March 11, 2015


Tammy Leslie was looking for a school for her 11-year-old daughter, Aubry. The Matanuska Christian School, one of the oldest Christian schools in Palmer, Alaska, was closing its doors at the end of the school year. And Leslie, who had worked in that school’s office for several years, was thinking of enrolling Aubrey in Amazing Grace Academy (AGA).

When Leslie told her friends what she was thinking, someone told her, “Be careful; I don’t think those people believe in Jesus.”

“I’m fairly certain they do,” Leslie replied.

She contacted the school, and had a conversation with Cerise Bailey, then office manager of AGA. That conversation led to others, and an introduction to Cerise’s husband, Dane, who is the principal and teacher of grades 5 and 6 at AGA. Aubrey was enrolled at AGA.

Leslie, who had a fairly good idea about how a school should be run, was immediately impressed. “This was much more professionally run,” she says. “Had I known how good the teachers are, I would have enrolled my daughter sooner.”

That by itself would be a pretty good story, but that’s not the end, far from it. “We just started going to church here,” says Leslie matter-of-factly. “I really liked the people.” She and Aubrey not only attended church—they attended an Amazing Prophecies evangelistic series, and a few days after my visit to Palmer, they were baptized.

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    CASUAL DAY: Principal Dane Bailey makes announcements in the main hallway before classes. Once a month the kids get to wear jeans to school.

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    TIME FOR SCHOOL: School begins before dawn in Palmer the first week of spring. The temperature—25 degrees—was 10 degrees warmer than earlier in the week.

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    LOOKING FOR OPTIONS: When Matanuska Christian School closed its doors, Tammy Leslie went looking for options for her daughter, Aubrey. They were both baptized, and Tammy now works at Amazing Grace Academy.

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    RECESS: Even if you’re used to harsh winters, recess on a frozen playground can be a challenge; hence the need for a gymnasium.

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    REHEARSING: “Education Sabbath” is a once-a-year event in which parents are invited to the church’s worship service, and students from Amazing Grace Academy lead out in worship.

Guided by Prayer

The sign on the Glenn Highway into Palmer that advertises the Palmer Seventh-day Adventist Church and Amazing Grace Academy is one of those affairs that flashes the time and temperature, interspersed with Bible quotations or thought-provoking nuggets such as “Pray without ceasing,” “In everything give thanks,” and “Prayer is the best wireless connection.”

Its emphasis on the Bible and practical Christianity is one that’s reflected among the faculty, students, and staff of AGA. The following words are printed on the wall over the main entrance: “Be it known to all who enter here that CHRIST is the reason for our school. He is the unseen but ever-present teacher in our classes. He is the model of our faculty and the inspiration of our students.”

That would be a lofty objective for any Seventh-day Adventist school. But it is especially so for this one, in which most of the students are not from Adventist homes.

The Adventists in Palmer have run an elementary school for some 60 years. But the campus was located eight miles out of town. It primarily served the church, but enrollment was never that high, anywhere from 12 to 20 students from year to year (once 40 students).

Then one of the church members donated property on land that fronted one of the main highways into town. A church was built on the property, and later a school.

The school, an impressive building on three levels, says something about the faith and mission focus demonstrated by the people who planned and built it, especially considering that enrollment at the time it was built hovered around 20 students, with a bank note of about $500,000 to pay for the expansion.

Into this formative situation God brought together a set of circumstances that has forever changed the profile of Seventh-day Adventists in Palmer.

First, the name of the school was changed from Matanuska Valley Adventist School to Amazing Grace Academy. “We wanted something that would resonate with the community,” says Stacey Peterson, AGA board chair. “If you say it’s Palmer Adventist School, people think you have to be an Adventist to go there.”

Then the board invited Dane Bailey to be principal and teach grades 5 and 6. “He’s a spiritual man, a prayerful man,” says Peterson.

Adds Pastor Aaron Payne, “Ever since I’ve known Dane his prayer has always been not that God would bring students to the school just for the numbers, but that He’d bring people who needed to be here.”

Then Payne, not long after being assigned to lead the Palmer church, prayed, “God, what do You want me to do?”

“It hit me one day: Get rid of the debt!” Payne asked his congregation for 100 percent participation in paying off the debt. When people asked how much he wanted them to give, he replied, “I’m not asking you to give money; I’m asking you to pray. Then do whatever God tells you to do.”

Members responded. Payne reports that more than 95 percent of the members contributed to eliminating the debt.

But that’s when the Palmer church deviated from a course most congregations might have taken. The church board decided that for every $100,000 the debt was reduced, it would donate $1,000 to a One-Day Church project somewhere in the world. The result of that commitment is five plaques of appreciation from Maranatha Volunteers International for buildings erected around the world, thanks to the generosity of the Palmer Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Steady Growth

The arrival of Dane Bailey as principal, along with the new building and the higher profile, provided the school with a sense of purpose. Enrollment rose to 35 the next year, and 52 the following year.

Then something happened that nobody imagined: Matanuska Christian School announced it was closing, leaving dozens of families looking for alternatives to public schools.

“I went over and did one of the last chapels of the school year,” says Payne. “We had an open house. I told them, ‘We’re not pleased [by the closing of the school]; we need as much Christian education as possible. But if we can be a blessing to any of your families, we’d like to be.’ ”

The following year enrollment at AGA jumped from 53 to 72. And during the school year just ending the enrollment hovered at just under 90, most of whom do not come from Adventist families. If you go to the school’s Web site (, most of the faces you’ll see are not Adventists.

“There’s a concern that you don’t water down your message just to appeal to people,” says Peterson. “We’re unabashedly Adventist.” The local church sees the school as one of its greatest outreach tools. “They’ve bought into the idea of mission and service and outreach,” he says. “Our best recruiters are those families that are not Adventist.”

Bailey, who came to AGA after teaching in Chico, California, attributes the school’s growth to a question he asked the staff at the beginning of his second year as principal: “How can we make sure these kids, these families, know that our primary purpose is spiritual?”

The answer to that question begins first thing in the morning with staff worship, most often led by Bailey. “I like to set the tone by emphasizing the spiritual aspects we need to focus on,” he says.

The morning assembly is another place where spirituality is emphasized. All the students—from kindergarten to tenth grade—sit on the floor in the main hallway to sing a couple songs (“The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock” was most requested the week I was there), have a few announcements, say a prayer (specifically mentioning the day’s “prayer kids”), and say the Pledge of Allegiance.

More about the “prayer kids”: The school calendar lists two prayer kids every day, kids who are specifically mentioned in prayer each day. “Every day we get to pray and dedicate,” says Bailey. “Every day we pray over our kids. It creates a spiritual family. . . . I ask the church to pray for our kids. We can’t emphasize prayer enough.”

Indeed, prayer is an essential ingredient in both church and school. The Sabbath before school begins, after a brief message during the worship service, members migrate down the hall to the school classrooms where they pray for the teachers, the students who will inhabit those desks, and the challenges they will face in the coming year. Prayer kids are also listed in the church bulletin each week.

The result is a climate of real fellowship between students, teachers, staff, and parents. Parents who drop off kids in the morning or pick them up in the afternoon are often greeted by a teacher (or two). Smiles, handshakes, and hugs reflect the closeness they feel for each other.

The week I was there culminated in “Education Sabbath,” where parents and friends joined the worship service to watch their children lead out in various aspects of the service. The students sang, played their instruments, read Scripture, prayed, called for the offering, and, most important, shared their testimonies.

It was touching to see how seriously they took their responsibilities, and hear them share how a relationship with Christ has touched their lives.

Also heartwarming is how Adventist students befriend and support their non-Adventist friends. They attend each other’s recitals and other performances. They support them in times of grief or family tragedies. Not surprisingly, a handful of students have become Seventh-day Adventists because of their contact with friends at AGA.

What the Future Holds

It would seem that Amazing Grace Academy is well on its way to a bright future.

But it still faces some formidable challenges. The first being the growth it’s experienced over the past few years; growth nobody foresaw. The increased enrollment puts a strain on all the teachers, but especially on Principal Bailey. You can be principal and teach grades 5 and 6 when the enrollment is 60 or 70. But it becomes increasingly time-consuming when enrollment approaches 100.

Plus, a higher enrollment requires more space. For several years AGA has leased its upper level to Palmer’s Head Start program; providing Head Start with a place to meet, and giving AGA a source of income to help with their next project (more about that later). But the lease is up at the end of next school year, giving AGA more space, but eliminating that income stream.

AGA currently offers a K-10 education. The next obvious step is to make it a full academy, something never before seen in Alaska. With nearly 100 students it seems a likely possibility. But the North American Division has standards for academies that AGA can’t yet meet. And a student body that’s only 20 to 25 percent Adventist would set off alarm bells in some circles.

A final challenge facing AGA is the proposed building of a gymnasium. For much of the school year outdoor activities are chilly, to say the least. The local school district requires teachers to keep kids indoors if the windchill falls below 20 degrees below zero (which happens often when the wind blows 20 to 30 miles an hour, sometimes more). A gymnasium would not only benefit the school and provide a place for its programs, but it would benefit the church and be a place for the community to hold special events.

The price tag for such a project is $1.5 million, but for a church and school already used to sacrificial giving, that goal is well within reach. A number of donors have already stepped forward, but much more has to be done (to see how you can help, visit

Higher Education

In the past four years Amazing Grace Academy has experienced tremendous growth. But more important, it has raised the profile of Seventh-day Adventists in the community. The potential from that kind of profile is inestimable.

“For example,” says Bailey, “we have someone registered for next year who’s from Mongolia. The kid has never experienced Christianity. It’ll be real interesting to present the gospel to that family. But you pray about it.”

What else can you do?