With just weeks to go before educators at Walther Lutheran make their debut in Forest Park at the helm of the former St. John’s Lutheran School, a significant partnership that could do much to stabilize the institution has been reached.
Faculty, staff and students of the Christian Academy in Oak Park will be absorbed into the new school here in the village. That development is expected to add some 35 to 50 students to the attendance rolls at Walther Lutheran Academy at Forest Park and doubles the school’s staffing levels, according to Don Gillingham, executive director of Walther Lutheran High School in Melrose Park.
“We had a tremendous blessing or stroke of luck when Oak Park Christian Academy came into play for us,” Gillingham said.
Administrators at the Christian Academy were looking for a building equipped with more school-type amenities, according to Gillingham, since their location on Lake Street in Oak Park was not constructed for classroom use. The move was discussed with Christian Academy parents at the end of July, Gillingham said, and from those talks school officials were able to boost their enrollment projections.
Over the course of the spring and summer months, Walther Lutheran High School officials have been working with the former St. John’s school in Forest Park. It was announced in March that the Lutheran high school was interested in taking over the day-to-day operations of the grade school. Only two weeks prior, parishioners in Forest Park voted to close the St. John’s school after 137 years. Lagging attendance and a ledger book filled with red ink prompted the closure.
At the end of the 2006-07 school year, St. John’s had approximately 80 students enrolled in classes for pre-school through eighth-grade. In what will be the school’s first year under the Walther name, administrators are now projecting anywhere from 70 to 100 students, an expanded kindergarten program and seven full-time teachers.
Prior to the agreement with the Christian Academy in Oak Park, Gillingham estimated the school would open with 60 students and three or four full-time teachers.
On Aug. 6, Principal Steve Zielke had his first meeting with the entire teaching staff, just three weeks before classes begin on Aug. 27. The addition of the Oak Park faculty should give teachers at the new Lutheran school more freedom to focus on their interests, Zielke said, and make for smaller homeroom class sizes.
“It allows a teacher to be a floater,” Zielke said. “In that, we can group our teachers to focus on different subjects.”
Both Zielke and Gillingham suggested the agreement with the Oak Park school will have something of a snowball effect and encourage even more area families to enroll their children at the Walther Lutheran school.