KANKAKEE — Grace Christian Academy may be small, but the school’s commitment to its mission and its longstanding presence in the community is just the opposite.

The Daily Journal recognizes GCA as an Innovator in Education as part of our 2021 Progress Awards.

Principal Aaron Most said he believes people in the community consider the school to be innovative because of its emphasis on relationship building as well as efforts to bring students more opportunities by doing things the right way.

“We have to be creative because we don’t have the resources of our local public schools,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s through that relationship that then when we are doing our instruction, kids are going to listen.”

Formerly known as Grace Baptist Academy, the school was established in 1973 as a ministry of Grace Baptist Church with 85 students enrolled. Two years later a junior high program was added, and two years after that came the high school program.

In 2023, the school will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

GCA is accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International and registered with the Illinois State Board of Education.

The school’s mission is to “pursue wisdom” through building relationships, instruction and service, Most said.

He added that the school’s emphasis on relationship building is particularly important because of changing attitudes in education; a teacher’s word is no longer taken as gospel, so to speak, like in the past.

“We get challenged [from parents] on everything, which is healthy; it keeps us accountable,” Most explained. “But our authority no longer comes from the position. It comes from the person. It comes from the way that we develop those relationships with that student, which creates a platform for us to not only encourage, but to challenge to higher expectations.”

But all of that work to build relationships would be for nothing if the instruction was sub-par, he added.

GCA operates with the understanding that education is no longer centered on knowledge and grades; the focus now is fostering creativity and character development, Most said.

While teachers have been assigning the same math problems for decades, students today can simply Google the answers to those questions, he noted.

He said the school uses the framework of creating “three-dimensional students.”

A one-dimensional student would tend to just follow the influence of the strongest presence in a room, and a two-dimensional student might do the right things but isn’t intrinsically motivated to do so; they are just worried about consequences.

“A three-dimensional student knows where they are headed in the future, is able to say no to certain influences and bring people along with them,” Most said.

Navigating the pandemic

GCA wanted to be “above reproach” in getting through the pandemic, following Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois State Board of Education guidelines to the best of its ability, Most said.

In doing so, it has been able to keep its doors open for full in-person instruction all school year. All classes have online components as well, so any student needing a two-week quarantine can continue their lessons at home.

“We weren’t going to shake our fist at the rules,” Most said. “We wanted to do what was right and be a leader in the community in regards to how we handle ourselves. That being said, we have a high emphasis on in-person learning.”

The pandemic meant GCA had to cancel its annual dinner auction last year, which typically brings in excess of $100,000 annually.

Fortunately, the school was in a good financial position at the start of the 2019-20 school year and has fared well.

“It was one of those instances where God clearly was looking out for us,” Most said.

The event will be making a comeback May 8 and will be held outdoors to accommodate social distancing.

Looking forward

GCA has been through its ups and downs over the years, Most noted.

There were years when enrollment was 400 to 500 students. In recent years, it’s been about 225.

The school lost several families’ enrollment due to the pandemic. At the start of this school year, enrollment sat at about 180 students.

A significant number have returned, though, with enrollment now at approximately 203 students from 3 years old through 12th grade.

By around October, several families called to say homeschooling wasn’t working and they wanted to re-enroll their students, Most said.

Enrollment for next school year started March 1, and he projects based on the numbers so far that the school will be a “full house again” next year.

He also said the school takes its accreditation and state recognition seriously.

Participating in the Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association was an important step as well in opening up opportunities not only for sports, but also academic, music and arts competitions.

“We just want to do it right,” he said.

Reporter

Stephanie Markham joined the Daily Journal in February 2020 as the education reporter. She focuses on school boards as well as happenings and trends in local schools. She earned her B.A. in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.