A decade after start, CCCS closes in on a full K-12 curriculum and a new school

by: DARRYL SWAN - From left: Elementary Principal Rebecca Swatman stands with board members Robert Glosenger and Genet Smiens outside modular units at the Columbia County Christian School campus at 56523 Columbia River Highway. Student enrollment at the private school has nearly quadrupled over the last decade.It has been a decade since a small group of Columbia County families organized under the common faith-inspired vision of starting Columbia County Christian School.

In 2005, when the school opened at the Yankton Elementary schoolhouse west of St. Helens, there were 28 students and five staff members overseeing operations.

“I had four kids in my kindergarten class,” recalls Rebecca Swatman, who today serves as the school’s elementary principal.

Since then, the number of students has nearly quadrupled; there are 107 currently enrolled, and 121 students are projected to be enrolled at the private school in fall. Next year will also see the adoption of a full K-12 curriculum, setting the stage for the school’s first graduating class in 2015.

And, not too far down the road, Columbia County Christian School officials expect to take ownership of property that will secure ongoing growth.

Board member Genet Smiens says it has been an exercise in faith to reach this point. Smiens was a leading figure for moving the school forward in 2005, when it secured a one-year contract to start operations at the former Yankton school.

A signed lease agreement wasn’t without controversy, however. A public charter school competed for the same location and ultimately purchased the Yankton schoolhouse from the St. Helens School District. It was a development that, two years after it had started, thrust Columbia County Christian School back into a search for a location.

As she reflects on the school’s beginning, Smiens says "God’s plan" was more nuanced than she had initially appreciated. The news coverage of St. Helens School Board’s decision on the Yankton lease agreement, and the eventual sale of the facility to the charter school, generated publicity for the start-up Columbia County Christian School.

“God had a totally different plan,” she says. “It actually highlighted that we were here.”

Onward and upward

After Yankton, school operations were moved to the basement of Warren Community Fellowship in Warren, expanding in time to include modular buildings behind the church. The setting is tranquil; beyond the classrooms, there are lush grassy fields bordered by tall Douglas firs where older students can practice their baseball pitch in spring, or where elementary students can stretch their limbs on the playground.

And the growth hasn’t stopped. School officials anticipate using existing church modular buildings to accommodate a growing student body next year, and have recently incorporated the use of a small mobile RV as a science lab.

With limited space, Smiens says it has required creative organization.

“Every room doubles as something different,” she notes.

The location at Warren Community Fellowship was always meant to be temporary, however. By 2021, school officials are on the hook to move operations again, according to the lease agreement with Warren Community Fellowship.

Smiens says the board and its agents have considered dozens of properties, though the focus is narrowing to a 6.23-acre site zoned for commercial use located within the St. Helens urban growth boundary. If successful, the school, which is a member of the Association of Christian Schools International, would develop the property over four phases at an expense of $8.7 million, ultimately incorporating all of the amenities of a modern school facility, from classrooms to a newly built gymnasium.

“There’s been a lot of growth, and it’s really been an adventure,” Smiens says.

Full of class

With small classrooms — the largest class size during the school day is 18 students — Swatman says the students in many respects act like family.

“They’re like brothers and sisters, and they sometimes fight like brothers and sisters,” she says, laughing. The smaller size has also allowed it a degree of mobility absent from larger schools; among the traditional scenes of dances, static-charged science projects and musical performances captured in the school’s most recent yearbook, it’s easy to identify student outings across Columbia County and the Portland metropolitan area.

“The kids are not sheltered in this atmosphere, to the degree one might think,” Smiens says.

She says it is the strong focus on family and — above all else — faith that defines the school, however.

From a family perspective, Smiens says the parents and a dedicated pool of volunteers are a vital part of the school make-up.

“People take ownership, and I call it skin in the game,” Smiens says. “Parents really have skin in the game here.”

And the mission is clear: to glorify God.

Each Wednesday, the student body, led by its leadership class, meets in the Warren Community Fellowship sanctuary for morning worship.

Curriculum is introduced with a biblical worldview to instill “Christ-like” character in the students as they make their trek toward academic excellence. In fact, the students must test to state standards and the school is accredited through the Northwest Accreditation Commission.

Still, not all families who enroll their children at the school are churchgoers, Smiens says. Of an internal poll taken last year, 11 families did not list a church affiliation at the start of the school year. By the end, only three families reported as such.

“It’s an outreach in our community, but parents are drawn to the school for different reasons,” Swatman says, noting the small class sizes. “It’s a great mission field.”

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