Christ, community, coffee: The Three C's of Heartland Christian High School

Christ, community and coffee. Those are the three components required to start a new high school in the middle of a pandemic, according to Jon Ness and Ekren Miller.

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Assistant Principal Ekren Miller leads a Bible class on Nov. 30 at the new Heartland Christian High School located on the Oak Hills campus. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- According to Jon Ness and Ekren Miller, there are three components required to start a new high school in the middle of a pandemic -- Christ, community and coffee.

Ness and Miller are the principal and assistant principal, respectively, of the new Heartland Christian High School. As the school nears the mid-way point of its first year as the only private high school currently operating in Bemidji, the two educators say things are going well.

Community effort

Both men said they’ve been overwhelmed by the supportive community that has built up around the school.

“It was a lot of work to get it off the ground,” Ness said. “A lot of things fell into place, a lot of people said yes, and that’s what we needed to happen.”

Now, a few months into the journey, they’re ironing out most of the kinks or the “gymnastic headache of logistics,” as Miller described it.


Starting off, the two admitted that technology was the biggest issue -- ordering laptops for all of the students to use was a challenge, as many were backordered due to COVID-19, and then once they received them, they had to learn how to use them.

Ben Niemi, Grace Bauman, Noah Ness and Ben Kostamo listen during class on Nov. 30 at the new Heartland Christian High School located on the Oak Hills campus. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Many other issues worked themselves out through acts of kindness. Someone anonymously donated building rent for the year, someone else donated money for a sign, a van was donated to drive the students around and even things like IT services were donated.

“It’s amazing how many people out there want to see us succeed,” Ness said. “It gets better every day honestly.”

“As Bemidji’s only private high school, we want to make sure we are doing a good job right away in our first year,” Miller added.

Currently, the school has 13 students -- with a few more on the waiting list -- but going forward they hope to welcome more. As the school population grows, so can the staff and course offerings, they said, although if it grows too much, they will quickly outgrow their building.

Heartland High School is housed in a building on the Oak Hills Christian College campus. Within it, the students have a collaborative space with their own desks -- and a very popular foosball table and coffee maker, as well as quiet spaces to work on online coursework alone.


Assistant Principal Ekren Miller listens to a student response during Bible class on Nov. 30 at the new Heartland Christian High School located on the Oak Hills campus. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Through this building, students have had to establish community in another way: without a janitor, students are in charge of clearing and caring for their space.

Reminiscent of a one-room schoolhouse, the students share their spaces with classmates from all different grades.

Many of the students, aside from a couple who were homeschooled, had attended Heartland Christian Academy for elementary and junior high. Other than three freshmen in the group, most had gone to public school in between.

Some students reflected on the comparison between their new school and Bemidji High School, saying they appreciate the one-on-one attention, lack of negative influences and social hierarchy, and ability to openly practice their faith at Heartland.

One student who had been at BHS for her freshman year, remarked that at the new school there is not the overarching sense of seniority between the grades like she witnessed at the public school.

“We’re all really close,” one student said of the group. “(At BHS) freshmen didn’t hang out with the seniors, and here, it doesn’t matter.”


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From left: Maddie Simula, Ella Simula, Micah Cervene and Lucas Niemi converse before class starts on Nov. 30 at the new Heartland Christian High School located on the Oak Hills campus. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Christian atmosphere

When reflecting on all of the uncertainties, both Ness and Ekren said the amount of things that went right in the creation of the new school, "Was really a God thing."

“To start this school, this has been an idea with a number of people for a long time,” Miller said. “But to actually do it is a big step of faith.”

They both had spoken of the longtime gap for students in Bemidji wanting a Christian education, and hoping someone would step up to fill it, and then, they did it themselves.

On the morning of Nov. 30, students began their day with Bible class in which students learned about the origins and content of the book of Deuteronomy, interspersed with life advice and anecdotes from Miller.

Course offerings like defending their faith and biblical studies are unique to the school.

Ness and Miller said Heartland High School maintains a good relationship with the public school district, and that due to this, students are able to participate in public school sports and activities.


“We’re not against public schools, we just need options for our kids. We need to be able to offer a private Christian school,” Ness said. “That’s what we’re offering here, we offer small class sizes, we offer one-on-one instruction, we offer working at your own pace.”

“We’re about being the hands and feet of Christ,” Ness added. “We’re training these guys to go out into the world and change the world.”

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Megan Cervene studies prior to the start of class on Nov. 30 at the new Heartland Christian High School located on the Oak Hills campus. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Increased independence

Here’s where the coffee comes in.

Students at Heartland enjoy freedoms many high schoolers in larger schools do not. Besides the more obvious faith-related freedoms, students also have their own desks they are free to decorate, have coffee made available to them throughout the day, and play a large role in determining their schedules.

Courses are balanced between in-person classes taken as a group that are taught by Miller or other educators who come in on a day-by-day basis, along with online courses taught by NorthStar Academy, and independent studies guided by Miller.

Currently, one student is doing an independent study in leatherwork, while another is exploring drawing and photography. Some are also enrolled in courses at Oak Hills Christian College.


Ness said one of the reasons they feel comfortable trusting students with so much independence is that there is an application process to join the school, in which students must prove their motivations for applying.

“We have a big sense of trust in our students, and it rewards a lot of the students who are going to make accelerated gains with that online schooling,” Miller said.

Besides being located on a college campus, the college environment is clear.

“They kind of just leave it to us, like when we want to take breaks, how long it takes us to do our work, we just have to get it done by the end of the semester,” one student said. “I feel like, and I’ve talked to both of my parents who went to college and they said, this is pretty much what a college class is like, you do your assignments and it’s your own responsibility.”

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Lily Buchan, left, and Abby Starkenburg speak before class on Nov. 30 at the new Heartland Christian High School located on the Oak Hills campus. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Miller and Ness said they were worried this first year would be a challenging one to work with colleges and ensure their diplomas and transcripts held as much weight as any other high school.

After a student got accepted into Cedarville University -- one of the top Christian colleges in the Midwest -- Miller said his worries subsided.


“My concern coming on board was that the diploma would hold weight with universities, but now it’s proven to hold just as much weight,” Miller said.

Ness joked that the three C’s of Heartland Christian High School -- Christ, community and coffee -- earn degrees.

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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