With impending Rincon Valley Christian closure, parents propose starting new school

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Two months after Rincon Valley Christian School announced it would be closing in May, parents and local pastors are launching a grassroots campaign to start a new school.

The group wants to open an independent K-12 Christian school as soon as this fall. They say there’s still an interest in continuing a Christian education, despite Rincon Valley Christian officials’ decision to close the east Santa Rosa campus after nearly 50 years because of declining student enrollment.

Over the past decade, enrollment dropped from 500 to 205 as a result of rising tuition costs and fewer people having kids, officials said. The 2017 wildfires also exacerbated the problem after dozens of families in the church community lost homes.

However, Wendy Cunningham, a music teacher and vice principal of the school’s elementary program, said, “We disagreed that there wasn’t a demand for a Christian education. We felt that there really is.”

The grassroots group recently sent out surveys to prospective families, and was encouraged when families of 165 students expressed a strong interest in a new school, tentatively called the Sonoma County Christian School, Cunningham said.

A new, five-member school board comprised of parents and a pastor also was formed, and paperwork to start a nonprofit organization will be filed this week, according to new board member Marlin Viss.

The Santa Rosa Bible Church, which oversees Rincon Valley Christian and owns its school facilities, agreed to rent the Badger Road campus to the new school, Viss said.

“We’re at the point now where we’re in. We’re asking for firmer commitment from families,” said Viss, parent to three Rincon Valley Christian students. “This is something none of us have done before, so there’s a big learning curve,. But we’ve had lots of help.”

The new school will be different from the existing one in that it won’t be overseen by one church, but by Christians members from a multitude of local churches.

“We take Christianity seriously. We think we can do it better together,” Viss said. “We’re all united with a higher purpose. We seek to glorify God.”

The group is aiming to raise $300,000 before school begins in the fall, a third of the first year’s budget, in order to hire staff and begin a reserve fund.

“I was really impressed with how much they were able to do in a short amount of time,” said Suzi Donovan, a former Rincon Valley Christian teacher and parent of two students.

Parents and teachers say Rincon Valley Christian is a tight-knit, supportive community where students grow up together. The school closure was a huge blow.

“It was a total shock. We had no idea this was coming,” said Donovan. “My daughter was devastated.”

More planning on staffing, budgeting and tuition costs will be done in mid-April after the group reviews the number of families committed to enrolling their kids this fall, Viss said.

The interim head of the new school will be announced at a parent informational meeting Thursday night, Viss said. It will be held at 7 p.m. at Redemption Hill Church in Santa Rosa. Child care will be provided for elementary-age children.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com.

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