The beginning of John Fonville’s new life began with the end of his sister’s.
When Luticha Griffin opened the doors of Shalom Christian Academy on June 9, 2003, she fulfilled her dream of starting a Christian school in Columbia. Two weeks later, however, she died of unknown causes because an autopsy was never done.
Her family immediately took responsibility for the newly established school and decided Fonville should run it. Now he and his wife, Elaine, operate both the school in Parkade Plaza and Shalom Christian Daycare at 305 Ridgeway Ave.
“We put everything on hold to put these kids first,” Fonville said.
Before his sister died, Fonville had planned to open a barbershop, and his wife had just earned a degree in fashion design at Stephens College. Fonville, however, said giving up those plans to work days at the school and nights at 3M have been worth it.
“I want to make good citizens now so that when I get older I don’t have to worry about the murders like we’ve had this year,” he said.
Fonville is seeking a conditional-use permit to move the day care center to 312 Ridgeway Ave., where he would build a center that could accommodate more children. A larger day care operation is necessary, he said, because much of the profit from that business is funneled to help fund the school.
Fonville said he has also received letters from other day care providers around Ridgeway, expressing a need for more child-care facilities. He said he could help the area by providing more care services. Shalom Christian Daycare, for example, is open from 6 a.m. to midnight. Many centers close by 6 or 7 p.m.
“We felt like there was a need,” Fonville said of the unusual hours. “We help unwed mothers, single mothers and single fathers. Some of them are just walking off welfare, and they aren’t going to get a day shift. Many parents wouldn’t be able to hold a job if it weren’t for the day care.”
Almeta Crayton, First Ward representative to the Columbia City Council, agreed that there is a need for more day care in the central city because transportation is a problem for many parents. A new, central location would give parents an option within walking distance.
It is also important to Fonville that each child begins his or her education in a structured environment. Both the day care and the school use a Christian-based curriculum called A Beka. It is modeled on a home-schooling system.
“Teachers at the day care are teaching academics there to prepare (the children) for school here,” he said. “It all starts right there at that day care.”
Early preparation for Shalom Christian Academy is a good idea because the school differs in many ways from public schools. At Shalom, there are only two classrooms, one computer lab, a Bible study room and a kitchen. These small spaces accommodate 13 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, two teachers and two Bible study leaders. Each student wears khaki pants and a white or blue shirt. Using “ma’am” and “sir” is mandatory. Breakfast and lunch are served every day. Prizes are given each week for good behavior, and Fonville calls on each student by name.
“You don’t see stuff like we do here,” Fonville said. “We’re such a close-knit family.”
One teacher, Laquita Liebig, said she sometimes relies on old materials. She made a trip back to her alma mater to buy used textbooks so she could teach. In some instances, she said, the books have no answer keys, so she makes the keys herself.
“We started with relatively nothing and found ways to make do,” she said.
Douglass High School has also helped, providing Liebig with extra worksheets and more current materials.
Although the school has had to work through difficult times, Fonville said it has one thing in its favor — small class sizes that allow Fonville and his teachers to give highly individual attention to each student.
Because of that, the school can devote time to problems rather than sending students home, Fonville said.
“We work with the kids that nobody else wants to work with, and through the grace of God, we change them,” he said.
Howard Combs said the school has been a positive influence for his children.
“‘Yes ma’am.’ ‘No sir.’ They taught them all discipline and to respect their elders,” Combs said.
Crayton said Shalom Christian is an example of the type of “freedom schools” operating all over the country. Most use Christian curriculum and target minority areas.
“I hope he would jump onto that concept,” she said. “Our children need him.”
Fonville would like to improve and to expand the school but says the only way to do so is to start with a larger day care center. The current location handles 25 to 30 children, from newborns to 4 year olds. Fonville wants the new one to accommodate 50 to 60.
“We’re outgrowing (the day care), which is a blessing,” he said. “We just want to be a blessing to more families and kids.”
The Board of Adjustment discussed Fonville’s request for a conditional-use permit Feb. 8 but had concerns about the architectural plan. Fonville is trying to come up with a new design. The permit is necessary because the site he wants is in a residential area. Fonville hopes to win approval in April so he can start construction and finish by August.
“Whatever the city wants us to do, we’re going to do,” he said.
Fonville already has a waiting list of children who would come to the new building.
He is appealing to the community for help with the new center. Donations can be sent to the school address.