South Side Christian Academy is producing results and growing along with them
Nestled in a corner partially surrounded by woods in an unincorporated area of Peoria County sits South Side Christian Academy, now in its seventh year.
On the walls inside the building are positive messages and themes reflecting the Christian education being delivered there. One reads, “There’s No Place Like SSCA.”
‘Our hope and prayer are that they continue to live on the South Side, give back to the community and become leaders in this city’
As the only tuition-free private school in Peoria, that statement rings true.
South Side Christian Academy co-founder and Director Susan Zobrist said she always wanted to open a school.
“My kids were all leaving, we were gonna become empty-nesters … I looked at my husband and asked, ‘Now what do I do?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you start that school you’ve always dreamed about?’”
Zobrist was not quite sure what the school would look like.
“My friend Cassie said, ‘Well, of course you’re going to do that on the south end of Peoria, right?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure, if you’re gonna do it with me.’”
Today, Cassie Meiss is the business director at South Side Christian Academy.
“We just felt like there should be more opportunities for people on the South Side than were happening,” said Meiss.
‘We saw the need for Jesus and more academics’
During that summer of 2015, three couples — Curt and Cassie Meiss, Chad and Susan Zobrist, Matt and Lisa Waibel — began planning for the new private school. By then, the Waibels had moved into Limestone Township from Chillicothe and begun getting acquainted with nearby South Peoria families.
“We started some neighborhood Bible clubs and we picked up kids down on Wiswall Street and brought them into our home,” said Lisa. “We had a heart for this area as far as reaching out to kids and families,” added Matt.
“The students did not know math facts. We did math flash cards with them and they always read for 10 or 20 minutes,” said Lisa. “We noticed the kids did not have very good reading skills, most of them did not know anything about the Bible, so we saw the need for Jesus and more academics.”
Lisa, who had been homeschooling her own children, saw an opportunity for outreach. It was not unusual for the Waibels to see South Side kids walk up the hill past Lutheran Cemetery to play basketball with their children, three of their nine still at home. As their relationships grew, one by one, the South Side children became a part of their homeschool program.
“There was a boy who showed up at my house, he was 11 years old and he did not know his alphabet. We have a basketball hoop and he saw the kids playing basketball. He came a number of times with his friend,” recalled Lisa. “One day I said, ‘Hey, I would like you to come into the house and read to me … He said, ‘I can’t read.’”
She contacted the boy’s mother and offered to homeschool him along with another sibling. That partnership lasted two years. Meanwhile, she homeschooled neighborhood children for about four years. Soon, her role became finding students for a new school. The core group joined her in knocking on residents’ doors.
South Side Christian Academy opened in the fall of 2016 inside the former Hilltop Fellowship Church off Farmington Road. It started with a kindergarten class of 11 students bused from Peoria’s South Side. The maximum class size was 14, and the plan was to add another grade level each year up to the 8th grade.
“We thought, what if we start working with … kids from the time they are young and teach them about Jesus from the beginning, give them a great education, which is also a great pathway out of poverty and … crime and other bad statistics that define this area, that they could make a change in the community,” said Meiss.
Relying heavily on their faith, private donations and volunteers that first year proved a tight squeeze. The budget grew to $120,000 when they had to purchase a school bus. “We basically prayed and sent letters to everybody we ever knew,” said Meiss.
Meanwhile, that core group went looking for a new location on Peoria’s South Side.
In January 2018, first and second grade students and two teachers moved into a renovated, 12,000-square-foot building on six acres along Hill Street in Limestone Township, a former Knights of Columbus facility west of Laramie Street. The entire $400,000 for renovation came from donations. The staff was small. Board members volunteered.
Focusing on the basics, producing results
The board hired Principal Nikki Giosta at the end of the second school year. She is especially proud of her students’ achievement scores, as measured by the 2022 Illinois Assessment of Readiness, or IAR tests.
Giosta said 72% of South Side Christian Academy students scored in the approaching/meeting/exceeding categories, level 3 or above on a 5-tiered scale in reading. In math, IAR results show 20.8% of students at SSCA at Level 3 or better, she said. Those surpass the scores at some nearby schools with comparable demographics. Average class sizes at public schools double SSCA’s.
SSCA uses Common Core curriculum standards like other Illinois schools. While the school is state-recognized, it is not accredited, said Giosta. There is no special education program. Two years ago, SSCA began using federal Title 1 funds, targeted for schools with high percentages of low-income students and administered by Peoria Public Schools. Three interventionists work at SSCA, their salaries paid by Peoria Public Schools.
Once students are identified as needing remediation, it starts quickly. “There’s not a lot of red tape if we see that you need something, whether that is your behavior, whether that is with math, or whether that is reading or writing,” Giosta said. “We are giving them the one-on-one time up front. They’re closing the gaps that they may have.”
Meanwhile, “we do a lot of checking, both academically and behaviorally,” she said. “We have a lot of kids who come with a lot of hard things, burdens to bear for little people.”
‘Siblings rather than classmates’
There are 87 students in grades K-6 at SSCA. They attend school for about 10 months, with five weeks off for summer vacation. Some 80% of the students are from the South Side, the rest from other areas.
Giosta credits teamwork, parental involvement and relationship building as vital to the school’s success. The implementation of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) program also has been an asset, she said. Students are rewarded when they follow PBIS rules.
Sixth grader Kieyer Wells said his education at SSCA has helped him make better choices. “When I was little, I used to be bad and cuss a lot, but I don’t do that as much,” he said.
SSCA parent Brittney Stacy said the school’s mission aligned closely with the goals she has for her daughter Khloe. “I wanted to make sure that I put her in a program that fell in line with some of the things that she had already learned in preschool, the things that we were working on at home, as well as our own spiritual and moral beliefs,” said Stacy.
The Christian education provided under the curriculum was the glue that attracted her to the school, she said. “They do a lot more focus on targeting complications that the kids may have,” said Stacy, adding that the one class per grade allows students to develop friendships.
“It’s more like a family because you go from one grade to the next with the same kids, and you build those bonds,” she said, adding that her daughter, Khloe, now a fifth grader, has had the same peer group since kindergarten. “It’s like they turn into siblings rather than classmates.”
Single mom Shatiya Alexander recently applied to SSCA for her two daughters. A younger brother already attends. “I want my kids to have a really good education and I want them to be in a school that’s going to push them to their best ability, all while focusing on God,” said Alexander.
A recent, $2 million expansion at SSCA brought six additional classes and a gym. The annual budget has grown to almost $700,000, said Meiss. SSCA Board President Chad Zobrist says with the recent capital improvements and no debt, the school is well positioned for the future.
Plans are in the works for a high school.
“We know that some of our students will probably go to college but not all of them,” said Zobrist. “Our hope and prayer are that they continue to live on the South Side, give back to the community and become leaders in this city.”