One of Northeast Los Angeles’ best “kept secrets,” a K-8th grade Christian school, will close its doors in June, ending nearly three quarters of a century educating boys and girls in math, reading and writing, and Christian values.
While families over the years have enjoyed the authentic small-school setting at Sycamore Grove, a feeling other schools in the area are trying to replicate, under enrollment seems to have led to the school’s demise. Just 32 students enrolled this year forcing the decision to close the Highland Park school.
Sycamore Grove opened in 1942 and in its heyday had as many as 120 students, according to the school administrator Bishop William Cruver.
The school is affiliated with the Pillar of Fire Christian Church on Figueroa Street and Avenue 49 led by Cruver and is located on church property. Pillar of Fire, International, the church’s parent organization, has been subsidizing the school’s personnel costs, Principal Denise Simpson told EGP.
She said the school has exhausted efforts to recruit more students and undo years of declining enrollment and in February the church’s California board voted to close the campus at the end of this semester. Parents, students and staff were immediately informed, according to Simpson. The news was met with great sadness, she said.
They do not know why they have not been able to attract more students, and “would fix it” if they could, she told EGP.
“People have told us we are the best-kept secret, that’s not good. We’re not supposed to be a secret. We’ve tried advertising, postcards… [But] If people are struggling to put food on the table, paying for an education may not be a priority,” she reasoned.
Sycamore Grove’s $350 a month tuition is relatively low when compared to other private schools, but Simpson acknowledges it could be a lot of money for families who may be struggling.
Of the 32 students currently enrolled at the school, only 20 paid tuition this semester, she said. In some cases, family incomes have been cut because a parent lost their job: “What could we do, we can’t kick them out,” she said.
The school is located adjacent to Sycamore Grove Park where physical education is taught. Kindergarten was not offered this year and school administrators are now busy helping students find a new school for next year.
The ties to Sycamore Grove go back generations for some families, according to Simpson who said one of her current student’s grandmothers also attended the school years ago.
Sycamore Grove is also a family affair.
Simpson’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria attended the school and her 14-year-old daughter Noelle will graduate this year. Simpson attended the school when she was a girl, later returning as a teacher and now principal.
“I’ve been here 30 years,” not counting the years as a student, she said.
Ninety-year-old Bishop Cruver and his 88-year-old wife Rev. Elizabeth Cruver — who serves as principal emeritus — are Simpson’s parents. Originally from England, the Cruvers have served as the church and 72-year-old school’s administrators for the last six decades.
The school’s closure “hurts down inside,” Rev. Cruver told EGP.
“It’s been a lifetime of work out here, 60 plus years,” he said. “I certainly did enjoy it. Past students have told us those were good days—those were good days for us too… youthful and invigorating,” he said.
Cruver pointed out that many of the school’s former students have gone into police work and other public service careers, which he says shows the moral and spiritual values they learned at the school have stayed with them throughout their lives.
Both Cruver and Simpson are voting members of the church’s California board and they voted against the school’s closure, Cruver told EGP.
“It kept coming down to the fact that we have less children which means less tuition to pay the teachers,” Cruver explained.
Cruver, who is very involved in the community with clergy and community-service organizations, noted that Highland Park is improving. “Overall the area is coming up,” he said, which he thinks could turn the tide on the school’s financial outlook.
In January, Highland Park was listed number one in the Top 10 up-and-coming neighborhoods in the country by real estate listing website Redfin. However, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which administers the area’s public schools, has also seen a drop in enrollment in recent years.
Bishop Cruver remains optimistic and says he hopes “to start again as the area continues to improve…
“There are young families, this school can start again,” he told EGP.
In a letter sent to the school in February, Pillar of Fire, International President and General Superintendent Joseph Gross commended the faithful service of the Cruvers.
“The school has had a wonderful legacy, teaching thousands of children since 1941. However, we have insufficient students, personnel, and funds to continue to operate,” Gross said.
“We envision the continuation of ministry in Los Angeles through the Pillar of Fire Church and perhaps through new educational and compassionate ministries,” Gross wrote.
The Highland Park church is one of six Pillar of Fire parishes across the country. In addition to it parochial schools, Pillar of Fire, International also runs an accredited college and has missions and ministries around the world. The church is headquartered in New Jersey. The pastor of the New Jersey parish is a relative of the Cruvers.
Four full-time teachers and three staff members, including Simpson’s husband Harvey, will lose their jobs due to the closure.
The Cruvers and Simpsons say they will now refocus their energies on augmenting the church’s ministry and outreach. More information about Pillar of Fire and their upcoming events can be found on the church’s new website, www.pof-la.com