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On September 7, 1976, Westminster Christian Academy opened its doors – for the first two years in rented classrooms at Missouri Baptist College – to 72 students. The opening was the culmination of several years of planning and prayer by a number of families, many of whom were members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), who desired a Christian secondary education from a Reformed perspective. Several of the founding Board members were associated with Covenant Theological Seminary in Creve Coeur, the national seminary of the RPCES (In 1978, the RPCES was received by the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America). The founding Board of Directors, who received incorporation from the State of Missouri on September 8, 1975, included the following: Lee Brown, Rex Brown , Bobby Duck, who oversaw the finances for nearly a decade, Synesio Lyra, who had earlier helped to start Covenant Christian School (now Twin Oaks Christian School), Robert Luedde, Robert Miller, James Routszong, Patrick Tharp, Al Thomas, and three professors from Covenant Theological Seminary, Joe Hall, Robert Reymond and George Knight.
From the beginning, George Knight was the clear leader and visionary for Westminster Christian Academy. In fact, for several months prior to the start of the first year of school, the Knight’s home telephone number was listed as Westminster’s number. Dr. Knight moved to St. Louis in 1970 to teach at Covenant Seminary. Having a background in Christian schooling, which included helping to start Philadelphia-Montgomery Christian Academy, Dr. Knight and his family had a strong interest in Christian education for their own children but "were frustrated because there were no Christian schools available." Several people had talked from time to time about a Christian high school in St. Louis, but there wasn’t enough interest in the early 1970’s.
In the late 1960’s, the start of a Christian elementary school helped provide an early spark. Several families in the Glen Ridge Presbyterian Church (which later merged to form Westminster Presbyterian Church, since renamed Chesterfield Presbyterian Church), started a Christian elementary school that eventually moved to Covenant Presbyterian Church on Ballas Road. Shortly after his arrival in St. Louis, Dr. Knight and others "petitioned the Board to let us utilize the Covenant Christian School base of operations to launch a high school," but their overtures were rejected. As a result, Dr. Knight and others began a grassroots movement to convince people that a Christian high school was needed.
"Some families were hesitant or opposed at first," recalls Dr. Knight. "We ran into something of a logjam. A number of families were willing to be involved if there were ample students available, but until enough people committed there wasn’t a core group large enough for most families." To help break the logjam, a survey was sent to every family that had expressed even the slightest interest, and some momentum was gained when it seemed as though the possibility of a real school was closer to reality.
At the same time, Missouri Baptist College was experiencing a downturn in its enrollment, so when a group of prospective parents met with school officials to discuss the possibility of renting classroom space, they were unexpectedly offered classrooms, use of the labs, gym, cafeteria (known as the "Ill Grill"), athletic facilities and library, and the option of juniors and seniors taking college courses. "We seemed to have everything all at once dropped into our lap," Dr. Knight remembers, far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams for a new high school. With about 20 students committed for grades 7-10 by late 1975, the founding Board decided to "go ahead and trust the Lord."
There were still skeptics, however. John Prentis, who later served as President of the Board and volunteered for three years as Director of Development, recalls having dinner with Dr. Knight in 1973 and later hearing him teach Sunday School at Central Presbyterian Church. "I thought he was crazy. The concept would never work. Sunday School is just fine, but I really don’t see the need for five more days of it," wrote Prentis, who was surprised that a group of parents decided to go ahead and open a Christian secondary school in fall of 1976.
Starting a school, however, was a monumental task, one involving weekly meetings and hours of work. The founding Board, often meeting at the Knight’s home, at Covenant Presbyterian Church, or at the local International House of Pancakes, met almost every Saturday morning throughout 1975-76 to establish the bylaws, interview and hire the initial staff, interview and enroll students, set tuition, fees and salaries, plan a budget, create and mail publicity, and work on the many logistics for opening in September, 1976. Many of the evening Board meetings during the first school year continued well after midnight. Two early contacts in 1975 included Dr. Norman Harper, a national leader in Christian schooling, and Dr. Donovan Graham, interviewed by the Board as a potential teaching principal because of his background in distance learning.
By January 1976, the newly incorporated Westminster Christian Academy had been received as a member school in the National Union of Christian Schools (later renamed Christian Schools International), achieved tax-exempt status from the IRS, and signed a contract with Missouri Baptist College for lease of property for the 1976-1977 school year. A local attorney, John B. Lewis, who joined the faculty after retiring from Monsanto in 1994, provided the legal guidance for the contract with Missouri Baptist College. As late as March, it appeared that the school would open in the fall with students only in grades 7-10.
Also during the spring, Nolan Vander Ark, a Christian Reformed missionary in Africa, accepted the Board’s offer to be a teaching principal for the 1976-1977 school year for $15,000. Th choice of Vander Ark was logical since throughout its twenty-five year history, Westminster has enjoyed regular financial support, students, faculty and encouragement from Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Maryland Heights. In May, the Board decided to begin the first school year with grades 7-12, with Clark Neuhoff as the only member of the Class of 1977. Tuition for the first year was set at $800, although that fee would nearly triple by the 1980-1981 school year.
During that first year, a number of decisions were made. Despite initial resistance from the Board, it was decided that the nickname for Westminster teams would be the "Wildcats", and the school colors would be blue and white. The original logo for the school, designed by local artist Ray Collins, emphasized the Celtic Cross, the crown of Jesus and the shield of faith. Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," was adopted as the school verse (the original blue and white sign hangs today in the Business Office lobby), and students were able to participate in basketball, softball, volleyball, band, chorus and art, and work with the yearbook or newspaper staff. The first graduation ceremony was held on May 31, 1977, in the Missouri Baptist College Auditorium with Dr. Knight giving the commencement address.
During the second year, growing space and pains at Missouri Baptist College began to surface. Conflicts over use of certain facilities, a shortage of parking spaces, and a growing student body that topped 100 made it clear that a new location was needed. "In a polite but clear way, they let us know that one of us was going to have to move, and it wasn’t going to be them," quipped Dr. Knight. Evelyn Downs, who taught and served as Headmistress for four years, noted that the facilities at Missouri Baptist College were "outgrown fast. We would go to the gym and there would be someone using it. Things were at times confusing and limited."
Two rather insignificant notes in the Board minutes that second year are particularly interesting in 2001. At the November 5, 1977 meeting it was noted that "The ninth grade English class has a problem as the students do not know parts of speech," which is not a surprising concern in the second year of a school’s existence. The problems seem to have been addressed quickly, however, because in the August 26, 1978, minutes it was noted that Mike Gerson was accepted into the 9th grade. Mike who graduated in 1982, has worked as an editor at U.S. News and World Report, a speechwriter for presidential candidates Jack Kemp and Bob Dole, and is now serving in the White House as Chief Speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Apparently, Mike learned parts of Speech.
Throughout the 1977-1978 school year, several possibilities for a new location for the school were discussed, including the Show Case Building, the current Fern Ridge School on Olive Road, Webster Groves Baptist Church, and an unoccupied elementary school in the Kirkwood District named the Des Peres School. After a series of meetings and discussions, the Board decided that the Des Peres School was the best option as a new location for Westminster. The building, situated on 5.34 acres at 12006 Manchester Road, featured 16 classrooms, space for a library and offices, and over 27,000 square feet of usable space. In fact, the Board thought the building so spacious they invited Covenant Christian School to merge together under one roof. Amazingly, an architect hired by the Board to assess the condition of the property as well as the long-term use declared the building "would meet our needs for the next 30 years." After only four years in the building, however, Westminster was forced to move again because of its growing student body. The original Des Peres School building was razed in 2000 and replaced with a Walgreens.
After the Board decided to pursue the Des Peres School property, the parent association voted 73-4 to send a delegation to a public bid, anticipating that the selling price could go as high as $500,00. When the bidding day came, many Board members and their wives went to the auction and, as Rex Brown recalls, "The representatives of a business sent a committee to buy this same property. One of their wives was the friend of a Westminster Board member’s wife, and after finding out her husband would be bidding against a Christian school, his wife placed a well-directed elbow into her husband’s ribs and said, ‘ You can’t bid against this Christian School.’ So, God not only used hands but even elbows directed by the Holy Spirit." The winning bid for Westminster on November 21, 1977, was only $215,000. After four years of use, Westminster sold the property in 1982 to Sanford Brown Business College for $500,000.
To prepare the newly purchased property for occupation the following fall, many work days were held as dozens of volunteers labored to clean and repair the school. As a security measure, several Covenant Seminary students were allowed to live in the building throughout the winter and spring. Serious consideration was also given to leasing portions of the building, both to balance the budget and to make better use of the facility. In fact, the kindergarten class from Covenant Christian School met at Westminster for several years. Money was very tight in those early years, and the school was dependent on volunteer help, donations, and the prudent use of the resources available, but the new building "was like a Cadillac," said Mrs. Downs.
During the four years on Manchester Road, the enrollment doubled from 138 students in 1978-1979 to 265 in 1982-1983 when Westminster opened its doors on Ladue Road, a 400% growth spurt from the original 72 students. Other changes also came as the faculty grew and the school moved through three different headmasters, but the close-knit community continued to be a distinctive feature. The school also expanded its course offerings, athletic teams available to students, and fine arts opportunities, but the rapidly growing student body made the need for a new facility a number one priority. The Board of Directors, which out of necessity during the first few years had made essentially every administrative decision, began to function more like a traditional Board, allowing its members to look to the future to consider and plan for continued growth and a new location.
There are times when the Lord seems to lead in very clear ways, and the move from Manchester Road to the Ladue Road campus was one of those times. For years, students, Board members, and parents had mentioned the West Ladue Junior High School in Creve Coeur as a possible home for Westminster, but in the early 1980’s the Board first considered buying property on Bopp Road just north of the Manchester Road location in Town and Country.
Spearheaded in part by Jack Kramer, a successful fund drive was launched that eventually raised a million dollars towards the purchase of about 20 acres of land on Bopp Road. A series of early morning Board prayer times was held, a public prayer meeting was conducted on the vacant stretch of land, and it seemed for a while that a brand new school building would be built for Westminster. A WCA parent, Bob Horn, drew architectural plans for the site, but the city turned down the proposal to develop the site for a school since the land was zoned for residential property only. In retrospect, according to Kramer, the rejection by Town and Country was a blessing. "We were admittedly a little embarrassed, for who rally thought we could afford to build on this property after we scraped together just enough to buy the land."
The Board then turned its attention to West Ladue Junior High, but it really was a return consideration. As early as 1978, the site was mentioned in the Board minutes as a possible location, but in the intervening years it had been purchased by the Special School District and renamed the Central County School with approximately 100 students. That fact wasn’t going to deter at least one Westminster family: "Each time my wife passed the then vacant West Ladue Junior High," recalls former parent and Board member Dr. Les Walker, "she would claim it for Jesus Christ and Westminster. Together we prayed it would become WCA’s home, even before if it was actively considered. Praryer works!"
The Special School District rejected Westminster’s initial offer to buy West Ladue Junior High because it was considered the "crown jewel" of the district’s available facilities. Despite the rejection, and the offer to look at several other properties, the Board decided to offer $3 million anyway, and the District surprisingly changed its mind and agreed to sell the property since it desperately needed the money. "The Lord had gone before us and prepared the way. There is no other explanation," wrote Kramer.
In the summer of 1982, Westminster purchased the former West Ladue Junior High School and moved its 265 students from Des Peres to Creve Coeur. Again, the community sprang into action, cleaning and repairing the new structure, and moving all the school’s possessions from Des Peres to Creve Coeur. Truckload after truckload brought desks, tables, chairs, and other equipment to furnish the new building, which seemed endlessly big in the summer of 1982 since the square footage increased fourfold over the Manchester Road building. For several years the maintenance and service crews for the Special School District rented portions of the lower level from Westminster. The total acreage increased sixfold, prompting two different congregations in the 1980’s to propose building a sanctuary on the property. In hindsight, the wisdom of the Board to decline such offers showed great foresight.
The other key event in these early years on Ladue Road was the accreditation process through the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS). As former Headmaster Arlen Dykstra summarized his three years of leadership, "it was all about relocation and accreditation." ISACS is the midwestern arm of the National Association of Independent Schools, providing accreditation and support for about 200 of the top schools in the region. A representative from ISACS met with the Board in July 1982 and by 1983 Westminster had been accepted for membership in ISACS, the first Christian school to earn that status. Since that time, and largely due to the leadership of Westminster and Headmaster Jim Marsh, three other Christian schools have been granted membership in ISACS.
The most immediate benefit of accreditation through ISACS was the opportunity for Westminster’s athletic teams to compete in the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA), but the real impact of ISACS has gone much deeper. In fact, it can be argued that most of the significant developments, changes and improvements over the past 15 years have been a direct result of Westminster’s association with and accreditation from ISACS. Most recently, for example, the school changed its daily schedule to allow for extended periods of instruction on Wednesdays and Thursdays, one of the results of an ISACS recommendation in 1996 to evaluate how the school structures its time.
After three years as Headmaster and six years of service on the Board prior to that, Dr. Dykstra returned to Missouri Baptist College where today he serves a Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Through its first nine years, four different people led Westminster and the time had come to select the fifth – one who would hopefully lead the school towards even greater growth, expansion, and development. Board member Tom Kelley was selected to chair the search committee to find the best person.
The work of the search committee was long and extensive. After nearly five months of searching and screening, which included working through over 50 applications, the committee flew a 37-year-old principal from Fort Lauderdale Christian School to St. Louis for an interview. While Jim Marsh was being interviewed, Tom Kelley received a phone call from Mike Ruiter, President of Christian Schools International, concerning our headmaster search. As the two talked on the phone, Kelley asked a straightforward question: who is the best possible headmaster for Westminster? Without hesitation, Ruiter spoke of a young administrator in Florida, but he didn’t think he would ever consider moving to St. Louis. When Kelley revealed that Jim Marsh was in the next room interviewing at that very moment, Ruiter abruptly said, "Then why are you wasting your time talking with me! Get off the phone and go in there and do everything you can to hire him. He’s the best we’ve got!" Jim Marsh accepted the offer in the spring of 1985, much to the delight of Kelley. "We are excited about Jim Marsh coming to WCA," Kelley was quoted in The Ambassador. "Mr. Marsh brings something that we’ve never had: the ability to give direction from a perspective outside our current faculty or Board. Though WCA has been very successful, we can learn and grow from others."
The year 1985 was significant for the City of St. Louis. The Cardinals made it to the World Series again, and downtown continued its renewal with the opening of St. Louis Centre and restoration of Union Station. That year also marked the beginning of Headmaster Jim Marsh’s tenure at Westminster, and the record shows a remarkable series of achievements, growth and development as God continued to pour out His blessings through the leadership and vision of Jim Marsh.
One of the biggest uncertainties facing Westminster as Marsh arrived on the scene was the indebtedness created by the purchase of the Ladue Road campus. Although one million was paid, the two-million-dollar balance committed to a loan, and the large interest payments created an almost immediate burden to the annual budget. The Board prior to the arrival of Jim Marsh had initiated one of the first steps taken to address the budget shortfalls. In November 1983, the "Westminster Shares" was started, a loan program to Westminster required of all families during the time they had students enrolled. This helped somewhat, but it proved to be a stopgap measure, and by the mid-1980’s the school was annually operating a budget deficit. At one point, things were so tight that some suggested selling off the back five acres for residential development as a way to pay debts, and later, representatives of the Board listened to a proposal from developers who wanted to purchase all 30 acres for development of a subdivision. The Board, however, continued to pray and look for ways to balance the budget and pay the debts.
Marsh began a number of initiatives to work on the deficit but, "it’s always a trick to keep tuition low, salaries and benefits high, and class sizes small," he observed. When he first arrived for example, tuition dollars and other income raised only about 65% of the annual budget, so the school was forced each year to raise large sums of money. By comparison, in the current 2000-2001 budget, about 91% of all expenses is met through tuition and other income. Teacher salaries and benefits have improved dramatically over the past fifteen years as Marsh insisted that Westminster become a strong competitive option for prospective teachers to consider.
The long-term indebtedness, however, continued to be the dark cloud on the horizon, so the Board launched the "Soaring to New Heights" campaign in October 1988, to pay off all debt, begin an endowment, refurbish certain parts of the campus, raise teacher salaries, and expand the curricular program. The program was eventually successful – a "mortgage burning" was held on March 25, 1993 – but the school had to refinance and take out new loans in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and tuition was raised 15% for the 1990-1991 school year.
In the midst of the financial worries, the Lord provided a humorous event. To celebrate the tenth anniversary, a dinner was held in the gym on April 12, 1986, featuring Dr. Jay Kesler of Taylor University. At the conclusion of the evening, attendees were asked to make pledges and gifts to the school. Carole Buck coordinated the evening and had arranged for a catering company that did regular work for the Cardinals. The workers did a great job, but their efficiency created a terrifying moment for the new headmaster: all the pledge cards and gifts had been thrown away with the dinner trash! For the next several hours, Jim Marsh, with the help of Sara and Jim Drexler, picked through every piece of trash in the dumpster until all cards, pledges, and checks were found. Jim Marsh didn’t speak publicly of the incident until the twentieth anniversary dessert in April 1996.
There were many other blessings from God throughout the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s. During the 1986-1987 school year, the senior service program, "Faith in Action," was launched. Each year all seniors are required to work 60 hours in the community at hospitals, schools, retirement homes, and other places of service. In addition, the students are asked to write about and discuss what they have learned and experienced, and how that relates to their Christian faith. The program has been recognized nationally through Christian Schools International and the Council for Religion in Independent Schools. One unforeseen benefit has been the testimonies of a number of graduates who, after a year of volunteer work, decide to continue their service on their own, or pursue training and education to prepare them for a career in that area.
The 1990-1991 school year was one of highs and lows. In April, 1990, ISACS re-accredited Westminster after a successful site visit the previous fall. The beautiful stone sign was installed on Ladue Road, but enrollment dropped for the only time in the school’s twenty-five year history during the 1990-1991 school year as financial concerns forced the Board to raise tuition 15% from the previous year. Two national awards that year, however, buoyed everyone’s spirits. English teacher Barbara Heimburger was selected as the only Missouri teacher for the American Teacher Awards sponsored by the Disney Corporation, and in the fall of 1991, the United States Department of Education recognized Westminster as a "Blue Ribbon" School of Excellence. Board President Timothy Belz accompanied Jim Marsh to Washington, D.C., to receive the award from President George H. Bush.
As Westminster moved into the 1990’s, long-range planning took on a bigger role as the school continued to grow and develop. Even though the Ladue Road building seemed endlessly big in 1982, by the mid 1990’s over 500 students were crowding the halls and parking lots and it was clear that new buildings were needed. After careful consideration and deliberation, the Board made its first presentation to the Planning and Zoning Committee of Creve Coeur on June 28, 1994, to receive permission to renovate, redesign and improve the campus through new parking areas, enhanced landscaping, renovations, new athletic facilities, and several new buildings. No one could have imagined then that it would take two more years, ultimately through the legal system, before permission to build was granted.
In the summer of 1997, the front driveway, parking lots, and sidewalks were redesigned, and an irrigation system was installed along with extensive sewer and stormwater improvements. It wasn’t until May of 1998 that groundbreaking ceremonies came for the construction of the two-story classroom and office building, commons, two-story gym and training area, outside athletic facilities improvements, and renovations for about half of the existing buildings. By January of 2000, an $11 million construction and renovation project was completed, adding much-needed classroom, lab, office and athletic facilities while providing the school with a new, distinctive look.
Throughout the 1990’s, Westminster's Fine Arts Department continued to offer new opportunities for students. An instrumental band program was added to an already flourishing vocal music program, and each year several students are honored with All-District and All-State recognitions. The musical concerts and productions each year seem to top what was offered the year before, and the dream of an auditorium for such performances remains. The drama classes expanded, offering students numerous opportunities to perform through improvisation and plays, while the visual arts classes provided great instruction and training for artists to develop their creative talents.
In athletics, Westminster’s teams developed into perennially strong competitors within MSHSAA. The first District title was won in 1987 by the boys cross country team, and Melissa Millar became WCA’s first State champ in 2000 by finishing first in the 300 intermediate hurdles. Other teams that have won District titles or advanced to State competition in the 1990’s include women’s volleyball, women’s cross country, men’s and women’s golf, track and field, wrestling, and women’s swimming. Most recently, the women’s cross country team captured third place in State in October of 2000, the highest finish of any Westminster team to date.
"The most significant ‘defining’ issue in the early years of WCA," wrote founding Board member Dr. Robert Reymond, "was whether the school was going to be a school for covenant children of Christian families or a ‘prep school’ for high achievers. Some original Board members desired the latter, but a majority prevailed for the former view. Thank God!" Faithfulness to the original mission and purpose of Westminster Christian Academy as a school founded on the authority of God’s Word is clearly articulated by the current Mission Statement, a statement that was written in the mid-1980’s and refined in the mid-1990’s.
Westminster continues to integrate a biblically based, Reformed worldview of education into all curricular and cocurricular programs. The goal is to produce mature, knowledgeable, and responsible Christian adults, results that may not always be evident through scholastic testing (although WCA students consistently score high on standardized tests), but rather through the quality of service and productivity of the alumni in society. Unashamedly emphasizing the authority and uniqueness of its biblical foundation, the school remains committed to academic excellence and, accordingly attempts to meet the needs of its students in a holistic way.
It is not insignificant that during the most recent site visit for re-accreditation in 1996, the chairman of the ISACS visiting team wrote the following: "Westminster Christian Academy is a school which knows its Mission and is fulfilling it, and WCA is a school on a mission; a mission to academically train and spiritually equip its students for college and life beyond… The Board, administration, faculty and staff, students, and parents share the same core values, which are reflected in Westminster’s Mission and Philosophy." Among the ten "Major Commendations" of the visiting team were the following:
- Remarkable and obvious fulfillment of WCA’s stated Christian Mission and Philosophy.
- Compassionate, service-oriented, and respectful student body.
- Camaraderie, mutual respect, and support permeating the entire school community.
- Integration of faith and learning which is clearly evident in both the curricular and cocurricular programs.
- Commitment to required and voluntary community service and outreach through a variety of programs and activities.
In addition to doggedly holding to the mission of Westminster in all areas of school life, the Board and administration have regularly taken steps to further the reality of a Reformed, covenantal education. For example, in the summers of 1997 and 1998, a Curriculum Committee composed of Westminster faculty and administration met to develop a Philosophy of Curriculum, taking the Mission and Philosophy statements and fleshing them out in terms of what is taught and how. In summary, the committee settled on a three-fold description – "What?", "So What?" and "Now What?" – corresponding to the head, the heart and the hands of the student. The "What?" has to do with the basic knowledge, facts, and skills that are learned in the head. The "So What?" encourages students to go deeper, to understand connections, to discover in their own hearts what the facts and knowledge mean, and what implications there are for life. The "Now What?" transforms and applies the learning into practical action and living. This scheme parallels the three-fold formula found in the Mission statement – discover, embrace and integrate – and reflects a Reformed worldview.
Further, in an effort to fully meet the needs of covenantal families in the St. Louis area, the Board approved the development of The Learning Center, staffed by teachers with training and experience in special education, to better serve students with learning difficulties. In the 2001-2002 school year, a Level Two self-contained classroom will be added to enable Westminster to enroll up to ten students with more severe learning problems. In another vein, the Board decided in 1997 that minority enrollment was too low, so specific plans were established to promote Westminster among minority families, and the Lord has blessed WCA with dozens of new students and families. Both of these steps were taken as a further extension of Westminster’s Mission.
The first 25 years of Westminster Christian Academy have been nothing short of amazing! As we remember and celebrate God’s goodness and blessings, we rejoice with the hymnist, "O to grace how great a debtor." We also look forward with great confidence and peace to see how God will continue to bless and lead in the future in and through Westminster Christian Academy.
Written by James Drexler, PhD
Former Upper School Principal