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A new beginning in Brookfield for an old Heritage school

Administrator helps private school revamp

Senior English teacher Carrie Taylor (right) oversees her class in Heritage Christian School last week. The school is on a comeback trail after hard financial lessons a few years back.

Senior English teacher Carrie Taylor (right) oversees her class in Heritage Christian School last week. The school is on a comeback trail after hard financial lessons a few years back. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Oct. 2, 2012

Mark MacKay is an educator who has taught his share of history.

Today, he is helping lead Heritage Christian Schools, founded in the early 1970s and now based primarily in Brookfield, out of an unfavorable recent history that almost rendered it as a forgotten footnote.

MacKay is in his 25th year as an administrator and now the school's academic chief as principal. He, an eight-member board and a faithful flock of teachers, students and families have regrouped after a financial disaster that culminated in 2008.

Growth interrupted

Not long before that time, the nondenominational, Christ-centered school had grown to more than 1,150 students and was about to put an addition to its West Allis campus at 108th Street and Greenfield Ave. It was slated to become the new home of Heritage's K-12 programs.

An association with what MacKay describes as an unscrupulous consultant-developer and the general collapse of the economy interrupted Heritage's bright future.

The results were startling. Over the course of three years, the bottom fell out of enrollment, to just a few hundred, while debt climbed to $11 million.

The school would have closed if it had not successfully worked with its bank to give back the property with minimal penalty. That wiped out almost all of the school's $11 million debt. What's left is almost $200,000 owed in back pay to current teachers who have stuck with the school.

"Through the faithfulness of the staff and others, we made it through the 2008 and 2009 school years," MacKay said, adding that school enrollment is up to 475.

Multi-campus logistics

The current campuses include the former Pleasant Hill School at 175 S. Barker Road for middle and high school; the former St. Luke School, 1305 Davidson Road, for third through sixth grade; and WeatherStone Church, 1500 S. West Lane, New Berlin, for preschool through second grade.

"Logistically, it is not ideal," MacKay said, "but we are grateful that we are in the second of a three-year lease in all of our buildings. We hope that someday we can bring all the students to one campus."

MacKay said he is not counting on reaching the previous high enrollment, concentrating instead on successfully educating current Heritage students. Heritage, he said, strives to prepare students for any path, whether it is continuing to a traditional four-year college or not.

"That is why we do not consider ourselves an academy," MacKay said. "Not everyone has the interest or the intellect, so you need to have as diverse a program as possible."

Academics with faith

While Heritage offers everything from honors programs and advanced placement courses to technical education as well as the arts and athletics, MacKay said virtually all seniors take the ACT and the school's scores match or rise above the state averages.

Students get their share of scholarships - last year's valedictorian received a full scholarship to Georgetown. "Which is as it should be, if you have quality teachers, a good curriculum and are doing what you are supposed to be doing," MacKay said.

He said he is proud of the support the school gets from parents, like the father of a third-grader who has volunteered to teach a computer-aided design course to seven students in a first-period class before he heads to his job.

That volunteer spirit also is seen in those serving on the school's board.

"I want Heritage to succeed because I believe in it," said Dave Cotteleer, board chairman, who is also chief information officer at Harley-Davidson. "I served on the board during the down time, but I don't see why it can't get back to a higher level (of enrollment). The difference in sending my kids there is that I know they are learning science, math and literature. They are also part of a Christian environment that will allow them to grow their beliefs and defend them."

Families believe

That same passion for the Heritage approach to education draws families like 1992 Heritage graduates Ty and Kristin Angles of West Allis. They have moved their four children in and out of the Heritage school system through other private schools and home-schooling as the economy hit both the school and the family.

"We believe in the school because it offers so much," Kristin said. "Mark Mackay was my principal, so I believe in what he is doing. We are also Bible-believing and nondenominational, so Heritage fits that as well."

Her son, Zach, has experienced life in and out of Heritage since elementary school. Now a Heritage senior, he said he has taken advantage of the school's academic and extracurricular offerings.

A practical plan

He also has very specific plans for his future.

"I plan on staying in the Milwaukee area and going to a two-year degree program in nursing or another part of the medical field," Zach said. "And then, later in life, after I save some money, I want to go back to college or online for pastoral studies. I don't think it would be a good thing to blow a lot of money getting a degree and then worrying about paying for it."

When asked if he has been influenced by the economic challenges that Heritage has faced, he said: "Absolutely - I think everyone who has been involved has noticed and considered that."

EDUCATIONAL HERITAGE

SCHOOL: Heritage Christian Schools

YEAR FOUNDED: 1973 at Bethel Baptist Church in Milwaukee

GRADES: preschool through 12th

ENROLLMENT: 475 representing 85 different church affiliations

MORE INFO: www.heritagechristianschools.org

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