ATHENS — When Teresa DeMay and her husband drove through here after riding the Texas State Railroad in Rusk, they liked what they saw so much that they started making plans to move here.
That eventually led to Ms. DeMay founding Athens Christian Preparatory Academy in 2008, the only private secondary school in the city.
It was fully accredited in its third year of operation by the Texas Alliance of Accredited Private Schools, the first agency certified by the Texas Education Agency to accredit private and parochial schools.
“I feel like it was a calling on my life to start this,” Ms. DeMay, now headmistress of the academy, said. “I’m very passionate about Christian education; I’m passionate about good education.”
The academy is an interdenominational school for grades seven through 12 that she acknowledged had difficulty establishing its identity in the beginning because of often moving.
First, it was housed at First Christian Church of Athens but outgrew that facility after a couple of years. The academy then moved to Eastern Hills Church of Christ, where it stayed for two years but had to move again when that church undertook a renovation project. Last school year, it operated at Faith Church.
“Even though we were doing great things academically, moving made us seem like we were unstable,” Ms. DeMay said.
Now five years old, the academy recently made another move in time for start of school on Aug. 26, this time to a recently purchased 48.86-acre horse ranch on U.S Highway 175 near Loop 7 that it is converting into a college-like campus with a big vision for growth.
“There’s plenty of room for us to do everything we want to do. We haven’t preplanned all the space, so there’s room to expand on ideas that we may have in the future,” Ms. DeMay said.
The academy will start off with eight portable classroom buildings moved onto the property during the summer and utilize five existing ranch structures converted to house school functions.
On the drawing board is a master site plan, prepared by Fitzpatrick Architects of Tyler, for future development of the campus in multiple phases.
Brook Hill School in Bullard and Grace Community School in Tyler mentored the academy in drawing its plans, Ms. DeMay said, adding, “We would like to emulate them.”
The master plan envisions the following: two new classroom buildings, a gymnasium-cafeteria-auditorium, a restored equestrian center, a building for an organic agricultural program, science buildings, a football-soccer field, walking trails with outdoor classrooms, an outdoor stage, fine arts building, a chapel, dormitories for international students, a stand-alone special needs clinic, a store and other facilities.
A four- or five-acre lake on the grounds will be used for aquatic sciences, and a marshy area and another pond could be used for wetlands studies, Ms. DeMay said.
The timeframe for carrying out the master plan is unknown and depends on how quickly that donations and grants that the academy will seek come in, Ms. DeMay said.
Just acquiring the land got the academy over some important hurdles and established its identity, she added.
“We have to get established (at the new location); then we will start raising the funds to build the new buildings,” Ms. DeMay said. “We will be hitting the fund-raising trail pretty hard. We want to build what we can afford and we don’t want to take on more debt than we can handle.”
The academy is supported by tuition, monetary donations, grants and in-kind donations.
Ms. DeMay anticipates construction will start simultaneously within the next two years for two classroom buildings and a gymnasium. Each classroom building will contain five classrooms, meeting rooms and offices.
New buildings will be built out of energy efficient materials using the latest designs for low energy usage and efficiency, Ms. DeMay said.
“By using solar power and geothermal power, we are going to keep our energy costs down in our school so that we can keep our tuition as low as possible,” she said.
For example, the two new classroom buildings will have a super roof standing over them for shade with solar cells mounted to it and an inverter which takes energy from the sun and inverts it into useable energy for the buildings, Ms. DeMay said.
“While we don’t have our permanent buildings built, we have to make use of existing buildings,” Ms. DeMay said.
A building that was originally a home on the ranch property has been converted into the academy’s administration building. It contains a reception area, offices, a meeting room, faculty lounge, conference room, a start-up library area and college advisement and counseling area. The garage is being turned into an art room.
An existing metal building will serve as a start-up cafeteria and have student rest rooms, while a second metal building is being converted into classrooms.
A big deck will connect the eight portable buildings moved onto the property. They have been repaired, equipped with new air conditioners, new doors, metal roofs and painted.
Another existing building will house rest rooms, lockers and a cafeteria. Two more classrooms will be in another building.
The ranch’s stable will temporarily house a small auditorium/chapel, a classroom and an office. Eventually it will be converted back into an equestrian center adjacent to a performance area.
Ms. DeMay envisions the academy some day offering an equestrian program and a pre-engineering program.
The academy’s overall purpose, she said, “is to educate with a Christian world view. Our mission statement is to partner with families to create legacies of faith.”
The academy needs donors for building projects and to sponsor student scholarships, Ms. DeMay said.
“We don’t want to cater just to the affluent in the area; we really want even kids who wouldn’t normally be able to afford this opportunity. We want to find a way for them to come to this school if that’s what they desire,” she said.
The academy ended last school year with 60 students and has received 20 new applications for next school year. Applicants don’t have to be an A-B student to get in, but they do have to be willing to work hard, Ms. DeMay said. “What we are looking for is character and work ethic,” she added.
Community service is a requirement, and students collectively have performed about 12,500 hours of community service since the academy opened. The highest award the school gives every year goes to the student who has logged the most community service hours in a year.
“That’s our way of showing we esteem the most the servant’s heart … we are preparing the next generation of community workers,” Ms. DeMay said. “The work ethic is interwoven in our day to day teaching.” When the academy moved, she added, “Our students did it. We didn’t hire a moving company.”
The academy prepares students for college and life, Ms. DeMay said. Besides taking academic courses, they are required to take a personal finance class and a leadership class. But it is not a one-size-fits-all program, she said.
The academy helps struggling students to thrive and also has “really smart students,” Ms. DeMay said, pointing out students’ SAT scores are over 400 points higher than the national average and graduates have received big scholarships to big universities. For example, a girl received a $68,000 scholarship to Abilene Christian University.