Steamboat Springs The next three weeks could be some of the most impactful in Heritage Christian School's 25-year history.
The private campus west of Steamboat Springs is facing a $260,000 shortfall next school year.
If the funding gap can't be made up by the end of this month, the campus will have to weigh whether to cut back its programs and even some secondary grade levels next school year.
The daunting financial challenge is being met at the school with prayer and a strong resolve to carry on.
“There are so many positive things happening here,” administrator Dave Entwistle said Tuesday as he described the financial challenges. “There are so many positives that I feel like if we can get this thing turned around, we can come back stronger and build our enrollment.”
He said the school's board will meet in early May to start making some difficult decisions about the school's future.
In the meantime, the campus is seeking help from the same community that long has supported its mission with dollars, man-hours and prayers.
Heritage Christian's budget crisis comes after some significant donors to the school announced they no longer could support it financially.
The shortfall puts the school's leaders in the delicate position of asking the community for help without creating panic or alarm about the financial situation.
“Even in our current financial situation, we are a school of excellence with qualified and capable faculty who not only are raising the bar academically but also love the Lord and your children,” Entwistle recently wrote to parents.
About 40 percent of the school's revenue is generated from donations and the proceeds of an annual auction, Entwistle said.
The remaining 60 percent comes from tuition.
Entwistle said a donor has offered to give an extra dollar for every $2 raised for the school, up to $65,000.
But money only will be a Band-Aid for the school's challenges.
For the past several years, private schools here have been reeling from significant reductions in their enrollment.
Heritage Christian taught 107 students in 2009-10. This school year, 65 students are enrolled.
The school's leaders attribute the drop to a number of factors, including a sagging economy.
Entwistle said that today, the campus's main challenge still is to attract more students.
To try and do that, the school has made some significant changes in the past year.
It announced last month that it was reducing its tuition rates significantly next school year.
The move came after the school board wrestled with the risk of dropping the rates at a time when finances were tight.
Before the tuition reduction, the school added a successful new J-term that had students engage in new activities ranging from an outdoor education class to a trip to Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1987, the school originally started at the Steamboat Christian Center.
It operated in a downtown location before it moved in fall 1998 into its current campus in Heritage Park.
In 2002, the school was growing and added a new gym, an art room, music room and library.
According to a Steamboat Today article written when the improvements were being made, the current campus “started taking shape (in 1998) when 200 to 250 volunteers hoisted up the structure's wooden frame like an old-fashioned barn raising in a single day.”
Jim Mitchell, then the school's secondary principal and academic dean, told the Today the project's momentum came from parents who were excited about their children’s education.
Today, parents at the school are hoping the momentum can continue.
There for a reason
Parents shudder to think of a Yampa Valley without a K-12 Heritage Christian School.
Too much good happens there, parents said Tuesday, just days after they learned about the campus's financial problems.
Kara Iacovetto never will forget her daughter Bailey's first day of school there.
“On Day 1, I picked her up from school, and she said, 'Mom, don't ever make me leave this school,’” Iacovetto said. “And that's a second-grader saying that. She said that every day I picked her up for several weeks.”
Other parents continue to make big sacrifices to be able to afford the private education.
Lina Grant cleans at the school to be able to send her daughters Alina and Davina there.
“I'm a single mom. I knew I couldn't afford to send my children there,” she said Tuesday while working at her other job at LIFT-UP of Routt County. “But my kids need a small school. They would get lost in the big classes. There was no option other than Heritage Christian School. It's what my kids need.”
The combination of cleaning for the school and a scholarship from the Steamboat Christian Center has made it affordable.
Entwistle and the school's leaders have asked the parents to pray for the school and to continue the push to find more families who could send their kids there.
A stubborn trend
So far, the enrollment dip that started for private schools here about five years ago hasn't shown any signs of reversing itself.
The Lowell Whiteman School, which also has seen its enrollment halved in recent years, hired a dedicated admissions director, revamped its website and started recruiting new students from China.
At Heritage Christian, enrollment pushes have been centered on retooling curriculum and stressing academic excellence.
“Right now, we've got the teachers. We've got the infrastructure. We've got a lot of good things happening,” Entwistle said. “The problem we have is we just don't have the numbers. The economy has got a long way to go. It's not booming like it was in 2007, 2008 and 2009.”
He added that he doesn't think the current financial situation will close the school.
“We'd like to stay open K-12, and depending on what comes in and how the Lord works, we may have to scale it back to K-8,” Entwistle said. “I don't see the school closing at this point. Based on the interest from parents in having their kids here at the school, I would say at this point I think we will be staying open.”
He said the school currently has 17 high school students.
While the financial instability is testing the school this spring, Entwistle chooses to stay positive about the campus's prospects.
He's hopeful that with some help, it will be able to survive the budget gap and expand its influence.
“It was a community effort to build this school, and we're just kind of looking for the community to come back and support us again,” he said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com