Crown of Life Christian Academy will be opening its doors in Fort Atkinson this fall for area students in pre-2 kindergarten through eighth grade.

With classes starting Aug. 22, the new school promises to offer academics and a biblical world view to all learners, regardless of their church affiliation, background or family income level.

Crown of Life Christian Academy — supported by Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Atkinson — is part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), one of the largest private school systems in the United States. The WELS has operated schools across the United States and the world for more than 165 years.

Locally, Bethany Lutheran Church has been involved in Christian education for 75 years in a partnership with multiple Lutheran churches.

The academy has been in planning since July 2017, when Bethany began narrowing its focus for carrying out Christian education.

“The opportunity came for us to take upon ourself the education of our own children,” the Rev. Matthew DeNoyer, pastor at Bethany Lutheran and president of Crown of Life Christian Academy administration, explained. “When that opportunity came about, God opened that door for us.”

And Bethany Lutheran members, he said, have stepped up to the plate in a groundswell of support.

“Our people have responded in a way that is really quite staggering, even for me as a pastor to really watch and see, in the last six months,” DeNoyer exclaimed. “It’s an absolutely amazing thing what’s going on here at Bethany among the congregants, and all of the people that have pulled together their talent and resources in a very responsible, organized and professional manner.

“To be a part of (that) has been really humbling for me to see,” he added. “I’m dumbfounded by it.”

The pastor said Crown of Life embodies four core values: Trust, humility, teamwork and optimism.

“With optimism, it’s always forward-thinking and remaining optimistic,” DeNoyer said, “and not looking backward and being negative, which is something that human nature likes to do. God had given to us an opportunity to re-evaluate how education is done, and to take advantage of an opportunity in a very optimistic way.”

Although Bethany Lutheran Church’s mission will be to support the new school, the pastor said that the academy, in itself, will not be a traditional church-based parochial school. Rather, it is designed to serve the entire community.

“We wanted to make sure that our community knew that we (Bethany) wanted to provide a service for them,” DeNoyer said, noting that the academy’s name helps distinguish it from the church. “We’re going to try to partner with our community in different areas so that they see that we’re a part of them.”

Crown of Life Christian Academy will prioritize faith, scripture and academic excellence. He said Bethany Lutheran pastors will serve and support the families of the academy with Bible classes, family counseling and worship services within a loving, supportive community.

“Right now, what we do is we have a huge emphasis on Bible history — the Bible’s a big book, as you know,” DeNoyer explained. “Just teaching kids the basics of the Christian faith is, obviously, so critical.

“As they get older, they will be given more formal instruction about God’s word as we know and understand it from our Lutheran faith,” he added. “But at the same time, the respect for the families and whatever background they come from — we will communicate with them what exactly we will be teaching them so that there’s not an indoctrination of what we’re doing.”

Ultimately, the pastor said, education must be a partnership between the teachers and staff, the students and their parents.

All subjects in the curriculum will be taught from a distinctively Christian point of view, and all activities will be centered in a Christian environment.

“We’re excited we have a combination of not just Lutheran-trained school teachers, but we have public school teachers as well that will be teaching here next year,” DeNoyer said. “We have a good mixture of people.”

Jennifer Ertman, Early Childhood director and 4-year-old kindergarten (4K) teacher at the academy, echoed his sentiments.

“It’s just a good mix (of teachers) — we’re all coming from different backgrounds, and educational colleges and universities,” she said. “We’re all coming together.”

All the teachers are members of Bethany Lutheran Church.

“Each grade level — 2K, 3K, 4K — has its own teacher, and then an aide based off the criteria from the state with (teacher-pupil) ratios,” Ertman explained. “Twelve children in the room, but then how many adults have to be in there with them based on their age level.”

Pupils in all pre-kindergarten and kindergarten will have individual classrooms. Classes for grades 1-8 will be divided into grades 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 and 7-8. Each classroom will have one teacher, with some departmentalized teaching going on as well, the pastor noted.

“We’ll have an art teacher who’s coming in part time to teach art in grades K-8, so it will be specialized art,” DeNoyer stated. “There will be specialized Spanish enrichment to introduce the kids to different levels of Spanish in grades 1-8.”

There also will be a part-time music teacher training age-appropriate material, with a grades 4-8 band instructor on staff and a piano teacher for students in grades 2-8 who would like to learn piano.

“In the upper grades, there will be specialized math, and also specialized religion for grades 7 and 8,” DeNoyer pointed out.

Ertman said a lot of studies prove how multi-age classrooms are beneficial.

“For the older kids, it really allows them to help mentor the younger ones and help them along,” she said. “And then the younger class really looks to the older group to say, ‘This is what I can do too’ and they all work off of each other really well. That’s something that we can offer that’s a little bit different.”

The pastor said one concern he has heard from the community relates to increasingly large classroom sizes. Already, he said, 17 students have expressed interest in the academy’s kindergarten.

“We will not exceed 20 (students) in the kindergarten without dividing the class into two kindergartens,” DeNoyer promised. “We won’t sacrifice the ability to have a program just to have more children. There will be one kindergarten teacher next year with a full-time aide, too.”

All the students in the academy will wear uniforms, he said, although he remains indifferent to the idea. They will consist of simple pieces that can be purchased at such stores as Walmart, Target, Shopko or Kohl’s.

“It (uniforms) really creates a sense of community,” Ertman said. “It’s not about what you wear, or I wear, or what your mom can afford and what my parents can’t buy. We’re all in this together. And it brings that school unity into place, and we’re all one in Christ, too.”

Next year, during the first phase, the academy will be situated in nine large classrooms at Bethany Lutheran Church with handicap-accessible restrooms and an elevator. No remodeling of any classrooms or the kitchen will be necessary.

However, there currently is no gymnasium.

“We are working with community members who will be coming in and remaking our fellowship hall into a physical education center,” DeNoyer said.

Eventually, Crown of Life Christian Academy is looking at acquiring a site within the Fort Atkinson city limits on which to construct a new facility.

“We’re in the middle of a capital campaign right now, and it is our desired goal — and we’ll know just before April whether or not we’ve met our goal — to reach $2.1 million in pledge monies for a new facility,” DeNoyer said. “And we have a committee of people right now identifying different land locations in the city, but those (multiple) locations haven’t been pinned down to one location as of yet.”

When the capital campaign concludes, he said, the committee will pick up the pace of identifying which land sites are viable options and then approach the church body for its input, as well.

“We are looking at 15 or more acres, and at creating space for our community to be able to use,” DeNoyer said. “We know they (the city) are short on gym space, we know they are short on athletic fields, and we want to be able to provide all these things for our community to use.”

Other possibilities include having baseball diamonds, soccer fields and the ability to expand in the future.

He said there will be a combination of revenue avenues by which the academy will be sustained.

“One draw will be tuition; one will be the church making the academy its mission, and helping with that tuition,” DeNoyer explained. “And then we also are looking at third-resource funding through different means — through fundraising efforts and through community sponsorships.”

The pastor said his congregation believes the money will materialize.

“But we’re putting a lot of trust in our God for it (funding) to come in,” DeNoyer said.

The plans for building new will take into consideration projections for future enrollment growth at the academy, he said.

“We’re projecting between 120 and 140 pre-K2 to grade 8 students next year, and if we surpass that projection, that’s wonderful,” DeNoyer said. “It would appear we’re heading that direction.”

The academy, he said, hopes to attract students not just from Fort Atkinson, but from the greater Jefferson County area and beyond.

“Right now, there are people that live in other areas that utilize Christian education — from Cambridge, Cold Spring, Farmington, Jefferson and Whitewater,” DeNoyer said. “So, we certainly don’t want to limit ourselves to the ability of people wanting to utilize this (institution) as Christian education.”

The decision of whether to proceed with the academy was put to a vote of Bethany’s congregation. Among the 80 voters, only eight were opposed to the idea.

“It was unanimous — overwhelmingly unanimous,” DeNoyer said of the vote of support. “It was in the 90-percent range.

“We told our people that if it was not an overwhelming vote, we’re going to step back and re-evaluate and kind of relook at what we’re doing,” he added. “Because this (school) is a big commitment.”

The academy eventually will be overseen by a school board, the pastor pointed out.

“We are currently working through a constitution and bylaws for about another five months,” DeNoyer noted. “So right now, it (school’s governance) is underneath our current church board until that (constitution and bylaws) gets developed.”

Some of Bethany’s members, he said, really were not interested merely in opening “another church-school a mile down the road.” But when they understood what the academy model would be, they embraced the concept.

To help get the academy established, DeNoyer has been consulting informally with Pastor Carlos Leyrer, who is affiliated with Divine Savior Ministries in Doral, Fla., and is serving his last year as a principal at a WELS school there.

“I’ve been consulting with him in regard to his (Christian) academy that they began in Florida in 2004,” said DeNoyer, who happened to train with Leyrer at the same seminaries. “He’s been a real helpful resource.”

Unlike a typical school with a principal, the academy will have a dean of students, Matthew Oppermann, who will be coming to Fort Atkinson in June.

“He’ll teach one class, but his (duties) will be primarily in the community, administration, team-building, and creating positive culture both with the teachers and with the student body because we believe that’s going to be critical to our success — the positive culture,” DeNoyer said.

Beyond its culture, the institution wants to defy convention and preconceived notions of a parochial school, he explained, and exceed expectations by continually setting the bar higher.

“While some might think of it as semantics, we see the academy as being uniquely different from what is out there,” DeNoyer said. “We’re going to be challenging academics to a higher level. We’re not going to be doing the norm — we’re going to do things unconventionally.”

Special needs are one aspect that will make the academy unique, he said.

“Our goal, eventually, would be that we can nearly minister to anyone with any need,” DeNoyer commented. “In year one (fall of 2018), will we be able to do that? Not necessarily. But that’s our goal.

“We want to make sure that everybody has a chance to not only come to this academy, but can stay at this academy, and that no learning disabilities will prohibit them from being a part of this body, too,” he added.

In year one, the academy will be working with the state voucher program for special needs students, the pastor said.

“Obviously, we can’t take every possible special need in year one,” DeNoyer said. “In our profile, we are taking in and providing speech pathology, occupational therapy and physical therapy.”

He said the church currently has youngsters in its pre-school who are in need of these services and would like to stay as a part of the academy.

“We want to provide those (services), not only for them, but also for others in the community that might have those needs,” DeNoyer said. “We will provide the service for these folks to come up onto our campus and provide those needs.”

And that provision, he said, will be a state-administered voucher program called Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP) in which the academy will be participating in year one.

In year two, DeNoyer said, the academy will begin an income-based voucher program.

The academy will be charged “paper rent” by Bethany Lutheran Church since no money actually will be transferred, but rather, it will be accrued.

“It (money) is all in the same ministry,” DeNoyer said.

The academy will be a “feeder” program to any high school of any choosing, the pastor said, adding that staff will encourage students to take whatever career path they desire.

“We have multiple (high schools) — not just Lakeside (Lutheran) in Lake Mills, but we have Luther Preparatory in Watertown,” DeNoyer noted. “So, if people want to pursue a pastoral or teaching ministry, we will encourage that route; if people want to continue on with Christian education, we’ll encourage Lakeside; if people want to go to the public school, we’ll encourage the public school, as well.”

While in-city children either will walk to and from the academy, or their parents will drop them off and pick them up, students from outlying areas will be serviced by Double Three Transportation.

“Parents, if they qualify for busing, can just designate that they would like Crown of Life to be their drop-off and pickup point,” Ertman said.

The academy also will offer extended care for all grades both before and after school, from 6:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, for not only academy students, but children from all Fort Atkinson schools.

When Bethany staff looked at enrollment projections for year one, the pastor said, they wanted to be conservative and realistic.

“In year one, we did not intend to heavily market (the academy to) our community because we’ve got to get our principal (on board),” DeNoyer said of Oppermann. “He’s the fountainhead of your school — he’s the face of your school.

“So, our goal was in year two, we are going to saturate the market with what we (academy) have to offer, and we will have our year one in and get the kinks out,” he added. “The only (advertising) thing we’ve been doing is word of mouth, through Facebook, and we put together a great website.”

A 30-second videoclip, posted on Facebook, already has been viewed roughly 1,000 times mostly by women ages 24-35.

“Moms are looking at it,” Ertman commented.

The pastor said the academy already has had people from the community enroll.

“The response from the community has been astounding,” DeNoyer said. “They (parents) come in and schedule visits, they tour, and one of their first questions they ask is, ‘Do we have to become members of your church?’ And we say ‘no — absolutely not.’ That’s not our goal, either.”

Currently, about 60 Bethany Lutheran children attend St. Paul’s Lutheran School, he said, while St. Paul’s sends approximately 100 of its students to its own elementary school.

In all, Bethany has 180 children below the eighth grade, with the majority of those ages birth to 5, the pastor pointed out.

“So that gives you an idea of how many children we have,” DeNoyer said.

It will be up to parents as to whether all Bethany Lutheran Church children who now attend St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Fort Atkinson, also tied to the WELS, will be relocating to the academy.

“It’s not mandatory — it’s completely up to them (parents),” DeNoyer said. “We believe (that) whatever the parent believes is best for their child, they will do for their child.

“And what we are concentrating on (for the academy) is just putting together the best possible product that we can,” he added. “We’re just going to put out our best product that we can put out that’s going to be unique and different, and challenging for the community. And we trust that our God is going to bring the people.”

Currently, Bethany families who have a child attending St. Paul’s Lutheran School are responsible for $1,300 of the yearly tuition, DeNoyer indicated. Bethany, in the past, had picked up the remainder of the tab, which was $3,900 per student, he said.

The annual tuition fee per pre-K2 through grade 8 student at Crown of Life is $6,500 in 2018-19 before financial aid packages have been applied.

Through support from Bethany Lutheran members, an established tuition-assistance fund will help defray the cost to families. The assistance is need-based, and all families, regardless of church affiliation, are eligible to apply.

Families with annual incomes of up to $300,000 might be eligible for scholarships. For instance, an eligible family with a household income of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay $1,500 for one child and $2,800 for two.

Three of St. Paul’s Lutheran School teachers, he noted, will be moving to Crown of Life Christian Academy when it opens.

The pastor, however, shrugged off any suggestion that the new Christian academy will be in direct competition with St. Paul’s Lutheran School. Bethany and St. Paul’s have had a formal partnership for 75 years.

“However, St. Paul’s felt — for reasons that we maybe don’t necessarily fully understand — that to go it alone and get rid of the formal partnership was better for them,” DeNoyer said, adding that Bethany does not speak for St. Paul’s at all. “We respect their reasons for doing that (split) because it created an opportunity for us to do something different.

“Our wish for them (St. Paul’s) and for us is that we have two great Christian schools with two great, different models in the community,” he continued. “We don’t want to be in competition with St. Paul’s. We love our brothers and sisters at St. Paul’s, and the pastors and teachers there — we love them all and wish them the best.”

The pastor said there is ample room for all parochial schools within the community, and that he hopes whatever their individual strengths are, they will be made even stronger.

“There’s room for everybody — absolutely,” DeNoyer emphasized. “We are all God’s children.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, Bethany Lutheran Church will be hosting an open house from 5:30 to 8 p.m. All families in the community are invited to stop by, meet the teachers, peruse the curriculum and learn more about Crown of Life Christian Academy.

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