Positive values, personal attention and great kids.

First Christian Day School has a lot to be proud of, and those who teach, help and learn at the private school consider it one of Waxahachie’s, and Ellis County’s, best kept secrets.

First Christian Church members founded the school in 1982 to educate their children, said principal Debbie Aday.

“As it went, more people found out about it and it developed into a school for everyone,” she said.

Through the years the school grew from a pre-school, adding elementary school classes. Five years ago, First Christian started offering junior high and high school classes and has had one graduate.

The growth has continued  and, this year, three students will graduate from the private school, which has a total of 164 students.

Aday said the school offers a well-rounded education with an emphasis on individual attention and hands-on learning, which it achieves by limiting classes to 12 students.

“(We have) very much individualized programs,” said Aday, who is also the school’s second-grade teacher. “You have a small classroom, so you’re able to give one-on-one attention to the students.”

Small, tight-knit classes also give the school a unique character, Aday said, as many of the students have grown up together.

“It’s a family atmosphere,” she said. “The families are close.”

As part of the individualized attention, math at the school is taught with two different methods: one a tactile, building unit method to illustrate math concepts and another colorful, more visually based method.

“We use multiple curriculums in order to stimulate our learners in the areas that they can expand on,” Aday said.

Students also participate in art, music and Spanish classes. A daily physical education program focuses on body centering and overall fitness.

“It works on all types of coordination, from your physical coordination to your mental coordination,” Aday said.

Susan Caruthers runs the PE program, and uses the activities in the class to help the students with their development. For instance, she said, having pre-school students play inside a hula hoop helps them learn spatial awareness, while walking a balance board helps develop coordination. The students also learn eye-hand coordination, following directions and focus.

For the older students, PE provides a valuable opportunity to build stamina and endurance.

Sports can also be a good way to identify developmental delays, Caruthers said.

“If they can’t catch a ball, there’s something off with eye-hand coordination,” she said, and spatial reasoning and focus delays can also be identified. “That really comes to light when they’re in a big gym.”

If problems are identified, Caruthers spends time with them one-on-one to develop the skills.

The same attention goes into the school’s core classes.

“We use a hands-on science program and international history program, so they get a whole-world view,” Aday said.

For the seventh-12th graders, most of the core classes are taken on a self-paced computer program.

“They take tests, and then their lessons are set up on their skills,” Aday said. “It’s a national program.”

Senior Callie McCary is one of the three students graduating this spring and said her school work has improved since coming to First Christian three years ago.

“It’s a good choice,” she said. “It’s more one-on-one.”

McCary said she sometimes struggled in her classes in public school and the individualized attention has helped her succeed.

“It’s cool, because you get to work at your own pace,” she said. “It was different than public school: much smaller, more attention, more one on one.”

McCary said she’s enjoyed the freedom to work ahead in her classes and having peace of mind that she won’t fall behind if she misses a day of class. She noted that for math, a teacher comes in to work with the upper level students.

“Math isn’t something you can really learn from a computer,” she said.

The school also has a full library, computers in every classroom and programs such as Accelerated Reader. Students also have the opportunity to participate in spelling bees and the National Geographic History Contest, though there is no athletics program.

Aday attributes many of the school’s strong points to its dedicated Parent Teacher Organization.

“They bought our playground equipment, they purchased many of our computer programs,” she said.

Diana Merrell’s son has attended First Christian for five years. She’s been involved in the PTO for four years and now serves as co-president.

“The main reason I became part of PTO was so I could help support the teachers,” she said. “I want to see them succeed in teaching our children.”

PTO’s recent fundraiser, a children’s cookbook, saw lots of excitement and participation from parents and students alike, and Merrell has big plans for the school’s future.

“I would love to see every teacher have every supply that they need,” she said. “We’d like to improve and enhance our playground, we’d like to replace some of the computers in the classroom, and of course for our school to continue growing.”

Eventually, Merrell said, she’d like to see the school have two classes per grade level, incorporate more foreign languages, have a new library and gym and hire part-time staff so the teachers can have their own lunch apart from students.

“I would love for First Christian to be named the No. 1 private school south of the Trinity River,” she said. “Just stop by, come check out the school and they will absolutely fall in love with it. We have wonderful parents, wonderful students and, of course, awesome teachers.”

The school also puts on a program each semester and participates in raising funds for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, donating clothes to the Texas Baptist Home for Children and conducting blood drives.

Many of the teachers, including kindergarten teacher Margaret Castle, are also parents of children in the school. Castle has taught at other schools, but got involved with First Christian to be near her children, who are in first and fifth grade.

“It’s a great job — I love it. I look forward to coming here every day,” she said. “The kids are just so much fun. You never know what’s going to happen in a day.”

Her kids have gone to the school for three years, and her older child would have been here sooner if Castle had been aware of First Christian. She said the school’s welcoming atmosphere made a good impression right away.

“I just happened to drive by and stopped. I knew as soon as I walked in, this is where I wanted my kids to go,” she said.

The school’s faith-based focus was also an important perk in Castle’s decision to get involved with First Christian.

“You can feel the difference,” she said. “We can say Jesus or God or Holy Spirit and not feel like our jobs are threatened.”    

Faith has always been a major part of the school, and students attend chapel every morning, pray in class and learn about Bible history.

“We do teach a non-denominational Bible curriculum,” Aday said, and the First Christian Church views the school as a ministry. “We have prayer in the classroom, we have daily Bible in the classroom.”

Aday noted the school’s Bible curriculum focuses on Bible history, not doctrine.

“We have students who come from every religion possible,” she said. “Most of our parents want the environment that has to do with the religion — they want their children to be able to pray.”

One of the main obstacles for the school can be the cost to students. There's a monthly tuition, a twice annual curriculum fee and an enrollment fee.

“I’m sure the economy affects whether someone can pay their tuition,” Aday said. “We are a school of choice.”

Class sizes tend to decrease in the higher grades for a variety of reasons, Aday said. Upper level classes are a relatively new addition to the school and will tend to have a lower enrollment, she said. For some students, financial barriers prevent them from continuing at First Christian.

“Economic situations change,” Aday said. “Or the student feels they’re ready to go on to a different venue.”

In the future, Aday said, she’d like to see the school continue to grow.

“We would like to see all of our classes at their capacity,” she said. “We’d just like to let people know that we’re an option. Growth is what we’re looking for, but we want to grow slowly.

Overall, she said, the school has had a good impact on the community and on the students who attend from all over the county.

“We have students here whose parents went here — that’s a positive thing,” she said.