Colleen Sheahan in the math class at West Chestnut Academy school in Yakima, Wash.
As Colleen Sheahan moves through the math classroom at West Chestnut Academy (WCA), students bent over their geometry work call out to her. “PC, PC,” they say. “Come look at this.” PC, short for Pastor Colleen, is their affectionate nickname for the founder and head of this private Christian school that serves children from preschool through 12th grade. Sheahan stops, looks over the geometric shapes being formed by Popsicle sticks, gives a few words of encouragement before moving on. She knows each of these kids by name, their families, and their stories behind what brought them to WCA.
By her own admission, Sheahan wasn’t looking to become a teacher, let alone start and run a school when she enrolled in a pilot bachelor’s degree program offered in partnership between Heritage, Central Washington University, and what was then Yakima Valley Community College. It was simply the most convenient way for her to earn a degree—any degree— without leaving home. She was a licensed pastor ministering to children through Westpark United Methodist Church in Yakima, and she figured it could help her in her work there.
Two years of classes and long nights studying, Sheahan graduated, still without any intention of teaching. She went back to her life ministering to children. Then, a year later, something happened. Sheahan went to sleep.
“I had the most intense dream that I had started a new school. When I woke up, it stuck with me. Then things around me kept pointing me back towards the idea of this school, that we had to do this,” she said.
That was in the spring. Six months later, the non-profit West Chestnut Academy was born. It opened in 2001 with just 12 students and was housed within the Methodist church. The next year, enrollment grew to 60. Ever since then, it has averaged 80 students annually. Last year the school moved from the church into a larger facility left vacant when St. Paul’s Cathedral School moved from the location they had been housed in since 1914.
“There is a significant need for schools like ours in our community. Smaller schools that
can provide individualized attention to students, that celebrates and meets the needs of the whole child,” she said.
In many ways, the mission and vision of West Chestnut Academy mirror that of Heritage University. It is open to all with the desire to learn and embraces diversity—be that ethnic, socioeconomic, or in learning styles. Tuition is kept as low as possible so that children from all income levels can attend.
“We’ve had single mothers come in and pay their child’s tuition with their tip money,” said Sheahan. “We keep things very bare bones.”
But, she points out, bare bones does not mean lower quality. The school is licensed by the State of Washington. Students participate in art, music, and physical education along with the staples of math, English and science. They flourish in the smaller classes—particularly those who struggled in public schools where they are one in a crowd of hundreds.
“We have kids that come to us in the third or fourth grade who cannot read,” Sheahan said. “Within a year their parents are coming back to us saying ‘I can’t believe my child is reading!’ It is a real accomplishment for the child.”
This June, the academy will send its 59th graduate out into the world. Alumni of this school have gone on to colleges and universities, trade schools and into the workforce. Sheahan beams like any proud parent when talking about her grads.
“It’s a lot of work to care about kids. Here we provide a sanctuary for children where they can feel comfortable and are able to learn,” she said.
“Seeing them be successful as adults when they struggled so much as a child, this is what it is all about.”
Colleen Sheahan’s commitment to children and her focus on providing quality preschool through 12th grade education to students in the Yakima Valley led to her nomination and awarding of the Violet Lumley Rau Outstanding Alumnus(a) Award at Heritage’s 36th annual Heritage University commencement held May 5, 2018 at the SunDome in Yakima, Wash. (GORDON KING/Gordon King Photography)