Lori Knight, head of Afton Christian School, was trying to figure out how her school was going to overcome its precarious financial footing last February after a dismal enrollment year. They couldn’t pay their utility bill. They were behind on financial obligations. She was counting on the school’s annual fundraising event in May to pull them through.
Then COVID-19 hit. ACS, a small private school on Rt. 151, immediately went on lockdown like all the other schools in the area. Teachers and staff struggled with how to reach their students virtually. There would be no golf fundraiser. Just when she thought things couldn’t get much worse, Knight received an email in March from the school’s landlord, the Church of the Blue Ridge, informing the school that its lease would not be renewed. They would have to move from the home they had occupied for 19 years.
“It was a pretty low moment because it was a shocker,” said Knight, who has served as head of school for 13 years. “We just weren’t expecting it. At first, it created some panic with us. We were in a pandemic. We don’t have any options or opportunities to go look for things. We’re locked down. What are we going to do?”
As a Christian community, she said, they quickly turned to what they know how to do: “We prayed.” They didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
A few weeks later, Andy Shiflett, the director of student affairs, was driving his usual route to get milk in Waynesboro when he noticed a “For Sale” sign posted outside a nearby church, St. John the Evangelist. The Catholic church had just put its chapel and two nearby buildings on the market as they prepared to complete construction on their new church.
As soon as he saw it, he called Knight and suggested that they check out the property. Knight agreed and the two quickly met with the real estate agent for a tour.
The old St. John church, built in 1963, had a school wing that hadn’t been used since the 1970s, except for the occasional Sunday school class. It had a commercial kitchen, a cafeteria, countless classrooms and whiteboards. “All of the things that we could have asked or wished for in a school,” Knight said. “Right away, I just walked in and said, ‘OK, Andy. This is it!”
The asking price was $1.1 million. Knight had little hope of buying it, let alone being able to get all the necessary approvals from the ACS Board and the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, in time to begin the new school year in a new location. But they were not discouraged.
“Realize, we had no money. We had debt and we were thinking, ‘How could this even work?’” Knight said. “But we left there with the real estate agent saying that this is a church that really has a heart for this ministry and the idea that you want to bring a school over here. Let’s have a conversation. And that’s what we started with.”
A Match Made in Heaven
ACS approached St. John about a lease/purchase arrangement and made an offer.
The Catholic church normally isn’t in the business of leasing space. However, Bishop Barry C. Knestout, head of the Richmond Diocese, was so moved by the school’s predicament that he approved a one-year lease for them to get in right away. The church entered into an agreement for ACS to purchase the property after their lease expires in June. Neither party would disclose the purchase price.
St. John had been hoping to move into a new church it built on Sheppard Court in Waynesboro. Although they weren’t ready to dedicate their new building and were still worshipping at the old church, they were quick to accommodate the new tenants.
They moved their belongings out of the parish office annex so ACS could move in. And they gave ACS all the equipment and supplies they had in the school wing—tables, chairs, bookshelves, desks, kitchen equipment, a sound system, and more.
“We had made such a wonderful connection with the team here at St. John’s, and they have just been phenomenal to work with,” Knight said. “It has been such a blessing and such a breath of fresh air that we needed to have this support system. It’s sort of like our big brother or big sister that is coming alongside of us . . . wanting to see good come from our ministry and our organization and willing to give to it.’”
St. John’s pastor, staff and parishioners said they have enjoyed the sound of children playing outdoors. They have observed how the ACS staff, parents and other volunteers have devoted endless hours to updating the facilities, modernizing them for both on-site and remote learning.
“But this is more than buildings and contracts; it’s about dreams,” Lorraine Whitley, St. John parish administrator, said in an email. “Appalachian Christian School has formulated a dream for their future—to establish a place for high quality education, focused on Christian belief and practice. Their dream is new, and they have just started down this path, but already, their progress is impressive.”
All Hands on Deck
Once ACS got the go-ahead to move in, the school’s 14 teachers, staff members, spouses, students and friends immediately went to work. They had only weeks before the official start of the 2020-21 school year.
“We have incredible staff, and everybody rolled up their sleeves when they came in,” said Shiflett, the school’s student affairs director. “You would not believe the amount of work we put into this in a short amount of time.”
Spouses of the teachers installed eight AC units. Another spouse who is a professional painter volunteered to paint the entire facility, including 15 classrooms and the cafeteria. Others helped install, develop and wire all of the security and IT system.
D-Day was Aug. 15, when they gathered in Afton to move the old school to its new location over the mountain.
“We had a wonderful turnout,” Knight said. “We loaded, had a plan, executed, and by the afternoon, everything had been emptied and cleared out of our old site and moved into our new site. In one day. We probably had 50 people and 10 trucks and a couple of trailers. It was phenomenal.”
The school officially changed its name to Appalachian Christian School and opened for classes on Sept. 9, only a week behind schedule.
In-Person Learning a Success
The school teaches the same subjects as public school, with the addition of Bible, handwriting, health safety, and manners.
“The focus is on the whole child,” said Kimberly Gale, first-grade teacher, art teacher and volunteer shuttle van driver for ACS. “Their development as a person, their character, of course their scholastic education, and their faith.”
ACS requires students to attend class in person. If a student must quarantine at home, or there are extenuating circumstances within a family, they are allowed to join virtually for instruction.
Gale has 10 students in her first-grade class. All but one she teaches in person every day. That student, who has a family member who is immuno-compromised, is connected virtually by a tablet that sits on the table in front of her.
Since the start of the school year, the school has had only two positive cases of Covid—Knight and one of her students. Both of them apparently contracted it while on a youth leadership retreat to Smith Mountain Lake in November with students from the Upper School.
“Somehow I picked it up,” Knight said. “I don’t know how it happened. Everybody else seemed clear.” The infection was right around the Thanksgiving break, so the school decided to shut down one extra week to make sure everyone stayed safe.
Gale attributes the success of keeping Covid out of the classroom to her school community.
“It’s a team effort between staff, the kids and the families, who all have the same goal,” she said. “The kids want to be there learning. They are bored at home. It’s hard to learn on-line.”
Each morning parents get a text reminder to complete several Covid screening questions through an app on their mobile phones: Has their child had a fever over 100.4, experienced a loss of taste, shortness of breath, runny nose, chills, headache? Any gastro-intestinal issues? Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea? Has anyone been exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid?
If they answer yes to any of them, they must stay home and connect to their class virtually until they’re cleared to return in person.
Kids wash their hands with soap and sanitize prior to coming into the classroom. They sit in their own seats. They don’t share pencils, crayons or school supplies. Students ages 5 and up are required to wear masks at all times.
“The rules are what they are, and the kids do the best they can,” Gale said. “But kids are kids. Some wear (their masks) on their chin on occasion. It’s hard to teach phonics with a mask over your mouth.”
In the common areas at the school, they had to revamp everything in relation to how they interact with one another. They separated the student body into two lunch times.
“There are no more than two to three kids at a lunch table,” Gale said. “Kids sit at the same chair in the same spot every day. After every use, the tables and chairs are sanitized by the staff–three times a day. On the shuttle vans, only family members sit next to each other and the seats are sanitized at the end of the day.”
Room to Grow
The school is not only surviving, but thriving. Knight said ACS has been the recipient of such an outpouring of support from so many faith communities that she calls it “a gift from God.” Although their biggest benefactor was St. John the Evangelist, at least 12 other area churches have lent a hand.
Waynesboro Free Methodist Church is working with them to open an early education program at the church this month. Another Waynesboro church, Basic United Methodist, gave them a van. Two Crozet churches—Valley Community Church and Commonwealth Christian Community—let them park their two vans on their property. Good Shepherd Anglican Church down the street has offered ACS students the use of its fenced-in playground. Others have provided teachers breakfasts, cards, and cleaning supplies.
“It’s amazing to me how the denominational barriers have just been non-existent,” Shiflett said. “We’ve had cooperation and people have sewn into this present ministry from everywhere. That would be the Catholics, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Pentecostals…
“The pieces seemed to fit at just the right time, at just the right place and what was needed at the time,” he said. “And it continues to do that.”
Knight has reported a 38% jump in student enrollment to 83 since the move. That compares to a yearly average of about 60 students while they were in Afton. “And more are coming in,” she said. Knight attributes the surge in enrollment to their new location in a more urban setting, as well as parents looking to send their children to school in-person.
“We’re now seeing more because the virtual is just not working for so many students,” she said. “Parents are finally at the place where—we tried it, we thought we could do it, it seemed like it would be okay, but it’s just not working. Whether it’s academically or whether it’s socially, they are seeing a shift or change in their child and it’s causing them to say we’re just not going to continue with this and we’re looking for some other options.”
The building fits 500 students, but ACS is limited by Covid distancing requirements in the classroom. Under current guidelines, the school could accommodate 120 students in grades 7 through 12, plus another 100 students in Pre-K through 6, for a total capacity of 220.
Their Trailblazer Learning Center, which opened on Feb. 1 at Waynesboro Free Methodist on Hopeman Parkway, can accept up to 49 children ages 2 ½ to 4 years old.
There Are Still Hurdles to Face
At this point, among the things holding them back is being able to hire enough staff for the extra students on the wait list, Knight said. “We really need another teacher. We really need a bus driver.”
Athletics is another area where the school has been struggling during Covid. In the past, the school’s middle school and high school students have been able to play team sports including volleyball, cross country, basketball and golf. The pandemic all but eliminated their athletic program this year.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot athletically right now, so that’s been a disappointment,” said Shiflett, who also serves as athletic director. “We attempted basketball. We’ve had several practices. However, the doors seem to have closed on games. There may be some coming up in early March. That’s been a stumbling block.”
They hope to pursue volleyball and golf later this spring. But these are small inconveniences compared to the mountain of trouble they faced a year ago.
“It was a horrible thing to have to process at that time,” Knight said, “but it has really had so many wonderful blessings for us. It opened so many doors in such a hard time and a hard season.”