LANSING | Illiana Christian officials want to send the message they are not running away from current students, but following new ones.
The Lansing high school will be moving to unincorporated Hanover Township near St. John within four years.
"We are going to keep serving this large area," Illiana Principal Peter Boonstra said. He said he believes the move will be "beneficial to everybody."
But he has also heard what some people are saying.
"I understand that there's a perception that we're trying to move away from people and we're very concerned about that perception."
Illiana has historically served Reformed Church members from Lansing, South Holland and Highland. Many of those families moved south and east over the 1990s and early 2000s, according to information provided on the ballot to vote for the move.
A 2008 population geographic study commissioned by the Illiana board found that enrollment had decreased by 8 percent since 2000, from 733 students to 670. The loss was partially attributed to the population shift south.
Illiana's enrollment has further decreased since and sits at 549 for this school year.
"Clearly, our expectation is that there will be more students (after the move)," Boonstra said. "Quite frankly, I think there will be a lot (of) interest in participating in a school that is brand new, that has facilities that are up-to-date, that are appropriate for today's instructional methods."
In 2004, the school began taking steps to follow those families. It purchased a 40-acre piece of land on 109th Street in unincorporated St. John in 2005. That land now serves as a alternate location for the new school.
Crown Point Christian School already sends many students to Illiana, but could become the high school's primary feeder after the move.
CPCS, which used to meet in the wing of a Crown Point church, had 197 students in 2003-04. So far, 670 have signed up for the 2014-15 year. It's student body has doubled since a new school was built in St. John for the 2007-08 school year.
Principal Carol Moxey said most of the growth is from families who have moved to St. John, Crown Point and Cedar Lake, but students come from as far south as Lowell, as far west as Beecher and Crete, as far north as Gary and Lansing and as far east as Lakes of the Four Seasons and Hebron.
"We are excited that Illiana is moving to the area because the most frequently asked question when parents are considering our school is, 'Where do your graduates go to high school?,'" Moxey said. "For some, having their teens commute to Lansing or DeMotte has not been a favorable option, even if they prefer a Christian high school experience."
Lansing Christian, one of Illiana's major feeder schools today, has 242 students. The bulk of those students -- 41 percent -- come from Lansing, but the school does serve students from all over the area and into Indiana, Principal Jon Postma said.
"We have been serving this area and bringing glory to God for over 100 years and have no intentions of leaving it," Postma said. "We are expanding and improving programs to better meet the needs of this community."
Ronda Williams, of South Holland, said Illiana Christian is a vital part of the south suburban community and fears the day the school leaves Illinois.
"Faith-based education is important to many residents in the south suburbs," Williams said. "By taking (Illiana) away, we are limited in the number of schools available within a close distance."
Boonstra said Illiana does not want to cap available Christian school options for south suburban residents.
"We're very concerned about making sure that people don't get left behind," Boonstra said. "The intention is that we will be serving all of the families that we currently serve."
Williams suggested the move was intended to limit the number of African-American and minority students.
"I personally believe it sends a message that diversity in the student body is not wanted," Williams said. "Some residents I have spoken with believe that this cause is beyond their control and feel helpless to do anything about it."
Boonstra said Illiana is not leaving its minority students. The school has actively sought a diverse student body, he said.
"We've been intentional about inviting African-American students to our school," Boonstra said. "I understand the perception is that we're abandoning some in order to go serve others, but that's not the way the board looks at it and I don't think that's the way the majority of our families look at it."
Boonstra said there has already been talk of a transportation system for south suburban students to continue to attend Illiana after the move. Additional financial assistance may be available, also.
Some parents will still choose to send their children elsewhere, though.
Superintendent of Southwest Chicago Christian Schools Joel Satterly said there has been "low-volume inquiry" from Illiana parents considering Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights.
Satterly calls Illiana a "sister school" that Chicago Christian has recommended to parents in the past.
"We do not have any plans right now to actively seek out those students," Satterly said. "We'll see how the trends with Illiana (students) play out. If that means recruiting from the Illiana area down the road, maybe. The dust has to settle."