Jackson County’s Christian schools offer God-centered education

Suzette Lowe
Special to Jackson Newspapers

One has been around since 1975, one just opened in 2019. One is in Ravenswood, one in Ripley. But the two Christian schools in Jackson County have more similarities than differences.

Ripley Christian Academy, which began operation two years ago, whose mission is to offer education for children from kindergarten through 12th grade, has the goal of being ‘practical, affordable and based on God’s word.’

Heritage Christian Academy, a long-standing school in Ravenswood, strives to ‘produce a generation of highly educated, spiritually grounded, upward motivated and morally sound leaders of tomorrow.’

Both schools are part of the ministry of local churches. Heritage Christian is under the direction of Second Baptist Church in Ravenswood, while Ripley Christian is under the Ripley Church of Christ. Both accept students from any Christian denomination and those with no connection to any church. And according to each school’s administrator, the academies were established because people felt called to establish Bible-based educational opportunities in the county.

Both require students to attend chapel. Ripley Christian invites area pastors to offer messages to the children, while Heritage Christian most often hears from the pastor of the affiliated church.

Even with all the similarities, each school has a different story to share.

Ripley Christian Academy: A leap of faith

Ripley Christian Academy, located on Jackson Avenue, serves kindergarten through 12th grade.

Keenan Goosman, who serves as both pastor of Ripley Church of Christ and administrator of the academy, said his church people had been praying for years about starting a school.

The church operated a pre-school for quite some time. Goosman said many parents kept saying they wished the church would offer a full-fledged kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We didn’t want to get ahead of God,” he said. “We knew He would open doors when and if the time was right.”

That time came in the spring of 2019 when Goosman said ‘all the puzzle pieces fit together.’

As Goosman and the church elders looked at their non-traditional church building, they realized it was ideal for a school setting.

“Looking back at how our leaders were inspired to design the church building, with multiple classrooms, large entryway, sprinkler system and so much more,” Goosman said, “we realized that God was preparing us to take on this mission.”

In its first year of operation, there were 14 students. The second year saw the number increase to 49 and the current year’s enrollment stands at 72. Additional classrooms are planned. The recent passage of the Hope Scholarship program by the West Virginia Legislature may fill up those classrooms very quickly. Beginning next school year, this option allows parents to apply for up to $4,600 to cover the cost of private school tuition.

“This may impact our numbers,” said Goosman. “But even with this option, it comes down to why the parents want their children in our school. That is the key question.”

It is very important to Goosman that parents understand the educational process and requirements for both parents and students who attend Ripley Christian Academy.

“Parents must make a commitment, as well as their children, to our school,” he said. “We expect them to take an active part in their child’s education. This is something we make very clear in the interview process. And each student, once enrolled, is on a six-month probation period.”

Much research went into picking the academic program, Bob Jones University Press. Goosman explained the choice was based on the reputation of the program and its strength in preparing students for college.

The requirements for the academy are the same as the public schools. There must be 180 days of instruction and standardized testing is mandatory. All health and safety guidelines from the local health department are followed as well, although masks are not required.

“We chose the Iowa Assessment because of the tracking it allows that shows student strengths and areas to reinforce,” Goosman said.

Goosman gives great credit to the teachers at the school. Each instructor must have a college degree and be founded in Christian doctrine and salvation.

“Our teachers are very well trained and work hard to bring the best education possible to our students,” he said.

Debbie Smith, who teaches art, music and physical education, said many aspects of her job make it ideal for her.

“I’m so impressed by the unity of our faculty,” she said. “The small classes are perfect and having the freedom to teach godly values is priceless.”

Samantha Batton, who has two children enrolled at the academy, said having a Christ-based curriculum is important to her. In addition, she says her children are happier in an environment that doesn’t allow bullying or other influences.

Students enter Ripley Christian Academy ready to learn.

“The curriculum is more advanced than what they had in public school,” she said. “They begged me not to send them back to public school, so we’re continuing with Ripley Christian because the tuition is a sacrifice we’re willing to make.”

Goosman said that the school is a true non-profit organization. The tuition paid by parents goes to teacher salary. The church covers maintenance and utilities. Goosman does not accept a salary as administrator.

Students from five counties and at least 20 denominations attend the school. Of those students, 82 percent are scoring above grade level in one or more subjects.

“We will grow as much as God lets us,” Goosman said. “We want our students to graduate, go on to successful careers and share the message of salvation wherever they go.”

Heritage Christian Academy — Standing strong

Heritage Christian Academy, offering classes K-12, is located on Elwood Street in Ravenswood.

For 46 years, Heritage Christian Academy has been a fixture in Ravenswood, offering a Christian-based education to hundreds of students.

In 1975, Second Baptist Church’s pastor Ken Derrington and concerned parents answered what they felt was a call from God to offer an alternative to public school education. During the years, there have been different pastors, administrators and teachers serving at the school, but the basic principles have never changed.

Jerry McCommack, in his first year as principal, said, “God is the center of everything we do, everything we offer at Heritage.”

McCommack, fondly called “Mr. Mack” by his students, never dreamed he’d have this opportunity in education.

“Soon after I was saved, I had felt the call to preach,” he said. “A voice inside would almost scream at me ‘Preach' when I’d hear the pastor’s sermon. Once I surrendered, I didn’t hear that voice anymore.”

When Pastor Richard Parsons asked him what full-time ministry looked like to him, McCommack never thought the answer would be ‘principal’ which is what his pastor suggested.

“I knew I’d be at peace if it was the right decision,” he said. “And I am at perfect peace.”

As the Bible class instructor for grades 6 and up, Mr. Mack joins a team of teachers that uses the Abeca curriculum program.

Mr. Mack teaches Bible class to the upper grades at the academy.

“We’ve used this program for many years and feel it offers sound education with a biblical foundation,” said McCommack.

As with any Christian school, student aptitude and achievement must be tested. McCommack said his school uses the Iowa Assessment because it offers ongoing evaluation that helps target student needs.

Advanced placement classes are offered through West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

“Many of our students take online classes through WVUP,” said McCommack.

What means the most to both McCommack and his teachers is that ‘God is welcome in our school.’

“To be able to teach biology, chemistry and other disciplines is wonderful,” said Patricia O’Neil, a teacher at the school for the past five years. “To be able to teach it here, with a God-centered curriculum, is a privilege. I’ve loved biology since I was taught by Mrs. Barb Heckert, and this is a dream job for me.”

The enrollment at the academy currently stands at 30, which is a slight increase from last year. McCommack said with the Hope Scholarship program coming into play next school year, additional teachers may be hired.

“We already have students from beyond Jackson County, from different Christian faiths or those not affiliated with any church,” McCommack said. “We offer a great education here.”

Kathy Akers, whose children attend kindergarten and fifth grade, agrees.

“My children have done extremely well here,” she said. “They have made straight A's and I’m very pleased with the level of instruction.”

As with any school, there will be discipline issues, but McCommack said Heritage doesn’t see many.

“Having parents who support the teacher and principal is such an asset,” he said. “I follow the philosophy of ‘firm but fair.’ I want the kids to learn from their mistakes.”

Having the help of volunteers is also vital to the success of Heritage Christian Academy.

Wilma Triplett, who taught in public school and worked with the American Red Cross for many years, works closely with the fundraisers the academy is known for, including Easter eggs and the popular fall festival.

“It takes a lot to keep a school going,” Triplett said,” but when you see a lot of dedicated people who believe in what they’re doing, it makes it all worthwhile.”

Ultimately, the goal of the long-standing Christian school is to prepare its students to do the work of God.

“We would love to see our kids go into full-time work for the Lord,” McCommack said. “But we know they all won’t be called that way. So, we want them to take the Lord into any job they do, to be a light for God in all areas of their lives.”

For more information on Ripley Christian Academy, call 304-786-1234 or visit www.ripleychristian.com. For Heritage Christian Academy, call 304-273-9463 or visit www.hcasaintswv.org.