When Covid-19 first hit in March of 2020, the mad scramble was on at area schools. Administrators and teachers were harried as they looked for solutions and the Hillsborough County School Board struggled to fund solutions.

That’s when New Tampa’s Sarah Combs decided the indecision was unhealthy for her soon-to-be 3rd grader, and started exploring her options.

Right before school was set to begin this past fall, she discovered Family of Christ (FoC) Christian School, located off Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. in Tampa Palms. It was during a visit that she says she found the school environment to be warm and welcoming, not cold and confused. She liked the idea of instilling the value of the Bible and saying the pledge of allegiance, “all the things that are missing in schools today.”

Combs says it was an easy decision.

“I think it’s the best-kept secret in New Tampa,” she says. 

Combs shares the same view as many of the parents at Family of Christ, which has a monument sign showing its entrance on BBD, just south of Tampa Fire Rescue Station No. 20.

“It really is a family here,” said Catherine Walton, the school’s operations director and business manager. “We’ve had almost all of the same teachers for 17 years, and they are happy. The students are happy. I think we do a really good job here.”

Family of Christ Christian School in Tampa Palms continues to grow, and will add four more classrooms next fall and a gymnasium after that. (Photos: John C. Cotey)

The roots of the Family of Christ (FoC) Christian School were planted in 1999, when Family of Christ Lutheran Church started a popular Pre-K and kindergarten class, which would later become the church’s Child Development Center (CDC). Proceeding gradually by adding one class per year, Family of Christ grew into New Tampa’s only K-8 Christian school, offering core academic subjects like math, science and language, as well as art, music and technology courses as well.

Principal Jennifer Snow says the school isn’t overly focused on test scores, like most public schools are, but in challenging students in a wide range of subjects. 

It is more important, says Snow, to nurture students, to have parents involved in the education of their kids and provide an environment that is conducive to learning.

FoC parent Joyce Hapscher says she, “just had a feeling when we walked in the place that we were meant to be here” when she visited the school for the first time.

She says the curriculum has been challenging for her 4th and 6th grade daughters. Hapscher notes that she did check out other middle schools when her daughter was old enough.

“We toured some middle schools to do a comparison and, in the end, saw that the things our daughters had been learning were more advanced than what they would get at a different school,” Hapscher says. “We decided to stay put.”

FoC is fully accredited by the National Lutheran Schools Association (NLSA) and by the district of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. The school was recently accredited, a process it undertakes every five years.

The school also complies with and, according to its website, “exceeds the Florida Sunshine State Standards as well as the Hillsborough County Benchmarks for each grade level.” All teachers hold and maintain a Professional Educator’s Certificate.

It’s important to note that despite its Lutheran Christian roots, students of all religious denominations are welcome at FoC.

Snow, who became principal in 2005, says the school now has 175 students — many of whom started out in pre-K and have stayed through middle school — but continues to have to turn many families away due to a lack of space.

But, FoC is addressing its growth. By the start of the new school year, there will be four new learning modules added behind the school, making room for 100 more students, primarily fifth and sixth graders, as the school tries to create more classroom space in the post-Covid world.

“We don’t want to have to turn anyone away,” says Walton, who adds that half the money has already been raised for the new modules.

Walton also says the school will soon begin a fund-raising campaign to build a gymnasium in the next few years, which will serve as home for FoC’s athletic teams, provide space for recitals and other performances and host the school’s annual “Night of Knights” fund raiser. Right now, FoC has to rent space for its athletic teams from the nearby New Tampa Family YMCA for its basketball and volleyball teams, which was difficult during Covid, due to the Y’s limited access.

After the gymnasium, there are plans to add 11 more classrooms and, well down the road, there are even visions of eventually building a high school on the campus, which currently is shared by the CDC, the school and the church.

“I always said no to the idea of a high school,” Snow says, “but after seeing what Covid did and seeing the number of families that would like so much more, deep down in my heart there’s a possibility. It’s a long-range goal. This is the place it can happen.”

Safety measures like the shields above have helped Family of Christ navigate the Covid-19 pandemic seamlessly, says principal Jennifer Snow. (Photo: John C. Cotey)

While Covid hurt the CDC, dropping its enrollment from more than 100 to around a dozen students, the school retained all of its students and teachers. Snow and another teacher drew up an emergency guide, and the principal says everyone simply followed the rules.

The school purchased plastic shields to put between desks, but paid a little more so they would be “framed.” Now, when the younger students look at each other from their desks, it’s like looking through a window and doesn’t scream “germ protection” like plain floppy plastic sheets.

The school also invested in air scrubbers for its AC system.

While Covid may hopefully be getting behind us, Walton says the school will continue with its Covid regimen until an all-clear is issued by the experts.

Not only has FoC returned 99 percent of the teachers and students it had before Covid, it also held its annual Night of Knights fund raiser virtually, and raised more than $100,000. 

That is a testament, Snow says, to the strength of the families and the community at her school.

“Everybody was buying in,” she says. “I think the parents see what we do for the kids, the nurturing and making them our No. 1 priority. In return, they have been supportive, kind and loyal. We love our families.”

Dealing With Growth

With the school year winding down, FoC is preparing for its popular summer camps. Last year, Covid led to extremely restrictive camps, but Walton hopes they are able to return closer to normal this summer.

There are three summer camps offered — one for students entering 1st and 2nd grade, another for students entering 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, and a camp for students entering 6th, 7th and 8th grade.

They all begin Monday, June 7, and run five days a week from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. for eight weeks through July 30 (at a cost of $195 a week), and feature cooking and movie days and field trips to places like Urban Air Adventures, Main Event and Lettuce Lake Park.

There also is a Vacation Bible School June 21-June 2, from 9 a.m.-noon each day.

You can learn more about the camps and Family of Christ Christian School by calling (813) 558-9343 to register or to arrange a tour of the school and its campus, located at 16190 BBD Blvd. For more information, visit FOC-Knights.com.

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