Butler County faith-based school draws students from region

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They're in the middle of nowhere but they’re only 10 miles from somewhere, says R. Lee Saunders with a wry laugh.

He’s talking about Portersville Christian School — a pre-K through grade 12 school in Butler County where he serves as head administrator.

With 235 pupils and a reputation for high achievement, the school in Muddy Creek has capitalized on its rural location near the nexus of some key population centers, drawing students from a four-county area.

A nonprofit organization, the school is marking 50 years of educating children. Mr. Saunders links its longevity to an alchemy of traditional Christian values, a high level of parental involvement, good location and expectations of excellence from student and staff.

The school is the progeny of the late Rev. Joseph Morris, pastor of Portersville Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, now known as the Portersville Alliance Church. The school and the church are off of Route 488. The first year, the school was in the basement of the church.

Mr. Saunders, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, is in his fourth year, but has been involved as a teacher or administrator in Christian education for 30 years. A native of Tucson, Ariz., he spent three years as a middle school principal in Houston, Texas, before accepting the Portersville post.

He said a lot has changed over the years but one of the constants is the connection between faith and education.

“From the beginning, there was a vision [that involved] the value of having kids involved in daily Christian education, integrating faith and education,” he said, noting that the impetus for the school was the Morrises’ desire to see their three sons taught in a Christian environment and to give the same opportunity to other members of their church and community.

The first year — 1963-64 — saw about two dozen students in the church basement while volunteers built the school building behind the church house.

Located in Slippery Rock Area School District, Portersville Christian pulls students of various faiths.

“We have over 70 different congregations represented in our student body,” he said. “We offer a good education in a Christian environment.”

Peak enrollment hit slightly more than 300 students before the recession in the fall of 2008, but he said he considers ideal enrollment to be around 250 students. Though the number of pupils is slightly lower, entrance exams are required and not all students are accepted.

“We are selective because we know what the expectations for academic performance are,’’ he said. The school has a special education program in additional to its regular curriculum. Tuition is about $6,000 annually for high school and about $5,600 for elementary school, he said.

The student body is much larger than the 40-member church congregation that spawned it. The connection between the two continues. The church sets the school's doctrinal parameters, which Mr. Saunders described as “very middle of the road. It’s in the middle of Protestant Christianity and the doctrine is pretty acceptable to a wide group of Christians. The doctrinal statement doesn’t have a lot of denominational distinctives.” Also, the church elders vet the nine members of the school board after they are nominated by a parent committee.

Though the majority of the students come from Seneca Valley, Butler Area and Slippery Rock Area, there are some from as far away as Pine-Richland and North Allegheny. Any school district whose boundaries are within 10 miles of the school are eligible for bus service provided by the school and paid for by the sending districts.

The building that houses the school started with six classrooms and an office — the first floor of what is known now as the west wing. As soon as that project was completed for the 1965-66 school year, construction began on the second floor and was finished in 1969. A gymnasium was added to the east side of the building in 1974. A second gymnasium was constructed in 1992, allowing the first gym to be converted into classrooms, a choir room, a library, a cafeteria, and a science laboratory. Weekly chapel services are held in the gym. In all, the gym, school building and church sit on about 15 acres.

The school employs 42 people, including 22 full-time teachers and five part-time teachers. The average size of each grade level is about 22, ranging from a high of 30 and low of 12. No class has more than 16 students at the elementary level and no high school class has more than 19.

Mr. Saunders said he’s particularly proud of the school’s parent community “which is extremely active” and the students, who achieve some of the highest SAT scores in Butler County.

“Our current average this year is 1,625 (out of a maximum of 2,400) and that’s low for us,” he said. “We stay on our toes academically. Our parent community expects it and helps us do that,” he said. “It’s not really fair to compare us to the public schools because they have a spectrum of students that we don’t have."

Mr. Saunders said he envisions a new campus in the Cranberry area at some point. He said the Portersville campus has some capacity limitations involving water and septic service and a significant hillside on the property that would prevent substantial growth.

A banquet to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary will be from 7 to 10 p.m. May 17 in the Robert M. Smith Student Union Ballroom at the Slippery Rock University. Tickets are $35 and tables can be sponsored. Information: 724-777-2703.

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.

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