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Leap of Faith

Pioneer Valley Christian School Provides a Unique Perspective
Timothy Duff (left) and Gary Coombs

Timothy Duff (left) and Gary Coombs say Pioneer Valley Christian School adopts a unique and effective philosophy on education.

When Timothy Duff stands before his sociology class for the first time each year, he takes two sets of glasses out of his pocket, asking his students to think about how they view the world.

“You can see it as a world created and controlled by God, using your Christian faith as the lens through which you view life,” he says, wearing one set of glasses.

Then he switches to the second set, adding, “or, you can view it as a world of chance, devoid of any faith.”

Duff is the headmaster at the Pioneer Valley Christian School on Plumtree Road in Springfield, a private educational institution with 265 students in preschool through grade 12.

Housed in the former Ursuline Academy, PVCS is a partnership between families and staff members who want students exposed to a Christian worldview in a setting where faith trumps doubt in every arena of life.

“Some people think a Christian school shortchanges students,” Duff said. “Our school does not. Students analyze all views, including evolution.”

Parents make a strong commitment to the school, and many are graduates. They drive their children to PVCS from cities and towns that include Southwick, Granville, Westfield, Brimfield, Hadley, South Hadley, Enfield, and Somers, Conn. to follow in the footsteps of past generations.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a close-up view of the mission of PVCS and its ambitious plans for growth despite a turbulent economy.

Setting a Course

The school was conceived by a group of concerned parents at First Baptist Church in East Longmeadow in 1970, and opened its doors to 50 students in 1972 as the East Longmeadow Christian Day School.

“These parents wanted an alternative where God could be at the foundation of learning, as they felt faith should be an integral part of the learning process,” said Duff.

In its early years, the school was housed within the church. But in 1975, a new church was built, the old 1840s building was designated as a high school and renamed the Pioneer Valley Christian School, and younger students were moved to the new church building on Parker Street.

By 1983, the population had outgrown the space, so for one year, kindergarten through grade 4 was taught in Church of the Nazarene on Wilbraham Road in Springfield, and grades 5 through 8 were housed in Bethesda Lutheran Church on Island Pond Road, a short distance away.

Although it presented a challenge, administrators and parents remained committed to PVCS, and in the spring of 1984, negotiations began with the Ursuline Order of Nuns to purchase the well-kept Ursuline Academy, set on 25 acres at 965 Plumtree Road.

At first, it appeared financially impossible, but parents pledged $300,000 annually over a three-year period, and in August 1985, PVCS made the $900,000 purchase.

That year, enrollment increased from 135 to 225 students, and a preschool was added. The population continued to grow, and during the next three years the school received prestigious accreditations and added staff and administrative positions.

During the ’90s, enrollment stabilized, fund-raising efforts continued, the second mortgage was paid off, and the first mortgage was reduced.

In 1999, PVCS instituted a long-range, four-phase strategic plan for growth. The first phase, completed in 2003, was an elementary wing with six classrooms.

Phase two kicked off late in 2007, and ground was broken in May 2008 for a 20,000-square-foot, $2.5 million, state-of-the-art Center for Science and the Arts, along with 12 new classrooms that include a chemistry and computer technology lab and visual arts space.

The addition increased the size of the building by 50%, and volunteers pitched in to defray costs, saving the school about $250,000.

Duff says donor generosity is a cornerstone of PVCS, and parents have built four tennis courts, the soccer and baseball fields, and repaved and enlarged the parking lot.

School officials are excited about the addition, and Director of Development Gary Coombs says it will enhance the quality of the courses offered and allow for continued growth. With the added space, PVCS can accomodate 450 students. “We built it that way, as we expect to grow,” Coombs said.

It will be at least three years before phase 3 is initiated. It calls for a $3 million new gymnasium with lockers, showers, a weight room, and additional classrooms. Down the road, phase 4 will expand the cafeteria, as the present ‘cafetorium’serves as both lunchroom and gymnasium.

Study in Commitment

PVCS suffered a drop in enrollment this fall, reducing the number of students from 315 to 265. It’s a loss of about $400,000 in tuition, but no reductions in staff were made, and the student-to-teacher ratio stands at 15-to-1 or lower.

Tuition ranges from $4,000 for two half-days of preschool to $9,300 for high-school students, with optional programs available for students with cognitive and learning disabilites.

Many students receive financial aid from a fund fed by donors. “Tuition reductions are based on financial need,” said Coombs. If families still can’t meet the cost, they can apply for scholarships.

Five years ago, MassMutual included the school in its scholarship program, and 10 students were given full, four-year scholarships. That program has ended, but Duff and Coombs hope other companies will come forward to assist them.

Although the drop in enrollment is a cause for concern, “we expect when the economy gets better, our enrollment will increase,” Coombs said.

Principles of Christian faith are built upon in every class and incorporated into the curriculum. But Duff is quick to explain that students receive a quality, rounded education and are exposed to every side of the issues they study. Still, they are constantly reminded they have the choice of viewing things from a Christian tradition.

That suits their parents. “Parents find harmony between what is taught at home, at school, and in their houses of worship,” Coombs said, referring to morals and the faith elements of Christianity.

Every student takes a Bible class each year, and all subjects are viewed from both a secular and Christian perspective. “We teach both, but use the values and virtues taught in the Scriptures to analyze even subjects like literature,” Duff said. “The principles of the Bible serve as a backdrop to how we look at life.”

Christian beliefs are put into action, and every high school student has to complete 20 hours of community-service work to graduate. Elementary students host clothing and food drives and collect soda-can tops for the Ronald McDonald House, as well as supporting children in third-world countries and needy area families. “It goes back to the biblical belief that we must love our neighbors as ourselves,” said Coombs.

Academics are stressed, however, and high-school foreign-language offerings embrace French and Spanish, while advanced-placement courses include mathematics and sciences. English students enter a variety of competitions in science, art, music, spelling, mathematics, athletics, creative writing, and speech, bringing home awards.

Last spring, every graduate went on to college, and the school’s graduates have attended a prestigious line of educational institutions, including the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

That generates pride, but the biggest graduation gift they receive is knowing they have a choice of viewing their lives, sorrows, and joys through a lens which shines with faith — or one which simply shows things as they are.

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