When the board of a small private school learned it had to find another location and a new funding source of funding almost immediately, it’s not hard to imagine the surge of panic board members felt. Throw in a global pandemic and a supplies shortage, and a bad scenario became even worse.
This was the situation confronting First Baptist Academy in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, two years ago. Yet what could have been the death knell for the popular school turned out to be a catalyst for expansion and enhanced education.
Haskell was engaged to help the institution during a 20-month period of radical transition. The company’s experience in school design and construction, not to mention its commitment to advancing its clients and communities, enabled a beloved institution to find a beautiful new home and continue providing classical Christian education to families in Northeast Florida.
This is the story of The Covenant School of Jacksonville.
The transformation of First Baptist Academy into The Covenant School began on September 8, 2019, when its board received notice that the school was to be separated from the venerable First Baptist Church, a pillar of Downtown Jacksonville. The implications of this change were profound. The church was not only the school’s founder but also its only source of funding in addition to tuition. Could the school survive an amicable, yet abrupt, parting of ways?
Despite the initial shock, directors realized that the ominous cloud had a substantial silver lining. Their downtown campus was already at capacity, and there was no room to build the athletic facilities vital to a comprehensive program. However, they needed to find a new location within a five-mile radius and get financial backing in short order.
Board members scoured Jacksonville for vacant land and recently closed schools. It took just a few days to identify Florida Baptist Children’s Home (FBCH) as a potential site.
Susan Johnson, Head of School, explained: “One of our founding members, Mrs. Ginger Soud, suddenly thought of the children’s home, knowing it wasn’t being used to its full capacity. Conversations happened, meetings with the owner took place, and — as only God can — both ministries saw the mission alignment. It was surreal how quickly our hearts united.”
True, the 50-acre campus wasn’t optimal. Designed as an orphanage a century earlier, it comprised small residential homes, an administration wing, an outdated gymnasium and dining facilities, and a church. However, its gorgeous grounds, which include a lake and 60 majestic oak trees, offered the school plenty of room for expansion. What’s more, it was just a 10-minute drive from the First Baptist location.
The timing couldn’t have been better for both parties. Changes to state legislation regarding large group homes meant that the owner of FBCH, One More Child, was keen to realize some of its assets. The financial influx from selling 30 acres to the right buyer would go towards developing facilities on the remaining 20 acres to support present-day operations.
But where was the school to get its funding? Its current buildings were owned by the church, which had always paid for essentials, such as maintenance, utilities and security. The only money readily available was a modest operational and emergency fund, and that had recently been depleted to enable the school’s expansion to 12th grade.
‘We’d spent $350,000 on that expansion, not knowing we’d shortly need to relocate,” Johnson said. “Knowing nothing about fundraising, we asked around and ended up retaining Mission Advancement.”
A Texas-based organization, Mission Advancement (MAP) advises independent schools on sustainable nonprofit fundraising practices. They provided counsel for the school and initiated the school's first capital campaign, ‘Transition to Transformation.'
MAP showed the directors how to seek those with “a relevance, capacity and passion” for the type of education provided by the school. Incredibly, just such a family was in their midst. The board cautiously approached grandparents Jack and Michelle Lueders with a bold request for $1.5 million. A few days later, the couple called back saying that the Lord had led them to accept the school’s proposal.
“It was very much a family decision,” said Johnson, the Head of School. All three generations of Lueders had agreed to the donation. Their sacrificial gift, plus funds from other generous donors, would allow the completion of the first phase of the school’s transition and lay the plans for Phase II.
With that initial jump start in fundraising, Covenant then hired its own Development Director, Maria Johnson, who is now leading fundraising efforts.
The board’s next move was to confirm that the old children’s home could be converted to a school fit for the 21st Century. Enter Kimberly Hansen, who was not only a board member but also a school parent, the System Director of Design and Construction for Baptist Health and a one-time Haskell project manager.
“As a former employee and an existing client of Haskell, I was confident that only they could do this next stage for us,” Hansen said. “They knew the school well, having done a handful of smaller projects for it over the years, and they’re experienced in planning, designing and constructing education facilities. They were the obvious choice, so I set up a meeting.”
When Hansen’s former colleagues heard of the school’s predicament, they were keen to assist. Just two months after receiving notice, the board had in its hands design studies, a master plan and a cost estimate. Haskell had put a team together at a moment’s notice and pulled out all the stops to produce the necessary research. Hansen recalled that it was like “working with friends.”
Initially, the board wanted not only to remodel the existing buildings but also build new classrooms. Elizabeth Lentz, Senior Design Manager at Haskell and Hansen’s primary contact, explained that the creation of a conceptual design and a pricing and estimating exercise performed by Haskell’s preconstruction team demonstrated to directors that they would need to scale back their plans.
“The school had a limited budget, and they soon realized they weren’t in a position to provide all the infrastructure the new campus needed,” Lentz said. “They had to find a cost-effective way to create classrooms within the existing buildings. In other words, convert buildings that had never been designed as classrooms.”
Lentz and her fellow designers revisited the plans with the directors. After conducting several architectural, engineering and building assessments, they determined that renovating the existing buildings was indeed a viable alternative.
Confident that their funds would cover the cost of creating and equipping classrooms, as well as refreshing the whole campus, the Board pushed ahead with plans to purchase the first 20 acres of its new campus. Meanwhile, Haskell helped produce the school’s marketing brochure, featuring beautiful renderings of the new campus.
At the Christmas concert on December 12, just three months after learning of the need to move, the board announced that the school had a new place to call home. Parents and students were overjoyed, and it was all systems go. Visits to the new campus by the older pupils were arranged, meetings with the bank and Mission Advancement took place, and the renovations began.
The construction work itself was done by local contractor Fickling Construction. Haskell’s quality assurance team had already checked the buildings’ envelope (i.e., the windows, doors, roof, floor, foundations, electricals, plumbing and insulation) and confirmed that work on the large classrooms could be done without disturbing the existing structure and could begin as soon as the purchase went through.
At least, that was the theory.
“We were spinning a lot of plates when COVID-19 hit,” Johnson says. “Pupils were sent home and teachers had to do a crash online teaching course. On top of that, we were changing our curriculum and construction supplies were suddenly hard to come by. The world had come to a stop. But everyone — and I mean everyone — stepped up to the plate to make the transition happen. It was truly amazing.”
In April 2020, seven months after learning the need to relocate, the Board entered into a lease-to-own agreement for 20 acres of the FBCH property. Demolition and renovation quickly followed, and on August 31, the Upper School moved to its new location. Phase I of the transition was complete.
In the year that followed, faculty and staff conducted school on two different sites, and directors and leadership continued to solicit funding. Impressed by the board’s ability to raise $2 million in contributions, the bank extended a loan that allowed the school to buy 10 more acres of FBCH and begin Phase II of the transition.
In April 2021, the school announced its new name, and in May, it revealed its new brand. In August of the same year, the school was reunited when the Lower School and Early Education joined the older students. The Covenant School of Jacksonville had come home.
The story of the school’s transition doesn’t end here, though. In Spring 2022, the campaign will pick up again so that Covenant can repay its bank loan, replenish its funds, and complete Phase III. This includes the renovation of additional buildings for educational and fine arts spaces. The campaign target is $10 million.
Johnson admits there is work ahead, but she is excited about Covenant’s future. The site already looks and feels like a college campus. Plus, the school has a unique, resourceful Board of Directors and many generous friends.
“Things were crazy for a while,” she said. “But that initial meeting between Kimberly and Haskell allowed us to breathe. We found a place to call home, and Haskell told us we could make it happen. And that’s what we did!”
Contact Haskell’s Municipal and Education Division to learn how its team helps education leaders meet their constituents’ needs within tight schedules and budgets.
The Covenant School of Jacksonville ranks among the top 20% of private schools in Florida. It offers classical, Christian education from pre-K through 12th grade, and provides over 40% of students with Tuition Assistance. Its mission is to ensure students receive the finest instruction in a place where they can grow in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and man. Accordingly, it has partnered with Hillsdale College to become Florida’s first private school to be a licensed user of its K-12 curriculum. Contact The Covenant School for more information.
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