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In the mid 1970s, several St. Louis families from the Reformed Presbyterian Church recognized the need for a distinctly Christian junior/senior high school that integrated faith and learning. Led by Dr. George Knight III, a professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, a school board armed with the mandate to establish Westminster Christian Academy was constituted in September 1975. Dr. Knight’s leadership and passion helped define a vision and philosophy that have endured throughout Westminster’s history.
The founding Board established the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechism as the doctrinal base for the school and used the integrated bylaws provided by the National Union of Christian Schools (NUCS) to guide development of the school’s bylaws. The official bylaws were approved by the Westminster Christian Academy Association and incorporated into the State of Missouri in September 1975.
Westminster became a member of the National Union of Christian Schools in 1975, which established Westminster as a viable Christian school in the Reformed Christian school tradition. Later in 1982, Westminster was approved as an accredited member of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS), an association of respected independent secondary schools in America.
Westminster Christian Academy’s first home was in rented classrooms at Missouri Baptist College. This venue not only provided necessary classroom space, but it also offered access to well-equipped laboratories, a gymnasium and other facilities rarely available to a small secondary school. The first-year curriculum included German, band, art and music.
In April 1976, Mr. Nolan Vander Ark was hired as Westminster’s first headmaster, and Mrs. Evelyn Downs assumed the position of head teacher. The Board tasked the two to secure a teaching staff and open Westminster’s doors in the fall of that year. Mrs. Downs later became headmistress.
Throughout the following months, the fledgling school prayed faithfully, interviewed families, enrolled students, partitioned rooms and purchased equipment, books and furniture, all with less than $10,000 in the bank. The school’s vision was realized on September 7, 1976, when Dr. George Knight III addressed the students and faculty at an opening day chapel service.
After only one year at Missouri Baptist College, Westminster transitioned its campus to a small elementary school building in Des Peres — now the Walgreens located at Manchester and Lindemann Roads — where the school resided until 1982. It also quickly became too small for the growing student body, which had reached 250 students. At that time, Westminster purchased the Ladue Road campus, then belonging to West Ladue Middle School, a building that would hold 600. “We thought it looked huge,” said Head of School Jim Marsh, who began his tenure as head of school in 1985. “For a while, it looked too huge,” he said.
In 1987, Marsh, along with the School Board president, even contemplated selling the campus, or at least part of it, as the school had begun to accumulate significant debt. However, God had a different plan. After much prayer, planning and constant effort, Westminster began to grow and grow stronger. By the early ’90s, the school building that seemed so big a few years back began to reach its limits. In fact, when enrollment reached nearly 600 students, families were being turned away — a harsh reality that seemed to contradict the mission of the school. In order to regain the ability to enroll entire families, Westminster expanded the school to include a two-story classroom building, science lab, new gymnasium and athletic fields. The addition would allow the school to enroll as many as 900 students.
By the 2000-2001 school year, the transformative renovation had caused classrooms to fill quickly. In the past, every time Westminster nearly reached capacity, we had either (a) moved to a larger facility or (b) expanded our current campus. This time, however, it became clear that expanding the Ladue Road campus would be impossible. As such, Westminster was faced with a vital question: “Do we find a way to continue to grow and therefore move, or do we just limit our enrollment and turn away more families every year?” To find the answer, we looked to our mission.
We are a school that seeks to honor Jesus Christ in all that we do, and we are a school for the children of Christian parents. We enroll families — not students — and we believe our mission does not permit us to say “yes” to some and “no” to others. This is the same motivation behind the constant efforts to expand offerings and programs, creating more experiences for individual students to find their place and excel. This philosophy also led to the development of The Learning Center years ago — in order to meet the educational needs of every member of the family. As we pondered the question of growth and how it relates to our mission, the reason for our answer was a compelling one: We knew that if we were to continue to keep our doors open to every qualified family — and if we were to remain committed to excellence, to provide our kids with more and better opportunities so that they might engage and change the world for Jesus Christ — we needed to move.
In 2001, a handful of people started to pray about and discuss what Westminster would do if God opened the door to the purchase of the former West County Technical School property, which had recently been placed on the market. The location was ideal. Lacking funds and even a definitive plan for how Westminster would use the campus, armed only with our vision and the knowledge that God would lead, in February 2003, the school purchased the 40-acre campus for $14,250,000.
As the Westminster community moved forward with planning committees and town hall meetings, seeking to determine possible uses for the newly purchased campus, the strange irony of the immediately adjacent property began to become clear. The 30 acres of property called Centreat, owned by Central Presbyterian Church, was perfectly situated to the Westminster property. How remarkable that of all the property that would become available to Westminster to purchase, it would be right next door to these 30 acres? As Westminster explored ways to develop the purchased 40 acres, a few people hoped God would also provide Centreat; there were meetings and ideas, but as time went by, it became clear that the dream of our campus including the Centreat property was just that — an impossible dream. With only the 40 acres in our possession, the plan was to keep the Middle School at the Ladue Road campus and to move the Upper School to the Town & Country campus.
But as He sometimes does, God surprises us with a different plan. In summer 2007, a family offered to gift Westminster the funds to purchase Centreat. This unexpected $7.1 million gift would allow Westminster to plan for a 70-acre unified campus.
This remarkable and unexpected gift coupled with early success in the capital campaign propelled Westminster forward. Architectural drawings were updated, a builder was selected, and a 70-acre site plan was finalized. In 2008, Town & Country granted us approval, and we placed the Ladue Road campus for sale. But in 2009, the campaign and our construction plans were placed on hold due to the economic turmoil of our region. While we knew the prospect of selling the Ladue Road campus was dim as a result of the poor economy, it remained on the market.
By the end of January 2010, the Ladue School District presented us with an offer and a contract to purchase the Ladue Road campus for $18 million. This was a solid price and significant enough to cause us to begin working to figure out how and when we might be able to start construction.
For Ladue to be able to purchase our campus, residents of the District would have to pass a property tax increase during the April 2010 general election. Most of us believed that it would take a true miracle of God for this to occur. For the sale to be final, 56% of voters would have to vote “yes.” When all the votes were in, Proposition O (as it was called) passed by 60%. Today, we are still hearing from people who wonder how in the world this happened.
Things began to roll forward with great speed, but it didn’t seem easy or speedy at the time. In March, we began to ask what became another key question: “What happens if we can start construction this summer?”
The answer redefined our view of the new campus project. We discovered huge savings in construction costs if we started immediately; we learned that the project could be completed faster; and the biggest news of all — we could be in the new campus, completely finished, for the next (2011-12) school year.
The accelerated construction project presented a new challenge and test of faith. While giving and pledges have always been the expected way to fund this project, the concept of having to reach specific goals by specific dates was something new for Westminster. We wondered how our community would respond.
We had many fearful questions. Why take the risk? What if we have to stop construction? People are busy and preoccupied with so many things. Can we really mobilize a campaign in this time frame? Will people really pray and encourage others to get involved?
But in the midst of all these questions came the peace and knowledge that God works through His people. This is His work, we said. Let’s keep moving forward and do our best to communicate and ask people to pray and consider what God is doing. Let’s see if God will move in the hearts of His people to give, lead and take steps of faith with us.
We established the critical pledge milestones: $12 million by the end of June, then $15 million by the end of September, and $20 million by the end of December 2010. These milestones, if reached, would keep construction going. Then, we took this giant step of faith.
Many people asked us, “What if we don’t reach these milestones?” The straightforward answer was hard to hear and difficult to say out loud: “Then we’ll have to slow down or stop construction until we do.”
By God’s grace, we reached the pledge milestone on December 31, the last day possible. We started the day with approximately $360,000 in pledges to go, and that morning, even after all we had seen, our final milestone felt immense and undoable. An email update had gone out the day before, and the pledges were flooding in; around 5 p.m. that afternoon, we realized that God really had accomplished this. We received our last pledge of 2010 at 9:49 p.m. that New Year’s Eve.
Reaching the $20 million pledge milestone enabled us to keep construction going and allowed us to be in the new campus a year early, realizing significant construction cost savings along the way. Our lending partners came through with the $35 million construction loan — no small miracle in today’s economic environment.
The goal was never simply to complete the new campus construction. The goal isn’t simply to be able to manage a long-term debt. We must continue to become better before bigger, say “yes” to enrolling Christian families, and invest in great people, great programs and great facilities — making decisions that keep us financially strong as a ministry for generations to come.
The future is now, and this is not the end of the story, but the beginning of the next chapter. It is our prayer and hope that God will continue to provide the people and resources needed for us to remain a world-class Christian school, and that people will continue to take huge steps of faith, with the hope and commitment to see a Westminster Christian Academy education provided for new generations of students — for our children and for our children’s children.
We rejoice as we move forward together, amazed and excited by what God is doing and what He will do in the lives of students and families for years to come.