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School Serves Children of Incarcerated Parents

January 29, 2018 - 4:26pm CST

By Mike Brake

What challenges do children with parents in prison face? Ask Robin Khoury, founder and director of Little Light Christian School in Oklahoma City:

“Shame. Grief. Anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Poverty.  Attention deficit or hyperactivity. Attachment disorders. And a wide range of behavioral issues.”

Which is why Khoury and Little Light’s supporters have made those kids their specialty. Each day this school year, 29 children from ages 4 to 14 report to the Little Light campus in northeast Oklahoma City—ironically, just across the street from the headquarters of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections—for an 8 to 5 regimen of learning and nurturing.

For Khoury and her husband and staff, Little Light has become a lifelong mission. But it’s not one they arrived at overnight or from their business background in the restaurant and building industries.

In 1990 they made a decision to home school their two sons. One day Robin was struck by a blinding vision: “Someday you are going to have a school for poor kids who didn’t have the opportunities my kids did.”

Khoury later began volunteering with a prison ministry that targeted incarcerated women, and as part of that program she attended a symposium on what happens to the children of those women sent to prison.

“They are seven times more likely to wind up in prison themselves,” she said. “In many cases they are being raised by grandparents or other relatives, often moving from place to place.” Khoury was determined to give them a place. Little Light’s stated mission is “to break the cycle of incarceration in Oklahoma.”

Little Light Christian School was founded with the support of Lone Star Baptist Church near Edmond, which became its first home. It opened its doors there with six students in 2012.Today it receives steady support from several other churches and the Jasco Giving Hope Foundation, which this year provided the funds to purchase a school formerly used to serve autistic children in northeast Oklahoma City. Little Light moved there at the beginning of the 2017 school year.

Donors who help keep the school thriving and growing are encouraged to pledge up to $84 monthly or give a one-time donation of $5,000 to become “Little Light Dream Builders.” The school accepts no government funds.

Students are charged no tuition or fees and receive both breakfasts and lunches each day, plus a weekend take-home food package, since as Khoury notes, “they are getting 75 percent of their nutrition from us.”

The school operates vans to transport students within a nine-mile radius, and daily after-school  programs keep them on campus during the “latchkey kid” hours in late afternoons. Little Light offers cooking, archery, crafts, and even a chess club after school hours. Student-teacher ratios are kept low to allow plenty of individual attention and instruction.

Grants and donations fund all ongoing costs, including the salaries of 16 staff members, some of whom are former public school teachers who sought a more meaningful mission. The school is openly Christian, with daily Bible classes and weekly chapel.

Volunteers also provide music and arts and crafts programs. As Khoury notes, public schools and most other private schools are not well equipped to address the unique issues faced by children whose parents are in prison, often after long-term addiction with the outriders of abuse and neglect that so often accompany such pathologies.

What are the results? Since many students arrive at the school with poor, and often nearly non-existent, academic records, progress is often slow. But as Khoury notes, “our students are our best advertisement. People see the positive changes in them after a while.”

Little Light has boasted enrollment numbers as high as 40 and is gradually expanding grade levels to cover up to fourth grade this year, with  the middle school, and eventually the high school, years an ultimate target.

The Little Light kids wear matching khaki pants and blue shirts. They appear well behaved to campus visitors, although Khoury said that good behavior is often hard won for some of the kids who arrive with serious behavioral issues.

“I tell them there are 10 other kids waiting for a place here,” she said. “They can take responsibility for good behavior or leave.”

Perhaps Little Light’s key to success is summarized in a statement by Khoury—“we remove the shame factor”—and a story she likes to tell of a small boy who arrived at the school virtually mute. He sat silently for the first few days and then one day began to “howl and cry,” she recalled.

“He kept screaming, ‘My momma is in prison!’ After a moment another boy went over to him and put his arm around him and said, ‘ It’s okay, my daddy’s in jail too.’”

Khoury keeps a poster that crying boy made in her office. It bears the repeated plea, “God please help my Mom.” The boy has moved away with relatives and no longer attends Little Light, but she said she keeps in touch with him and family and has learned that he is doing well and testing at grade level in public schools.

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for then-Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.