BEMIDJI -- Jon Ness did not ask -- or particularly want -- to be in charge of a high school, but he feels it's where God wants him to be.
Ness is going to be a high school principal for the first time this fall, as after years of discussion of whether to implement a high school program, Heartland Christian Academy is taking the plunge this fall and adding four new grades.
The new non-denominational private high school will be located on the Oak Hills Christian College campus. This new school will be the only Christian high school in Bemidji.
Ness expects around 20 students will attend the new school this fall.
A new beginning
The 35-year-old institution briefly hosted a high school years ago, but it didn’t pan out. For the last few years, a group of motivated parents have been trying again to start a high school program.
As of last winter, Heartland hadn’t had a principal in almost a decade, Ness said. Some parishioners at the church he attends approached him to ask if he’d consider the role.
“I said no, there’s no way I want to be principal, I’d be horrible,” Ness said, laughing.
But he thought and prayed about it and eventually came around. Ness was an Emotional and Behavior Disability teacher for 25 years.
“Finally, I just said, ‘It seems like this is what I’m supposed to do,’ and I called them up and said, ‘If you still want me to, I’ll do it,” he said. “So that’s how I ended up here.”
When he began the new role, one of his first tasks was squaring away the plans for the new high school. Ness was hesitant at first, he said, but now everything seems to be falling into place.
The COVID-19 closures may have been a blessing in disguise, Ness said, because it showed the power and possibility of distance learning in a high school setting. The high school program will likely take a hybrid format, with some classes being taught online and some by an in-person teacher, Ness said.
One of the main curriculum focuses will be community service and leadership, Ness said. “That’s our big focus, is being the hands and feet of Christ.”
Classes will be held in the Valley View building on Oak Hills' main campus.
“(Heartland Christian Academy) is growing so much we’re going to be running out of space in a few years, so we needed to find a different space for them,” he said. “One thing led to another and here we are.”
Being located on the Oak Hills campus will make it convenient for students to take part in Post-Secondary Enrollment Option college courses as well.
“Oak Hills has been very open to collaborating with us,” Ness said. “It’s just a walk across the yard.”
The new school hopes to foster a collaborative environment. Students will be able to partner with public school programs for activities and sports.
“One of the big hurdles was that a lot of kids say, ‘Well, I want to go to private school, but I want to play hockey, or I want to go to private school, but I really like soccer or I really love dance,’ so I was able to meet with (BHS principal) Jason Stanoch and we got it set up so our kids will be able to participate in all BHS athletics (and) extracurriculars,” Ness said.
The school currently plans to open with one teacher and one paraprofessional, as well as Ness who will be between the high school and the preschool to eighth-grade school.
Dan Bryant, former social studies teacher at Bemidji High School, will be teaching the students come fall.
Ness said specialists for things like art and gym will be brought in, and many other courses will be taught online.
“We thought maybe we’d have 10 kids -- we figured at 10 kids we’d be able to afford to do it -- we run strictly off of tuition.”
Ness said 14 students attended an orientation meeting for the school, and he expects around 20 to begin in the fall. Ness explained that the group is comprised of students in all four grades -- with the majority being sophomores and juniors.
“It’s kind of amazing because the group that we have are from all over the place, they’re not just from Heartland,” he said.
A Heartland family
“Heartland is a family, that’s the best way to describe it,” Ness said. “Everybody is taking care of everybody else, we all watch out for each other.”
In his year at Heartland, Ness said he has been touched by how much the students care for one another. He said that the eighth-grade girls began a program on their own where they “adopt” a younger student and switch their lunch schedules to eat with them and make them feel welcome.
“Another group of our eighth-graders and seventh-graders started a prayer group every Friday,” he said. “That went from where we had five or six kids to 20 or 25 kids showing up every Friday.”
Ness said the high expectations set for student achievement lead to high performance.
“If you want to come here and goof around and think it’s just a joke, you won’t be here very long,” he said. “We set a very high standard for what we expect our kids to do and how we expect them to behave.”
Ness said the program fills a need and will allow Heartland students to continue to stay in the family environment they are thriving in. Current students have expressed excitement about the prospect of a high school program.
“(They’ve said) ‘Wow, you mean I can stay at Heartland? This is cool.’ They’re very excited about it, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback about what is going on,” Ness said.
Ness hopes the program will grow in numbers in time.
“This first year I think we’ll start off with about 20, a lot of people on our board figured we’d have 10, I figured we’d have 30 to 40, I kind of like to go big. I guess I would say in the next few years I’d like to see it grow to where we have 50 kids,” he said. “As we add kids we’ll be able to add more staff.”
Ness and his colleagues have a vision of students being able to stay in the same education system and area from preschool through college.
“We just sat and had a dream about what could happen, and our big thing was a Christian campus that would go preschool all the way through college and just have everything right there on one campus,” he said. “That’s pretty big -- that’s a 10, 15 year down the road thing.
“Our public schools are amazing, they do a great job with what they can do,” Ness said. “But, the environment that we are able to provide at Heartland, not only physically with a place like this, but the environment of being together, being a family, being cared about, is just something that never leaves.”
“When you leave our school you’re still a part of it,” he added.
Students interested in more information or looking to apply for the high school program may call the school or email Ness at firstname.lastname@example.org.