"Being a nonprofit in Canton is hard," Sharla Elton, who's doing double duty as Heritiage Christian School superintendent and principal.
CANTON Heritage Christian School is eliminating its middle and high schools for the coming school year.
Administrators and school supporters point to an inability to bridge the gap between state-funded EdChoice scholarships and actual tuition costs, but stressed they hope to reinstate those grade levels as finances improve.
The decision will reduce student enrollment by 100, leaving about 250 children in preschool through fifth grade to start the 2018-2019 school year.
"Heritage has a lot of reasons to be proud," said Sharla Elton, who doubles as school superintendent and principal. "Our students do well on state tests among private schools. We outperform Canton City Schools. The only thing we have struggled with is finances. Being a nonprofit in Canton is hard."
Elton cited "Strengthening Stark," an economic report that describes Stark as getting older, poorer and less populated.
About 80 percent of Heritage students attend school through EdChoice scholarships. The traditional Educational Choice Scholarship Program enables children in low-performing public schools to opt for a private education. The EdChoice expansion voucher allows students from families whose income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty rate to choose a private school, but it is limited to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Only about 5 percent of Heritage families pay full tuition.
EdChoice, Elton said, has helped sustain the enrollment of elementary students — which is 70 percent of the student body — but not high school.
"It's difficult to offer athletics, drama, and all the things they deserve to have," Elton said.
High school tuition at Heritage was $6,500, which did not cover the estimated per-student cost of $8,000. Tuition for elementary grades is $4,950 a year. EdChoice covers $4,650. The other $300 is waived.
"Even if we cut tuition," Elton said of the high schoolers, "it still would not be affordable for them to come."
This year, just seven seniors will graduate, including one who is partially home-schooled.
Amy Collins said she has had children in Heritage Christian School for 17 years, including four older children, and now sons Carter, 17, a junior, and Spencer, 12, a sixth-grader.
Parents were notified of the change via email about two weeks, she said.
"I basically stood in Subway (restaurant) and cried," she said. "There have been problems for years financially. I was surprised it was only the secondary school. I thought if it closed, it'd be the entire school."
Collins said Carter and a friend are trying to raise money to stave off the closing. Her son doesn't want to attend another school, she said, and may finish his studies online.
"There's just six in his junior class, but two of them are from Japan and will be going home soon," she said.
Because of EdChoice, Heritage saw a 49-percent growth in elementary enrollment between 2012 and 2016.
During the 2016-2017 school year, Heritage Christian EdChoice students beat the state average in proficiency testing and outperformed other parochial and public schools, officials said.
If Heritage was a secular charter school, board members say its students would receive more funding from EdChoice.
"But that's not an option," said Todd H. Bentzel, director of development, who insisted that the school will not abandon its Bible-based curriculum.
Founded in 1968, Heritage Christian School purchased the former Lincoln High School at 2107 Sixth St. SW in the 1970s. The Stark County Auditor's office lists the building's value at $1.69 million.
"It's painful," Elton said. "We have board members who have children who attend here. We get tired of going to the community. We're scraping by, but I don't think that's God's best for us."
Bentzel said although Heritage has existed for 50 years, many aren't aware that the school offers quality, faith-based education and an emphasis on community service.
He and Elton said the school has consolidated administrative jobs and is looking to increase its volunteer programs. Marketing, and the school's website, he said, are being "done by committee."
"This school is like a family," Bentzel said. "We're so torn up."
Budget constraints resulted teachers not getting paid six times last summer. Four of those periods, Elton said, have been repaid, but some staffers resigned because of the payroll problem.
Bentzel said he's visited numerous churches to share with them what Heritage Christian has to offer.
"We've been building better relations with churches," he said. "It's nice that churches do foreign missions, but I feel like we're a local mission. Kids really need this school."
"I think the idea of 'missions' may get (more) churches connected," said the Rev. Joseph Glover, who worked on last year's $4.4 million capital improvement campaign.
Elton said some Heritage high school students have applied to other parochial schools, including Lake Center Christian School and Central Catholic High School in Perry Township, while others will be attending public schools.
Jacqueline Gilin, advancement and admissions assistant at Lake Center Christian School, said staff fielded about a dozen applications from Heritage high school students.
"We are sorry to hear about Heritage (high school) closing," she said. "They're like our sister school."
Gilin said EdChoice has helped Lake Center Christian grow, from 600 students in 2015 to 630 today.
"We're happy to help any families who may be seeking a new school," she said.
Asked if there's ever been a discussion of merging with another parochial school, Elton said, the possibility has been addressed but not pursued.
"We're unique among Christian schools because we're missional," she said. "Also, unlike at some schools, parents don't have to be active churchgoers or members to have a child enrolled at Heritage. The majority of our kids live in poverty, which is also different than most parochial schools.
"Our students are diverse, which I absolutely adore. Seven percent of our students are Latino. That's different than what you might see at another private school."
Heritage Board Chairman Steve Lamiell acknowledged some frustration.
"I don't want to speak for churches, but it's amazing to me that local churches know there are gaps in public schools and see the need," he said. "Because we're established and teach God's word, they don't see the need."
Elton said she's grateful to those churches and volunteers who have stepped up to help Heritage maintain its facility and assisted with its summer program. That, too, is in jeopardy because of cutbacks in city block grant funding.
"We do have people in the community who are helping us," said the Rev. Walter Moss, who chaired the capital improvements campaign. "We need to get out the word more. We need help. We need churches to get on board. This is a mission, with kids."
To learn more visit www.heritagechristianschool.org.
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP