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Heartland Christian Academy: Private school celebrates 30

Adriane Simula thinks it surreal that her first-grade daughter, Madeline, sits in the same spot as she did when she was a student at Heartland Christian Academy.

"It brings back lots of memories of Heartland," Simula said.

Heartland Christian Academy, located at 9914 Heartland Circle N.W. in Bemidji, turns 30 this August. While the school's "official" birthday party won't be held until May 28, the school invited alumni, among others, to share stories and memories at its Science, Bible and Fine Arts Fair Friday.

Simula said her experiences at Heartland influenced her to enroll her child in the school.

"I recognized the same desks, rooms, playground equipment and familiar smells," Adriane Simula said of when she visited Heartland after moving back to the Bemidji area three years ago. "It's been fun to be involved again."

Heartland offers a Christian-based education to children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The school is member of both the Association of Christian Schools International and the Bemidji School Distriict.

The other private schools in Bemidji are St. Philip's school, the largest private school in Bemidji established more than 80 years ago, and St. Mark's, established in 1984.

Heartland opened in 1981 in the old Bemidji Armory building. The following year the school relocated to a newly built, 60-square-foot building in Northern Township. It was equipped with two stories, five classrooms, three multi-purpose rooms and an enrollment of 35 students in grades K-12.

Today, Heartland Christian Academy enrolls students in grades K-8, and has added onto and renovated its existing building. It's rural setting and non-denominational, Biblical-based learning is what sets it apart from other schools.

Robert Roach has been principal at Heartland for five years. He said over the course of 30 years, the school has been most successful keeping a broad-based spectrum of churches involved and having a good relationship with the Bemidji School District.

"We have 14 different churches representing students who attend Heartland," Roach said. "Because our students are enrolled in the district, we receive funding for things like transportation and professional training."

The Bemidji School District receives non-public pupil aid from the state for project funding for homeschooled students and private schools. Heartland uses this funding towards free and reduced school lunch, staff training, and school safety and health. The district must also provide transportation.

"We are so blessed to have such a great relationship with the district," Roach said. "When students leave our school they go to public school. We view them as partners."

But with successes there have been challenges. According to Roach, the recent downturn in the economy had some parents making tough choices about their child's schooling.

"More parents are finding their resources limited," Roach said. "I have seen more parents having to make tougher choices about which of their children gets to go to private school than what I remember."

Roach said the school's biggest hurdle is the lack of exposure within the community. The school has struggled with this since he's been principal, Roach said.

"We don't want to be the best kept secret in the Bemidji area," Roach said. "It's nice to be in the country, but sometimes substitute teachers can't find the school."

Another challenge, according to Roach, is the pay scale of its teachers. Teachers at Heartland get paid half of what teachers make at the School District, Roach said.

"Heartland teachers make a lot of sacrifices," Simula said. "They put in a lot of volunteer hours. It's not easy on a small budget. But they have small class sizes and teach a quality education."

This year, teacher Dan Bera said he has five students in his class - not a typical number of students. Last year he had 16 students in his combined third- and fourth-grade class.

"There's a lot of parent involvement," Bera said. "That's what's good about the school. It's one-on-one with students and with parents."

Simula said she is still in touch with her old classmates from Heartland to this day. Attending a small, rural school didn't stop her from accomplishing her goals in high school, she said.

"I went on to participate in band, choir and sports," Simula said. "(Heartland) is where I got my start in soccer."

Heartland Christian Academy will celebrate its 30th anniversary Friday, May 28, with time and place to be announced.