Al Stefan, superintendent of Western Christian School, stands inside the main hallway on June 1, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As Oregon’s public schools shed students over the last year, Al Stefan said a handful came knocking.

Stefan is the superintendent of Western Christian School, a K-12 school on Highway 221 north of west Salem. Though pandemic restrictions and worries over Covid made it “the hardest year in education,” Stefan said Western Christian added about 40 students, closing the year with an enrollment of 281.

Now, school leaders are hoping to build on that growth. The school recently received a $151,000 grant from the Vancouver, Washington-based M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to hire its first development director, who will focus on fundraising to build the school’s cash reserves and support capital projects.

“Western Christian and similar schools throughout our region provide an outstanding, well-rounded education to a wide array of students,” said John Franklin, the trust's program director, in a statement to Salem Reporter. “We are excited to see Western Christian School pursuing strategies to widen their efforts and serve more children and families in the future. We are grateful to play a small role in helping grow their staff to this end.”

The three-year grant will pay a portion of the director’s salary that decreases each year, Stefan said, giving the school time to make the position self-sustaining. He’s hired Chad Ahlstrom, a Western Christian alumnus and parent of two current students, for the job.

Founded in 1945 as a Mennonite high school, Western Christian now has a 45-acre campus. In 2018, the school added elementary classes, starting with 42 students. They now have about 130.

Fundraising efforts underway include a campaign to raise $1.4 million for a new science wing, primarily to offer modern science classes to high school students. Stefan said the school has raised about $600,000 to date and hopes to break ground in about six months.

Though Western Christian was growing before the pandemic hit, Stefan said their ability to offer in-person classes nearly all year played a role in attracting new students. Western Christian is far enough outside city limits to qualify as a rural school, a designation that meant it was subject to less stringent pandemic restrictions than Salem’s public schools.

After opening in the fall, Stefan said the school was able to remain open under a state “safe harbor” provision that allowed schools that had not shown Covid spread internally to continue providing in-person classes.

“That was huge for our families here,” he said.

He said development efforts will focus on the school’s alumni base of about 5,000 people.

“We’re really known as being a tight-knit community,” Stefan said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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