CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)-  One of Hamilton County's most unusual high schools is a tiny one, called Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, on Hickory Valley road in the East Brainerd area. There are only 75 students, in grades 9-12. But it's quickly becoming known as an academic, and athletic powerhouse, with an international flavor.

When opposing basketball teams take the floor against the Hamilton Heights Hawks, they're facing a talented group of international all-stars.  Student-athletes from all over the world who have come to Chattanooga in search of a better life.


Minja Savic, a senior basketball player from Serbia said, "I think everybody in my country loves America, they're jealous of me because I'm here."  She said coming to America has always been her dream, and when she learned that a diploma from Hamilton Heights could lead to a college scholarship, she jumped at the opportunity.   With a staff of six teachers, everyone gets attention.  Letting a little Southern slip through in her accent, she added, "And y'all have smaller class sizes here.  Our schools are much bigger, so we like the closeness to teachers here."

Minja is one of seventeen foreign students at Hamilton Heights who say a college scholarship is out of reach in many countries.  Most, but not all of the international students are athletically gifted. 

Austrian Raphaela Reiner is also a senior basketball player. "We grow up dreaming of coming here," she said.  "We see your movies, your commercials, your athletes.  It seems like in America, you can do anything."


Hamilton Heights started in 1997, and is affiliated with Hickory Valley Community Church. Headmaster (and church pastor) Duke Stone said his first international athlete was from Brazil, five years ago.  Word spread about the school, contacts were made, and soon there were inquiries from potential students worldwide.  The school's success, he says, speaks for itself. "We have probably provided more scholarships than any other school in Hamilton County, " he said.  "This year four boys and three girls will all get basketball scholarships.  All the seniors will have scholarships that want one."  He added that some of the foreign students' parents want them to come back home after graduation, a decision that isn't always welcomed by the students.

Stone stresses that while basketball can be a ticket to college, it's up to the international students to take academics seriously.  The message seems to be getting across. Their dreams go beyond the basketball court.

Erika Zuraskaite, a senior from Lithuania said, "I want to play basketball, but I also want to be a doctor or something in the medical field.  I have always wanted to help people, especially back in my country, where the people need so much help.  I think my chances for a great education would be better in America." 


Hamilton Heights also hosts international students whose gifts are outside the athletic arena. Samuel Arcas' specialty is music, and as a high school senior he plays in the UTC Orchestra.  Before coming here from Venezuela, he learned much of his English from American movies ("Fast and Furious," he says with a smile).  Now his circle of friends is truly worldwide. "It's cool, pretty cool," he said. "They're like my second family.  We are internationals, brothers and sisters.  We are not in our countries, so we are very close to each other."  He said the international atmosphere at Hamilton Heights has introduced him to students from at least five different countries. "I would never have met people like this at home," he said.  "I learn from people who have lived in Serbia, Austria, Lithuania, Portugal.  This is something you can't get at every school."

They're also getting a crash course in American cuisine. Raphaela Reiner said, "In America, there's so much fast food, we don't have that in Europe.  When asked, "Is that a good thing?" she replied with a laugh, "Not really, that's a bad thing!"  Most of the students say their favorite food is "home cooking, made my our host families."


Headmaster Stone would welcome more international students, but that would take more host families or dormitories, and neither are easy to come by.  For now, he says Hamilton Heights is meeting its mission of changing lives for the better, one young person at a time.

"As I tell the kids, you think you're here to play basketball," Stone said. "But we're here to use it as an outreach to share God's love with you.  Our main purpose is to have a positive impact on them spiritually, economically and socially."

There are more international students on the way to Hamilton Heights this fall, including some from Nigeria and the Bahamas.   Stone says 85 percent of the school's graduates have gone on to college.

Both the girls and boys basketball teams won the NACA (National Association of Christian Athletes) championship last month.   During the regular season, the school plays against teams like Baylor, Marion County, CSAS, East Hamilton and Cleveland, and both teams finished with a record of 23-8.  Stone said, "We're not in TSSAA like most public and private schools, so our games don't count in their divisional records.  When they play us, if they lose, it doesn't really count against them, and they get to hone their skills against taller, world-class athletes."


Among the school's rising star student-athletes is Ksenjia Madzarevic, a freshman from Serbia.  The 15-year-old has latched on to fellow Serbian Minja Savic, a senior.  "If Minja wasn't here, I couldn't have come here," Ksenjia said.  "She makes it so much easier for me to learn."  After Minja graduates, Ksenjia won't be alone.  "There's another student from Serbia coming next year, one of my friends."  Ksenjia, like many of the Hamilton Heights students, is considering her options after graduation, which for her is three years away.  "I haven't ruled out playing college basketball, and then the WNBA," she said.  "But for now I'm enjoying learning the language, staying with my host family, and I'm looking forward to learning to drive."

Stone said the school will stay the same size, but he'd like to grow his international student community.  "It won't be easy," he said. "We are sending off grant requests this week for dorms, and we are praying that goes well.  We continue to have so many doors open for even more international students.  We are hoping we can accommodate them."  He stresses the school is fully accredited, with a college preparatory track.  "Students can participate in dual enrollment for college as early as 10th grade here," he said.  "Academics come first, we insist on that."

For more information about Hamilton Heights Christian Academy go to