By Courtney Ingle
When one hears of a boarding school, thoughts begin to circulate. Hollywood stereotypes boarding schools as places for wicked stepparents to send children viewed as burdens. Other times, boarding school has been used as a threat to disobedient children.
Maybe you were threatened with boarding school in your childhood: “If you don’t straighten up, I’ll send you to French Camp!”
Such a longstanding threat, often made in jest, disguised the beauty of French Camp Academy.
“I think way back in the past, French Camp Academy had this reputation, there was this idea that we were a reform school,” said French Camp President Stewart Edwards, Jr.
French Camp is less of a reform school and more of a respite and a place for stability, structure, and spiritual growth.
“I tell people that at French Camp, we don’t have bad kids,” said Edwards. “But we have kids that have bad situations.”
Many students at French Camp are there not because of their behavior but because of life situations. Edwards said many students come from broken homes, financial devastation, or the loss of a parent. French Camp gives them a place of stability.
The small town of French Camp, located northeast of Kosciusko, has a rich history of pouring into young people. From the late 1790s into the early 1800s, Choctaws in the area referred to the settlers’ camp as “The Frenchman’s Camp,” which was later shortened to French Camp. By 1885, a girls’ finishing school was started in French Camp, soon followed by a boys’ military school.
When the finishing school burned down, the boys’ school became co-ed, and French Camp Academy was born. The school was started by Presbyterians but shifted to an interdenominational ministry in the 1950s.
“We have many ‘flavors’ of Christianity represented here,” said Edwards. “Our focus is to be Christ-centered over being denomination-centered.”.
Christ-centered approach, Christ-centered worldview
French Camp Academy aims to educate children both academically and spiritually.
“We’re equipping the students with spiritual glasses,” said Edwards. “While they’re in junior high and high school, we’re showing them that Christian worldview, and they’ll take that with them into the world and see the world through those spiritual glasses.”
The academy is a ministry, a haven, and for many, a home.
“For at least half of our students, we’re the first touch they’ve had with the Christian world,” said Edwards. “The home and school, that’s our core mission, with other support ministries in place.”
The town of French Camp is home to these support ministries, which include Rainwater Observatory, a bed and breakfast, a cafe and bakery, a thrift store, a museum, and Camp of the Rising Son youth camp; all of which contribute to the expenses involved in running French Camp Academy.
“Our core mission is to serve young people who need an opportunity,” said Edwards.
Private education, like anything else in this world, can be expensive. While private school tuition costs often rival the typical amount of a car payment each month, the school doesn’t inhibit a student based on their ability to pay.
“We never want the French Camp experience to be encumbered by finances,” Edwards said. “Eighty-five percent of the academy is funded by donors.”
Nearly one-third of French Camp students cannot afford to pay anything toward tuition. Two-thirds of the student body can pay something, though maybe not full tuition. “But finances aren’t (keeping them out),” said Edwards.
A different kind of reform school
French Camp Academy has a tradition of transformation in the lives of students who were otherwise trapped in cycles of desperation. Unlike traditional boarding schools, French Camp boarding students are in a home environment, with houseparents and house siblings.
French Camp houseparents live out the mission of stepping in and guiding these young people at pivotal points in their lives.
“FCA’s mission (is) to serve young people and their families for the glory of God,” said houseparent Cindy Cox. “What other mission would you want to work for?”
Cindy and her husband, Dennis, love each of their students as an extension of their own family.
“As the Lord works in their life,” said Cindy, “the Lord works in our lives. He changes us as He changes them, and that’s an incredible gift.”
Brianna moved to French Camp at the age of 12 and said that though it was hard at first, especially the first year, everyone worked together to push forward.
“We got through it with Jesus and love,” said Brianna.
Stella, Brianna’s mother, spoke of the “village” that has molded Brianna’s life.
“When it is a whole school of people who love the Lord and are there for your child’s best interest, you have a whole network of people … who want to see your child grow and do their best.”
Stella, Cindy, and Brianna all agreed — God is everywhere at French Camp.
“Not only from her dorm parents but her coaches, the life lessons, everything comes from more of a biblical view,” said Stella. “Instead of the worldview that (kids) are pelted with throughout society.”
Brianna’s story is one of many that highlights how God is at work at French Camp Academy.
Angela Morgan is a former houseparent at French Camp and was once a student there. The second-born of five children to drug-addicted parents, Morgan spent time between her parents’ home and various foster homes.
“The state would take us until we got back on our feet,” said Morgan. “It was just a cycle we went through over and over.”
Morgan was accepted into a dance program as a teen and said a news story in the local paper led to a life-changing phone call inviting her to French Camp Academy.
“I struggled with my identity,” said Morgan. “I just believed I was the daughter of drug addicts. But when I came to French Camp, that drastically changed.”
Morgan said being constantly surrounded by love — yet held accountable for her actions — built a trust that she’d never had in adults.
Eventually, Morgan met her now husband at French Camp through Camp of the Rising Son. They have three children, whom Morgan said are so fully removed from the childhood she faced that they cannot even comprehend the stories she tells.
“French Camp provides stability, which is so needed,” said Morgan. “And (in the homes, students) get to see the biblical model of a husband and wife working together and supporting the children.”
There’s still work to be done
French Camp Academy continues to give stability, structure, love and support to children who may not receive it at home, while building a biblical worldview that is often cast aside in modern society.
There’s so much more for French Camp to give.
“We have empty beds for those in need,” said Edwards. “While 130 to 140 (boarders) are our ideal number, we’re currently running about 90.”
These are beds that are already covered financially; they’re open spaces and open opportunities waiting for the children God has intended for this journey.
“We’re not therapeutic, we’re not a rehab,” said Edwards, “but we’re a place of respite, a place where a kid can be a kid again.”
For more information about French Camp Academy, visit FrenchCamp.org.