christ Christian School (FoCCS), part of Family of Christ Lutheran Church, led by Pastor Dave Haara, purchased 31 acres of land in Tampa Palms. At the time, all Haara and his followers had was a church, a Pre-K and Kindergarten class and a mission.
“Our goal was to add one grade every year,” FoCCS principal Jennifer Snow says. “We are looking to be a light that stands out in the community.”
Family of Christ has stayed the course. The school has continued to add grades, and today, FoCCS includes kindergarten through eighth grade.
“God has blessed us more than anything I could have imagined,” Snow says. “It’s like a family here.”
When Snow arrived in 2005, after helping establish Grace Episcopal Pre-School in New Tampa, there were already 79 students ranging from Kindergarten through fifth grade at FoCCS. The school now educates 177 children, more than doubling the student population under Snow’s watch. “It’s been a tremendous amount of growth,” Snow says.
Snow also notes that 95 percent of the staff that was present when she took over in 2005 is still at the school today.
“There hasn’t been a day that I don’t want to come in here and see these faces,” Snow says with a smile.
The school couples community service with academic achievement. Parents of FoCCS students are asked to put in 20 hours of volunteer work annually for the school. Those hours can be logged in the classroom, at open house events or during any of the many fund-raising events the school participates in each year.
“(Volunteer hours) are an integral part of the school’s success,” Snow says. “Most (families) do more (than the 20 hours), some go way beyond and are always searching for opportunities to serve others in the community.”
In addition to helping at the school itself, FoCCS parents, students and administrators participate in community outreach programs, including partnering with Metropolitan Ministries in central Tampa to help feed the homeless.
“(Our) parents are the first ones to go out in the community,” Snow says. “Those are the people (who) allow God’s love to show through them.”
Academic achievement is another ingredient in the school’s success. FoCCS is fully accredited by the National Lutheran Schools Association (NLSA). The school also complies with and exceeds the Florida Sunshine State Standards as well as the Hillsborough County Benchmarks set for each of FoCCS’s nine grade levels. The school is an active participant in the National Junior Honor Society (NJHS); in fact, Snow estimates that 80-90 percent of her students are members of the NJHS. FoCCS also offers three high school credits — in Science, Spanish I and Algebra I — and Snow estimates that 98 percent of the students who graduate the eighth grade leave with all three credits.
The results are encouraging. FoCCS participates in the Science Olympics at MOSI, and recently, first-grader Spence Palmer was one of the award winners. Students also take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and most feed into local public and private schools like Wharton, Wesley Chapel, Freedom, Cambridge Christian and Tampa Catholic. Some students have fed into the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs at King and Hillsborough high schools. Many are now attending state universities like the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee, and even nationally-recognized technology institutes like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA.
Athletics also is a big part of the FoCCS experience. Volleyball, cross country, soccer, flag football, golf and basketball are all offered at the school and students participate in a 14-school Tampa Bay Christian Athletic League.
Getting into FoCCS isn’t automatic, but it’s far from impossible. There’s a screening process every applicant must go through and there is mandatory, annual tuition along with the volunteer commitment. Class sizes range from 18 to 22 students per class and, according to Snow, FoCCS is at capacity but is always looking forward to new applicants. “It’s hard to turn great families away,” she says.
The school has a number of ways to help with tuition once a student is accepted. First, FoCCS participates in the state-approved “Step Up for Students” program, a non-profit organization that provides scholarship funding. There also is a school scholarship fund aimed at retaining students whose families endure economic hardships.
“When there’s a need within the school and the family has attended and started with us, then if there’s a job loss or a death in the family, we try to keep the continuity for the kids,” Snow says. “We try to keep tuition down; it’s up to families (to give) what they are capable of giving.”
Tuition is not the only source of funding for FoCCS, and that’s where the school takes participation to a new level. In order to fund its nearly constant expansion, FoCCS offers a litany of community fund-raising events.
The school’s “Night of Knights” event, started in 2006, has raised more than $380,000 since its inception. In 2015, the Night of Knights featured a casino theme with a silent auction, a live auction and other casino gaming activities. Auction items included beach weekends, sports memorabilia, and the chance to be principal of FoCCS for a day. The school’s walkathon takes place every February and targets specific needs — in 2016, Snow says the goal will be to build a new basketball court on campus.
FoCCS also hosts an annual Octoberfest, an event open to the public with a live DJ. The first week back from Christmas break, the school hosts an Epiphany bonfire, also open to the public. Even small events like pumpkin carving contests and auctions for decorated Christmas baskets keep the school moving and growing and the community is always welcome to attend all of them.
“We want everyone to feel welcome (at the events),” Snow says.
The week before Thanksgiving break, FoCCS participated in the Great American Teach-In and had 35 speakers come in. Among them were Florida Highway Patrolman Eric Madill, Kelli Tully (director of Pure Hearts Rescue of New Tampa) and USF Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rosie Bongiovanni.
Even if your child does not attend FoCCS, there are opportunities at the church’s Child Development Center (CDC) where full-time childcare is offered 7 a.m.-6 p.m. every weekday. Buses from FoCCS travel to public schools in the area and escort children to the CDC.
“When you can give a tour and not have to sell anything, when you see parents all smiles and having fun, when you see the kids learning but still having fun,’’ Snow says, “it makes you think you must be doing something right.”
Family of Christ Christian School & Church are located at 16190 BBD Blvd. in Tampa Palms For more info, call 558-9343 or visit EdLine.net/pages/FamilyofChristCS. To see FoCCS’s list of donors and sponsors, see the ad on pg. 32 of this issue.