Spreading Wings

Local private school provides specialized attention for students in need

Anna Shipe knew that mentoring children alongside the city pool on Valley Road during the summers was a call for something bigger.

“We would have 30 to 40 kids over with us talking and there would be no one in the pool, even on the really hot days,” Shipe said.

Shipe is now principal of Eagle Wings Academy, a private Christian school on the South Side that she helped start in 2008, along with her husband, David.

Her office is not far behind a steel pink door in the basement of Grace Baptist Church, only feet from where the 24 children who attend the school start off their morning with Bible class. “This is one of the best parts,” Shipe said. “We have so much flexibility; we can start our day with the Lord.”

Eagle Wings Academy is made up of 24 students. The school is located at 423 Valley Drive in Syracuse. -- Richie Calabro, Staff Photo

Eagle Wings serves students in kindergarten through ninth grade, but it is unlike many other private schools in the area. The children do not pay tuition, their school is one large room broken into several smaller rooms, and children from different ages take classes together. “The great thing about Eagle Wings is the small class sizes that allow teachers to build personal relationships with the students,” said William Rutan, who is in his first year at Eagle Wings. He teaches reading, writing and gym.

The school has three full-time teachers and two part-time ones. The average class size is between three and seven students, depending on the subject. “Small numbers and individual attention is what made this place so attractive,” said Rutan, who used to teach at Grant Middle School. “I learned … having higher pay at Grant wasn’t what was going to make me happy.”

Hope Lont, who teaches science, said small classes allow teachers to address many problems. “A lot of our students have needs that are a little more intense than what can be handled in a public school environment.”

Lont, who taught at Dr. King Elementary before a brief move to Florida, believes that Eagle Wings is so successful because it has a focused mission. “Here, all of the teachers are able to share time and information with each other as well as communicate. We can figure out what works and what doesn’t for each student.”

Students also realize the benefits of a smaller environment. “You get more attention. You can stay after if you need help and the teachers will even drive you home when you’re done,” said Ian Vire, a ninth-grader.

Eagle Wings is funded solely with grants and donations from people, as well as gifts from churches. “We have quite a bit of churches out there who are helping us out,” Shipe said.

Shipe, who doesn’t take a salary, is in charge of running the school, as well as applying for all of the grants the school needs. Eagle Wings was recently awarded a Gifford Foundation grant, allowing it to hire an academic coordinator with the $7,623. The coordinator will help put together a full curriculum for all grades as well as develop a structured report card system.

The school is a member of the Street School Network, which is a group out of Denver that helps start faith-based schools for troubled youth in metropolitan areas. “They came out here for a few days and really liked what we were doing,” Shipe said.

Danae Pilalas, a kindergarten teacher who moved to Syracuse from Arizona last summer, finds teaching at a ministry school one of the most appealing parts of Eagle Wings. “Here, you teach the students what they never heard before. Five-year-olds don’t know what the Bible is. The challenge is to teach them that it isn’t just another storybook,” Pilalas said.

Communicating with parents is one of the hardest parts of Pilalas’ job, she said. “Many times, there are several layers of parents or guardians that I have to go through if I want to speak with someone.”

Teaching different ages of students in the same class also poses a challenge. “The variety of grade levels is the hardest part when compared to a regular public school, like Grant,” Rutan added.

The children are taught Bible every morning when they arrive. Throughout the day, they receive all of the major subjects — math, science, language arts, history, gym and art. “We have to make sure we cover all the subjects for the state,” Shipe said.

Students also go out on projects where they help those in need. Shipe has her own SWAT team, or “Servants Without a Title.” Shipe recalls one trip when she and the students went to an elderly woman’s apartment to help her clean. “The apartment was filthy. It looked like someone had just emptied a garbage bag all over the place. But the students didn’t even make a remark. They grabbed some gloves and started cleaning.”

Shipe says of her job: “I know it’s what the Lord is asking me to do. We have a fantastic staff, and we are actually having fun.”