It’s a tune we know too well, a plaintive melody of sadness and decline, maybe voiced with oboe and with cello. It floats among the other losses of our lives—the griefs, regrets, the litany of things we should have done. On odd days, in the midst of memories, we think that others hear it too, for they seem lulled by all its rueful nostalgia.
The school song. Oh—not that bright, crisp march alumni sang when halls were filled with eagerness and every year saw enrollments higher than the year before. Not that confident and dry-eyed anthem to loving “good old [insert three-letter acronym]” we chorused even well into the eighties.
The song we’ve grown accustomed to in the past 20 years in North American Adventist education has been a gentle kind of lamentation—a familiar dirge of contraction and declension. Dozens of Adventist elementary schools have closed in the United States and Canada; century-old academies have shuttered windows and padlocked dormitories. Beset by steeply rising costs for salaries and benefits, congregations that once contributed more than half of all their local offerings to operate a church school now anxiously await projections for the coming school year.
Will there be enough students to justify a third teacher, or must the dwindling numbers be rearranged in new configurations that reflect hard economic realities? And must tuition always rise, arriving at a price point where parents make hard choices about keeping children in Adventist schools or adding an extra bedroom for the growing family?
But there are other tunes a-stirring—counterpoints that challenge our dirgelike expectations and make us question whether we must sing only a song of sadness and decline. This is the story of one of those.
Kevin and Karey Messina had only one stipulation when they accepted the invitation of the Florida Conference in 2019 to minister in a state in which both had previously lived for many years: Put us in a district with an Adventist church school. With three children, then aged 4, 10, and 13, the couple was adamant about the priority of an Adventist elementary school in whatever pastoral district they might be assigned.
Their unusual request was granted, but in an odd, unwelcome way. There was a church school in Ocala, Florida, a city of 63,000 slightly more than 80 miles north of Orlando, or at least there was a building. But the school—that vibrant, living organism created by the mix of students, teachers, parents, and members of the local church—had closed 10 years earlier. The building had become a storage facility for the Ocala Seventh-day Adventist Church next door—at least until the luxuriant Florida foliage grew up across the school facade. Windows were caked with a decade of dust, and even long-term advocates for the school in the Ocala church and the surrounding region had grown discouraged.
When the Messinas arrived in August 2019, it was apparent that there would be no church school for their children in the immediate academic year, at least not in Ocala. In September Karey, previously a high school teacher and also an instructor in English as a second language (ESL) at Andrews University, began driving her two older children 48 miles each day to the Adventist church school in Gainesville, Florida, a trip of at least an hour each way.
“We knew we needed an Adventist school for our kids,” Karey says. “They had already been in Adventist schools while Kevin was completing his bachelor’s and Master of Divinity degrees at Andrews University. And we knew that we weren’t going to be homeschooling our children.”
She pauses and smiles broadly. “I’m not a homeschool mom,” she says. So the experienced educator began driving 500 miles per week to underline the family’s commitment to Adventist education. For the first several months she and her preschool-aged son would visit museums and libraries and do shopping in Gainesville. Ultimately, the Gainesville church school invited her to volunteer with their lunch program during the school days while she waited for the return trip.
Unlike Karey, who was also the daughter of longtime Adventist schoolteachers Ray and Karen Hamstra, Kevin had never attended Adventist schools until beginning his undergraduate theology degree at Andrews University. Raised in a difficult family environment in multiple Florida locations, he had attended a variety of public elementary and high schools before a stint in the U.S. Air Force. He points to three sources for his new commitment to open—or reopen—a church school in the community he now served as a pastor.
“The incredible passion and the stories told by my in-laws were a genuine inspiration to me,” Kevin says. “They talked easily about sacrificing for Adventist education—as though that was the norm for an Adventist family. And they had gleaned insights about what worked—and what didn’t work—in opening and operating church schools throughout their careers.”
A seminary class taught by Scott Ward called “Collaborative Ministry: Church and School” brought the narratives told by his in-laws into sharp focus for Kevin. A clear elucidation of Ellen White’s outline for a unique, wholistic form of education persuaded him that launching a church school would be one of the keys to evangelistic success and kingdom growth in his new pastoral district.
But Kevin credits Karey with the overarching vision to which the couple committed themselves upon their arrival in the Ocala/Dunedin district. “She had the big visions,” he says with a broad grin. “I had to do all the details.”
The “details” were more extensive than even this focused, passionate, military veteran had imagined, and included a nearly unbelievable array of processes required by state and local governments for land use, child safety, and educational quality. “We talk about having resurrected a church school here in Ocala, as though it had been merely sleeping for 10 years,” he says quietly. “But the reality was that we were starting all over again. Other than the enthusiasm of a core band of church school supporters in the Ocala church, there was almost nothing that didn’t have to be investigated, assessed, completed, and checked again and again. I even found myself arranging to get a radon test for the unoccupied school building as we tried to get it in shape for a possible reopening.”
Kevin credits the Florida Conference administrative team and its Education Department with being broadly supportive of the effort to reopen the Ocala church school, but admits that they seem puzzled by the energy and time he invested in the yearlong effort. “You might assume that there would be a manual on how to do this—a step-by-step process that would guide a pastor and a group of supporters of Adventist education in reestablishing a credible, thriving Adventist school,” he says. “And while everyone was highly supportive, and frequently applauded the efforts we were making to relaunch, no one could offer a systematic plan that helped us know which steps to take in which order, which permits were required first, and when the necessary financial plans with the conference had to be in place.”
“It became apparent that our church’s systems are actually tuned to a narrative of maintenance or decline,” Kevin says quietly. “We create processes only for outcomes we can imagine. Almost no one is knocking on the door of the Education Department to say, ‘Hey! I really want to launch a new Adventist school in my area, and I need your guidance on how to do it.’ The counsel we heard on many occasions was ‘We’re completely supportive, but you are trying to do all of this too rapidly.’ ”
Undaunted by the lack of specific direction, Kevin launched into discovering the pieces that had to come together to plausibly open an accredited church school in Ocala by September 2020, just 13 months after he and his family had arrived. As Karey continued to drive their children daily to and from the Gainesville school, Kevin dedicated sizable pieces of each week to the processes that would make it possible for his own children and others to experience the benefit of a uniquely Adventist education near to their home. In addition to high-quality preaching, pastoral care, hospital visits, and church board meetings, he invested prodigious amounts of time in the project that had enormous personal and evangelistic meaning for his ministry.
Fortunately, Kevin also took notes, and along the way began fashioning a “field guide” for other pastors and educators who might consider taking the path to which he and Karey were so daringly committed. A short summary of his disciplined yearlong process, “Twelve Ways to Make It Happen,” is included with this article.
But it wasn’t only working through the obstacles to reopening the doors of the unused building 100 yards behind the Ocala church. Along the way, Karey and Kevin helped guide a newly formed school board into developing a unique brand of Adventist education that would distinguish Ocala Adventist Academy from other well-financed Christian schools in the region, as well as from the state-operated public school system.
“Long-term, credible research done through the ValueGenesis and CognitiveGenesis investigations has shown that academic outcomes for students in Adventist education compare favorably with those of public education,” Kevin notes. “But that isn’t actually the metric that moves Adventist parents and other community members to invest in a uniquely Adventist education. They expect a school to offer excellent academics: no self-respecting parent would happily say, ‘I’m sending my child to a subpar school.’ High-quality academics, including skilled and passionate educators in each classroom, are considered normative.”
What distinguishes Adventist education from other public or privately financed school systems is building the school program around specific experiences that contribute to a wholistic understanding of body, mind, and spirit, Kevin notes. “Adventist schools will rarely be able to compete with multimillion-dollar evangelical campuses or the vast resources available through a state educational system. But the spearpoint, the driving force, of the ‘Adventist advantage’ should be its relentless focus on both the spiritual nature of the child and the whole body development of the child.”
Ocala Adventist Academy began operation in September 2020 with a commitment to several unique educational experiences that quickly distinguished it from other educational systems. One was an insistence on outdoor education as a key component of the school’s curriculum.
“The Ocala church owns 22 acres of wooded property near the city, and so we bought a bus to transport our kids there once or twice a month for outdoor ed,” Kevin notes. “We gave them child-appropriate tools and taught them how to make and plant garden beds for raising vegetables. In the process they integrate these fun activities with math and science learning, but they do it outdoors.”
“We tell our schoolchildren to bring another set of clothes to wear on outdoor ed days,” he smiles. “They’re delighted to get dirty in the process of learning how to do practical things, such as fixing household items, laying tile, or doing light carpentry.”
A more controversial aspect of the school’s curricular plan is the insistence on no homework as part of the instructional plan. “After a day of classroom learning, a child’s mind needs to ‘defragment,’ ” Kevin laughs. “They need the experience of play as an integrative element that creates deep understanding of how what they are learning fits in their life system. We defrag our computers; why not do it for our children? They need to play and sleep on the knowledge they’ve assimilated—let their sympathetic nervous system reboot. This is a core value in the blueprint that Ellen White’s prophetic ministry outlined for the operation of Adventist schools.”
Children who don’t complete assignments during designated classroom time will have to complete the work at home, he notes. But the standard experience is to create a free zone after the instructional day that makes the entire school experience more engaging and less onerous for the entire family.
Karey’s years of classroom experience also led her to emphasize the importance of face-to-face time between teachers and students in place of screen time. “Screen time is easier for teachers to manage, and face-to face time is certainly harder to accomplish. But the results in building solid, trusting relationships between teachers and students simply can’t be argued with.”
A school building overgrown with vines and layered in dust merely three years ago is now a thriving Adventist learning center, generously supported by subsidies from Ocala church and engaging students from a total of four Adventist congregations in the region. Just two years after resurrection, Ocala Adventist Academy opened the 2022 school year with 38 students enrolled and three teachers on the instructional staff. There is a hum of eagerness and vitality that pervades the school hallways and classrooms, noticeable even to visitors.
Kevin and Karey dream about the possibilities for a “school planting” movement in North American Adventism that parallels the resources and personnel committed to church planting during the past 25 years. “When a school is planted in a community, it becomes a friendly, engaging face for the Adventist Church with its neighbors,” Kevin concludes. “Community members—parents, supporters, and even those just mildly interested—come to school events, musical programs, and celebration days. Parents get interested in what they see; students recognize the differences between what an Adventist school is offering and what is found in both private and public offerings. Families begin moving toward engagement in congregational life. And churches grow—congregations expand, and baptize, and engage, and thrive—when they commit to planting uniquely Adventist schools in their communities.”