The banner outside Pioneer Christian Academy promises a fall 2019 opening. And just behind the Brownsville Community Garden, there are, in fact, students in classrooms but, also, signs of how very new the school is.
Ladders and a bit of ongoing construction line the hall to principal Christopher Miller’s office, where he’s settled after opening the school last Tuesday with an eye to the future — or, at least, the next 10 years.
“There’s a question I ask high school students,” he said. “What do you want to be when you’re 28 years old? It’s 10 years after they graduate. They know they’re preparing for something but not sure what. But they often have brothers or uncles or cousins or someone in their life who is 28, 29, 30 years old and they can envision that.”
Miller said that at Pioneer, he works with teachers and counselors to help students think about life at 28 and what they need to get there, whether it’s college, a trade school or working at a family business.
“It’s such a small school that we partner with LBCC to offer those career technical education opportunities,” he said. Currently, two Pioneer seniors are working to become diesel mechanics.
“One student is a farm boy and wants to be able to fix the big equipment on the farm and the other doesn’t want to go to college but doesn’t want to graduate without a plan and wants to stay in the mid-valley,” Miller said.
The school, which enrolled many students from the old Mennonite school in Brownsville after it closed, provides a biblically based curriculum and operates under the mission statement: "Helping students from all walks of life to achieve godliness, success and a love of learning."
Miller said “all walks of life” is a broad statement meant to capture all types of students, including low-income. As a private school, students must pay tuition to enroll. Current rates range from $1,500 a year for kindergarten and $4,000 a year for high school. If families have more than one child enrolled in the school, those costs decrease. According to Miller, tuition from the current 59 students fund about half of the school’s costs. The other half comes from what will become an annual auction — the last one raised $80,000 — and donations.
“I tell people this,” Miller said. “There’s a time in your life where you have the most expenses between the age of 30 and 50. So we try and target that 50-and-older population to help with the costs. We partner with those community members.”
Pioneer Christian Academy doesn’t currently offer scholarships but, Miller said if a student wants to attend and cannot afford tuition, the school works to find a community partner to help with the cost.
“We can’t make it free,” he said. “We do try and keep it low and affordable.”
The building itself is a hand-me-down from the old Brownsville Academy, sparing the costly construction of a new school. The lockers are from the old Brownsville school and so is of the office equipment, Miller said.
While he happily accepted some of those carryovers, Miller — who worked in a similar school in Ohio before coming to Oregon — said he's working to break from other Brownsville Academy traditions.
“The old school had an individualized approach,” he said. Students worked independently, at their own pace in a computer-based program. Now, Miller said, students are in classrooms but it’s taken some adjustment.
“It’s a challenge some students can have,” he said. “There are some skills they have to learn like taking notes in class and how to study with a combination of your notes and the textbook.”
And Miller said he plans to stick around to help teach students those skills. He’s helped get the building ready and built policies for the school from the ground up with the help of a six-member school board.
He said he may return to Ohio someday but is reluctant to nail down a time frame, noting that his wife is from Oregon and he plans to stay in the state for years.
“I want to make sure this is up and working well before handing it off to someone else,” he said.