Christian school celebrates 25 years

After a quarter of a century, employees at Mariners Christian School had to pause to think about what's changed since the school opened in 1987.

"Usually people change and come and go, but it's easier to answer what has not changed," said Kathy Hilts, who helped form the private Costa Mesa institution and still works in the office.

Mariners is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Thursday, Hilts and Susan Nielson, who have been with the school since its inception, reminisced about the beginning.

They laid two pictures side by side on a kindergartner-sized table.

In the first photo, one of the earliest kindergarten classes posed next to a woodie station wagon at the school's original campus at Mariners Church on Irvine Avenue.

In the second photo, the same class with an almost identical roster posed with the car at the school's new campus on Fischer Avenue; this time they were poised to graduate from eighth grade.

Since then, the school has remained at Fischer, and Nielson can point to students in that picture who have children in her class now.

It illustrates the continuity of the school, the pair said.

"I just feel like it's a blessing," Hilts said. "You kind of have this odd feeling. I'm so in awe of how in an odd way this has come full circle."

A demand for Christian education in Costa Mesa translated to stability at Mariners, they say, bonding staff together and causing families to return over generations.

"When you come across a Christian school, what you see is your child is going to have what you're teaching in the home, backed up every minute of the day in school," Hilts said. "There's a teacher putting little words of wisdom from the Bible into their life."

Words from a Christian vocabulary are sprinkled through the pair's descriptions.

"Teachers who come here enjoy working here, working with each other. There's a fellowship," Hilts said.

It all started in the '80s when a group of families from Newport Beach's Mariners Church was sending their kids to the nearby American Christian School, and that campus decided to close its doors. The Mariners Church families decided they needed a school of their own.

Through a process that lasted more than a year, they opened their school in 1987 with classes from kindergarten to third grade learning in modules set up around the church building.

A steering committee formed the school with a mission to "build a firm foundation through Christ-centered education."

Hilts immediately began working in the office, and Nielson taught a pre-kindergarten class that included her daughter.

When a kindergarten teacher left for another job, administrators asked Nielson to replace her.

Before accepting the job, she consulted her daughter.

"She literally jumped up and down and just went through the roof with excitement when she found out I could possibly be her [kindergarten] teacher," Nielson said.

She has taught a class in that grade since. Hilts has also stayed with the school, teaching fourth grade and eventually returning to office work.

Other than a change of location, the school has grown, from 44 initial students to 630. They're still kept in small classes of about 25.

A new generation is rising up to run school too, Nielson said.

"There are some really exciting young teachers that are out there, and I know that they can come in here and do a remarkable job," she said.

She said as she finds it harder to keep up with technology, they fill in the gaps while maintaining a connection to the school's camaraderie.

"As a new teacher comes on to the staff, they're kind of folded into the school and given lots of words of wisdom," Hilts said

The two say they don't have another 25 years of work at Mariners in them, but Nielson said she isn't giving up her class yet. There will be more field trips like the one taken Thursday to the Centennial Farm at the Orange County Fair.

"Did you know what a female peacock is called? A peahen. And do you know what a baby is called? A peachick," Nielson said of the lesson she learned.

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

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