The arson that destroyed part of Heritage Christian School seemed like a terrible blow, but people at the Bozeman school say it’s actually become something of a blessing that has brought their community closer.

“We just see God’s hand at work, bringing our school together, showing who he is in an amazing way,” said Anthony Gossack, 17, student president.

The Aug. 25 fire destroyed the school’s gym and stage, burning so hot it melted the metal bleachers. The rest of the school sustained smoke and water damage. Yet within hours of the fire, people started calling with offers of help.

“Calls were flooding in — I liken it to a tsunami,” said Ethel Gray, assistant administrator. “We’ve made a lot of friends through it.”

Private and public schools called, libraries sent free books, Bozeman Deaconess Hospital donated furniture, Montana State University gave chairs, and Mount Ellis Academy gave lockers. Calls came from as far as North Dakota.

Montana Bible College had just purchased the former Petra Academy School building behind Grace Bible Church, and the empty space was quickly rented to Heritage. Gerry Goede, teacher and co-administrator, said, “God opened up the door for us to move in.”

Around 50 volunteers moved desks and anything salvageable from the old school into the new space. Students volunteered, painting walls, putting up bulletin boards, carrying supplies for teachers and wiping down desks to remove acrid smoke smells.

“It’s been amazing,” Goede said. “We see God’s purpose in this. He can use it for good.”

Heritage reopened just seven school days after its regularly scheduled starting day. By adding 15 minutes to each day’s class schedule, the school can keep its regular yearly schedule and vacations.

Some classrooms are small, and desks and kids appear packed in like sardines.

“We’re very cozy,” Gray said and laughed. She said children understand and don’t complain.

Heritage, in its 30th year, has 143 students this year, down from 155 last year. Goede said he doesn’t know how much of the decline is due to the economy and how much to the fire. The new ACE scholarships for Montana private school students, funded by the Gianforte family foundation, have really helped, he added.

Steel to rebuild the gym is expected to arrive around Christmas, and then demolition and reconstruction will begin. Insurance will cover most of the reconstruction costs, expected to be in the millions, Goede said. But they need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover additional expenses – possibly including sprinklers.

If possible, Goede said, they’d like to raise enough to expand the heavily used gym to two courts. A family barn dance will be held Nov. 16 as a benefit.

Framed colored photographs of the first graduating class in 2007 and each year since miraculously escaped the fire because they’d been removed by a mom who wanted to freshen up the foyer, Gray said. “Little things like that — I think God was taking care of us.”

They hope to have the gym rebuilt in time for next spring’s graduation, Goede said, but if not, it will be finished in time for school opening next fall.

Gallatin County’s private and homeschool enrollment as of Oct. 15 was 1,391 students, according to the county superintendent of schools’ office. That was up 16 percent from a decade ago, though down slightly from the peak of 1,410 in 2009. The total also includes kindergarteners in several Montessori schools. Of this fall’s total, 543 students are homeschooled and 848 are in private schools.

Here is a roundup of other Bozeman-area private schools:

  • Manhattan Christian School, founded 105 years ago, has 245 students this year, down slightly from 253 last year, said Patrick DeJong (pronounced deyoung), the new superintendent and principal for preschool to grade five. Kindergarten enrollment is maxed out, and the trend is up in the elementary grades, so DeJong is optimistic about the future.
    “I think it’s a combination of demographics in the community – families are not as big as they used to be,” he said. The economy also has affected enrollment, and there is more competition today from other private schools and homeschooling. Sixteen students received ACE scholarships, in addition to more than $60,000 in financial aid from the school.
    The school’s Harvest Festival Nov. 3 will raise money with an auction and games to support the school.
  • Petra Academy, which moved into a $7.5 million new school on Cottonwood Road last year, is the fastest growing private school in the county. It grew by 24 pupils to 137 elementary and high school students this year, according to county figures. Petra combines classical and Christian education. Headmaster Todd Hicks could not be reached for comment Monday.
  • Middle Creek Montessori School on Huffine Lane has 128 preschool and elementary students, of whom 54 are in elementary grades, said Nancy McNabb, head of school. To make room for more lower-elementary children, a porch on its log home building was enclosed. Because of the weak economy, more families have requested scholarships, and two students received ACE scholarships.
  • Mount Ellis Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school founded 110 years ago, is Bozeman’s oldest private school. It has 103 students, the same as last year, according to county figures. Principal Darren Wilkins could not be reached.
  • Bozeman Summit, a Montessori elementary school, has 41 students, said Michael Schuler, the new head of school. That’s down about 11 from its peak, before the recession. The school has enough space to add an early childhood program, and is excited about starting that, possibly as soon as January, he said. The school is also seeking full accreditation from the American Montessori Society, with which it is affiliated.
  • Headwaters Academy has 26 students in grades six through eight, up slightly from last year’s 23, said Larry Bartel, the new head of school. Bartel said he is impressed by the quality of instruction, students’ motivation, strong partnerships with MSU science labs, and the emphasis on outdoor education and service. Eighth-graders will again travel to Ecuador in the spring for a chance to learn Spanish and serve a community.
  • Bozeman Christian School has 52 students in elementary and high school, the county reported. It is affiliated with the Church of Christ. Principal Jay Wilson could not be reached.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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