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Columbia Christian: little school on big campus

HEATHER HILL
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO

Columbia Christian Schools Superintendent Bill Hunt poses in front of one of the many buildings on his eight-acre campus. The PreK-12 school occupies the former Cascade College site between Northeast 90th and 91st avenues, from Glisan to East Burnside streets.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
Columbia Christian Schools Superintendent Bill Hunt and parent volunteer Jennie Alvarado in the Johnson Hall cafeteria, next door to the elementary school. Previously, Hunt taught Bible studies, personal spiritual development and adolescent psychopathology at Cascade College before it folded in 2009.
Columbia Christian Schools bookkeeper and administrative assistant Dixie Bever, with Superintendent Bill Hunt, Ed.D, He became superintendent of Columbia Christian Schools in 2009. Bever's husband Ralph is CCS campus facilities manager.
In 1947, the Columbia Bible School opened in the Central Church of Christ building at Northeast 7th and Hassalo Street (now part of Lloyd Center) with four instructors teaching 36 students academic and Bible-based lessons through eighth grade.

In 1949 Multnomah County, the City of Portland and PGE donated eight acres on Northeast Glisan and 90th Avenue to the school. To expand the footprint, others purchased adjoining lots for donation.

Today, a sign pointing south on 91st Avenue presents the only hint that the small, low profile school, completed in 1953 and constructed with volunteer labor from local church members, exists within this community.

Initially, members of the Central Church of Christ also moved in, establishing the Eastside Church of Christ. In 1960, the church constructed their current building on Glisan, which shelters the school grounds from the street.

The school grew quickly. In 1954, they added six more classrooms and offices to accommodate a full high school. Only two years later, they expanded to include the first two years of college. In 1960, they added the York-Landreth dormitory. In 1965, a gymnasium was built with the money raised through a campaign that asked donors to purchase bricks for $1. In 1969, Hartzog Hall was constructed to house over 100 students in two-bedroom apartments. In 1975, they earned accreditation for a four-year college and enhanced campus life by constructing the multi-purpose Johnson Center in 1978. The modern building added a 450-seat dining hall, a student center, conference rooms and more offices. During the 1981-82 school year, financial aid offices were added in addition to a music rehearsal hall.

Despite the constant growth, Columbia struggled financially. In 1982, the school's deficit began to grow at a rate of $600,000 per year. The college eventually lost its accreditation in 1992 because they could not financially support their commitments. College enrollment plummeted by two-thirds. To save the lower school, Columbia Christian Schools became independent of the college and earned dual accreditation by Northwest Association of Accredited Schools and Association of Christian Schools International in 2000.

Though the college's future seemed dim, those invested in the school's success sought creative means to save it by operating under another school's accreditation. After being rejected by several other Church of Christ affiliated schools, Oklahoma Christian University agreed to open a Northwest branch entitled Cascade College in 1994.

Building resumed. In 1997 the Bristol Hall dormitory was added, other existing structures were renovated, and new majors were added. In 2002, the college's enrollment reached its peak at 341 students and then stalled. The college's financial situation did not improve. Eventually accepting the economic reality, Oklahoma withdrew from the campus in 2009.

Upon closing the school, Oklahoma Christian leased the campus to Bara Properties LLC, operated by former Cascade maintenance director Ralph Bever and his wife Dixie. They leased the seven campus houses, formerly occupied by Cascade faculty, and provided maintenance services.

The still viable lower school rented the facilities they had shared in the past, the cafeteria, and gymnasium, two classrooms, including a science lab, the rehearsal hall and the soccer field.

The closing gave the K-12 school some college-qualified faculty. Bill Hunt, hired as the college's associate dean of students in 2000, and who later taught Bible studies, personal spiritual development and adolescent psychopathology, was heading for Oklahoma when the Columbia Christian Board offered him the superintendent's position. Hunt made the transition at an exciting time for the small school that had weathered the uncertainty of its cousin's troubles. Recruiting his colleague Kevin Reed, who had taught Bible and contemporary ethics to serve as principal, the staff began to envision a new future for the empty campus.

Today, Columbia Christian School offers pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education that integrates Christian principles and academic scholarship to hone both mind and soul. They employ 25 full-time staff, have enrolled 247 students for the 2012-2013 school year, run athletic and arts programs, and for the busy parents of children in grades K-6, operate extended care supervision in both the morning and evening.

Though low enrollment caused the college to topple under its own weight, the limits of the little lower school have worked to its advantage. “We want to give our students individualized attention,” said Hunt. “We don't have a school full of geniuses but most of our students test two grades above where they are at and that has to do with smaller class sizes, parent involvement, and teachers can move a little quicker. We put everything in place for them to be successful.”

Columbia Christian Schools finally re-acquired the eleven-acre college campus on June 29 of this year. Though they had previously advertised a goal to raise between $3-5 million for the purchase, the actual sale amount has not been disclosed.

A two-tiered loan from Capital Pacific bank paved the way for the purchase, adding to the efforts of the school's 'Walk of Faith' fundraiser, which took a note from the gymnasium fundraiser 50 years prior asking donors to purchase bricks inscribed with the donor's name and used to pave a walkway on campus. The modern bricks cost $360 each, not $1. At the end of August, 704 bricks had been sold.

“The reason we are selling bricks is to establish a broad donor base of 1,000 people that have been [sic] invested for three to four years running,” Hunt explained.

The campaign earned Columbia Christian the regard of the MJ Murdock charitable trust, with which they now have a large grant pending. MJ Murdock offers grants to Northwest non-profits who “strengthen the region's educational, spiritual, and cultural base in creative and sustainable ways.” Columbia Christian's annual benefit auction, held on Nov. 10 at the Airport Holiday Inn, should also keep momentum up.

The financial turmoil of 2008 and 2009 rang wake-up calls around the world. Columbia College was among many organizations that folded during that time. Previously, dreams had outpaced reality. Now, school administrators take a more sustainable, community-inclusive approach to growth.

“The goal right now is to put together a plan, Project 2020,” Hunt said, “What are we going to do in the next 20 years, not just as an institution of learning, but how can we enhance Northeast Portland? That is what I want to start doing, partnering with local businesses in Northeast Portland and developing programs that help not just us but the overall area.”

They first determined how they could best make use of the spare land in the short term. “We really have to make sure that we are cash-flowing that campus,” Hunt said, “because there is a certain amount of debt that we took on to pay for those eleven acres so we need to make sure that we are able to meet our financial obligations.”

To do so, the school rented out unused space to similar organizations that provide services to the community. Two homeless relief agencies, My Father's House and Portland Rescue Mission have used the apartments in Hartzog Hall on the southeast corner of the property for their transitional housing services. Bristol Hall was recently renovated into married housing for students at Multnomah Bible College.

A dozen office spaces in the Johnson center are occupied by Four Rivers Counseling Center, which provides Christian counseling services to clients who use a direct entrance.

Eric Bauer, executive director of the Portland Rescue Mission, praised Columbia Christian Schools for performing a service the mission itself is known for, providing shelter to those in need. “Due to unexpected construction challenges at Next Step, (the men's recovery facility at 10336 NE Wygant Street, currently under renovation) we were faced with an urgent need to relocate 15 men. Columbia Christian Schools' responded immediately to our need for a safe, healthy place for our men to live as they continue their recovery. What an amazing blessing.”

The presence of organizations catering to distressed individuals on campus did raise some concern, but as Hunt explained, “We were very cautious of who we rent to. We really want to make sure that whatever is over there is compatible to kids on a daily basis. We promised our parents that this is a safe environment and we want to make sure that it is true.”

Warner Pacific College, who once partnered with Cascade College to offer teacher certification when that college lost its ability to maintain the program in the late 90s, uses a number of classrooms and a computer lab for continuing education classes in the newly renovated Sanders Hall, where Columbia Christian hopes to one day transition its high school.

The school envisions needing three to five more classrooms to accommodate growth, and the ten classroom building has them: outfitted with all the audio visual technology of a college.

However, the school caps class sizes at 20 students. With most classes averaging 15-17 students and one teacher per grade, last year 30 students graduated. Their kindergarten currently has 32. Since the school remains committed to keeping class sizes small, they anticipate adding a teacher (who will need a new classroom) each year.

Hunt assured that Warner [Pacific College] will still have a place when that day comes. “We would work something out; they are pretty happy where they are,” he said.

The seven houses on the property, rented out by Bara Properties, have continued to carry out their leases through the transition. Bara Properties themselves have also been incorporated. Ralph Bever is now facility manager for the entire campus, and Dixie Bever has become the school-wide bookkeeper and administrative assistant for the new campus.

Their athletic program also received a boost with the campus purchase. Though they have long used the college gymnasium for their successful athletic program (the boys' basketball team won the OSAA / U.S. Bank / Les Schwab Tires 1A Boys Basketball State Championship in 2010), their knight mascot now watches from the far wall over the newly refinished floors, which also bear the knight's likeness. A new athletic director came on board this year to help develop a Booster club and summer activities.

Columbia Christian clearly encourages school spirit. Like colleges, non-profit private schools thrive on alumni donations, which have helped keep the small school afloat. “There are just people invested in this school,” said Hunt, “They went to school here in 1947, people that have the means to step in and not just financial means but business experience, how to manage money, how to hunker down and survive during the lean times.”

Through community outreach, they hope to recruit more non-alumni to see a cause for investing in the campus. “When we go to businesses we are going to say 'here is the need, here is how you can help, and here is what is going to happen if you don't help. We need your help to make this a better place.' We're just up the street from 82nd and it is a busy area. It's not an area in decline but it is not getting attention like over I-205 at Gateway. There is [sic] some neat things going on there but I believe this can be a Gateway area if we get enough people involved.”

Though Hunt estimates that only five percent of their students hail from Northeast Portland, they seek to increase those numbers. “One of the exciting things that we are talking about is scholarships for students who live in Northeast Portland and don't have the means to get a private education. We have a donor who has already dropped some seed money into an endowment that would pay for four years of education for a student coming here in ninth grade. We would like to grow that endowment so each year we are bringing in four to five new students where tuition is covered.”

Columbia Christian tuition costs between $3,900 to $6,000 annually, depending on grade level. Scholarship seekers would need a certain GPA to qualify and participate in a project that gives back to Northeast Portland.

Hunt foresees partnership opportunities with their tenants as well. “Maybe there might be some sort of synergistic relationship where some of our seniors may be working on a project with Portland Rescue Mission or Our Father's House or if they are interested in counseling maybe start seeing what it looks like to be a counselor.” Seniors currently log 24 hours of community service to graduate. Hunt also sounded optimistic that someday Warner Pacific could offer college course credits to Columbia Christian seniors.

Other community-building options may revive construction on campus. “Last year we had some conversations with the YMCA about a possible facility on this campus and those talks are still going on,” Hunt said. “That would be a wonderful relationship with this school.” The talks involved building a pool and community center. “Another thing we have been talking about is taking the Parkrose example and making a performing arts center where you can have children's theatre, summer concerts, and it is used by the community, not just owned by the school. We want to create an environment that benefits this area.”

As for the big picture, Hunt said he sees Columbia Christian School as “a place that is known for academics but also known for the people it produces when they leave here. One thing I want our students to know is that wherever they are, be the best person you can be in that place and that place is better because you are there. That is what I want this campus to be: a place of hope and wherever those ministries are going those places are better because they are on this campus. It is pretty exciting. My principal and I have talked hypothetically for a number of years and now it's a reality and now we just need to get the resources and make it happen.”

Columbia Christian Schools is at 413 N.E. 90th Avenue. The phone number is 503-252-8577. The website is www.columbiachristian.com.
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