St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 3, 2002
BY MATTHEW FRANCK
ST. LOUIS – KRT NEWSFEATURES
(KRT) – There’s fire in the eyes and passion in the souls of the true believers at a place called Thanks to Calvary.
And when the director of the small but expanding teen reform school calls six of his best students to line up on the front porch, they practically have to fight each other for their turn to testify to a visitor.
“I was a slave to sin,” says a young man who has been at the school for two years and plans to stay at least two more.
“God called me,” says another.
“Sin brought me here,” says a third teen, who once flirted with gangs and now feels drawn to a life in the ministry.
They are each the products of one of the teen reform schools that abide by the same doctrine and protocol of Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy.
Finding the isolated, rural schools isn’t easy.
The Thanks to Calvary Boarding School, which houses about 65 teens, hugs the banks of the Big Piney and Gasconade rivers in folds of the Ozarks. To get there, you’d have to first track down a place called Devil’s Elbow near Waynesville, then pick the right unpaved road and follow it two miles to a small cluster of trailers and modest buildings.
The Agape Boarding School with its 125 students near Stockton doesn’t promote itself through advertising or the Internet. Instead, its proud, 150-acre complex – with solid, functional buildings, pool and covered basketball court – has grown quietly by word of mouth.
Both Agape and Thanks to Calvary started with a few students and in just a few years formed thriving, expanding ministries. Agape came to the state in 1996 after hassles with regulators in Washington state. Thanks to Calvary opened four years ago.
Leaders of the schools say they are not tied to Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, but they share the same fundamentalist Baptist approach. Nathan Day, who runs Thanks to Calvary, is a former Mountain Park employee.
Both Agape and Thanks to Calvary display pictures of the late Rev. Lester Roloff, who inspired the formation of schools like Mountain Park. But unlike Mountain Park, the two newer reform schools welcome visits by the news media and allowed selected students to be interviewed.
Inside, the schools’ unforgiving discipline was in full view, but several boys said they welcomed and were grateful for the strict approach.
The sprawling campus of Agape Boarding School belies the school’s rigid structure. The place is nearly overrun with horses, livestock and what may be one of the largest collections of exotic animals in the state.
Students at the school learn to care for camels, zebra, bison, water buffalo and emus. There’s a catfish pond and a hobby shop for tying flies and building model cars. School leaders say boys are allowed to watch football games on a large screen on Sunday afternoons.
Sean Markley, 18, is a recent graduate who is still at the school and is thinking of working there for the next year. When he arrived three years ago, he said, he resisted the structure and isolation and wanted to leave: “When I first got here, I thought it was unreal.”
But over time, he said, he grew to recognize he needed discipline. He said the school has never censored his mail or pressured him to accept its faith.
Other students say they can’t think of the last time a student was paddled.
Jim Clemensen, who runs the school, said he hasn’t swatted a boy for six months, largely because it invites interference from investigators. “I’m trying to get away from it because of all the flak about it across the state,” he said.
At Thanks to Calvary, students also say that corporal punishment is rarely used. One boy who was asked how often boys are paddled replied “not as often as we should be.”
Day is a former Marine who runs an operation with the efficiency and order of the armed services.
The constant “yes sir” and “amens” that pepper students’ conversation attest to the school’s marriage of religion and the military. The 43 boys sleep in a single bunkerlike dorm room with two 35-foot rows of bunk beds on each side. Elsewhere on the campus, there are signs of both the shoestring resourcefulness of a new enterprise and a healthy, steady flow of income that comes from a $10,000 annual tuition.
A main building features a modern kitchen, offices and a dining hall, but other buildings are not completely constructed. The narrow, aluminum school building looks more like three trailers stacked on top of one another. Inside are bare plywood floors.
Like Clemensen, Day said he offers students a variety of recreation, such as canoeing, basketball and shop. But Day would grant interviews only with students he personally selected.
Determining how all students might describe their stay at Thanks to Calvary and Agape is difficult.
Unlike Mountain Park, the schools are too new to have alumni old enough to have sorted through their time there. What is clear is that the newer schools use a similar formula to Mountain Park for turning around kids.
In fact, when it comes to daily schedules and policies on communication and contact with family members, the schools are virtually indistinguishable.
Like Mountain Park, students are required to stay at least a year. Their phone calls home are limited to a few minutes every two weeks, their mail is screened and their days are filled studying at their own pace in rows of cubicles.
And like Mountain Park, the newer reform schools reject efforts to require them to get a state license, as is the norm in most other states.
Clemensen already left one state over regulatory hassles. His school for boys in Othello, Wash., closed in 1995 after regulators cited it for fire code issues and for not having enough certified teachers.
Clemensen said he came to Missouri specifically because of its lack of regulation. And he and Day said they would pick up and move from Missouri if they were required to get a state license.
Day said even if the regulations were mild, he would object to the state having oversight of a ministry that he believes should answer only to biblical truths.
“If we were forced to regulate, we would shut our doors,” Day said.
For now, neither school seems to consider that even a remote possibility.
At Agape, Clemensen is laying the foundation for a 96-student dorm. And Day is looking to double the acreage of Thanks to Calvary by buying neighboring property.
At the moment, he said, the young school has “unlimited growth potential.”
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