The word of the week was "Faithful." On a first-grade classroom wall in the new $3.4 million building on the St. Petersburg Christian School campus, it embodied an unabashedly evangelical message.
Bible is a core class. Students pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States, to the Christian flag and to the Bible. Every class starts with prayer. Teachers, each with "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," according to school material, meet several times a week to pray.
And as the 41-year-old school prepared to begin the academic year with a new building on its campus at 2021 62nd Ave. N, the school's leader spoke of God's role in bringing it to pass.
Plans for the three-story structure date back six years, Steve Knellinger said. Back then, the estimated cost was $5.4 million. The new facility, though, completed over the summer with 22 classrooms, an industrial kitchen, cafeteria, science lab and elevators that students get to ride as a birthday treat, came in $2 million less.
The St. Petersburg Christian School project, Knellinger said, benefited from a stagnant construction industry, low interest rates and God's timing.
"It's truly God's blessing," he said. "One of the verses we do use is, 'A man's heart plans his way, but God determines his steps.' "
Last week, Knellinger and registrar Traci Noble gave a tour of the new building as workers added finishing touches inside and out. The school, a ministry of Suncoast Cathedral, an Assemblies of God congregation, goes from preschool to eighth grade and has 533 students. Tuition ranges from $7,120 for kindergarten to close to $8,200 for upper grades.
Its new 31,750-square-foot building, which replaced a two-story facility and two portables, is providing much-needed space, Knellinger said.
"We were out of classrooms completely," he said, adding that fifth-graders had to be housed across the street at Suncoast Cathedral for two years. "Then we brought them over here and we really maxed out our room."
With the new facility complete, the former middle school building will continue to be used for some classes, including art and music, and provide space for a cafeteria dedicated to middle school students. Kindergarteners will still meet in a separate building that has been in use since 2006, while preschool classes will continue across the street at Suncoast Cathedral.
The school is proud of its racially and ethnically diverse student body.
"I'd say we're probably one of the most diverse private schools in town," Noble said, adding that students represent about 60 churches and travel from throughout St. Petersburg, Tierra Verde, Largo and Clearwater to attend.
It's one of the qualities that Sheri Goldberg, who is Catholic, likes. Her son, Kyle, is in seventh grade, and daughter, Kayla, fifth grade. "They are meeting all different kinds of people," she said.
The school feels "like you're home when you are there," she said. "Great education and a good Christian environment, too."
"One of the things we are most proud of is our Blue Ribbon status," said Knellinger, noting that St. Cecelia's Interparochial School in Clearwater is the only other school in Pinellas County with the U.S. Department of Education recognition.
With classes about to start today, the campus bustled with activity last week as families moved boxes, rolled furniture and helped teachers put classrooms in order.
Even with more than 100 desks and chairs yet to arrive, Knellinger was relaxed.
"We're okay with that," he said, adding that the old desks would be pulled into service if delivery was delayed.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.