When Tree of Life Christian School founder Adam Sterenberg had what he can only describe as a vision from God about building a Christian school in an underserved neighborhood in Kalamazoo, he was a bit startled, to say the least.
“It was a weird thing,” Sterenberg says, standing in the sunshine on the school’s front lawn, at 2001 Cameron St. “I’ve never had anything quite like that. And (nothing like it) ever since.”
Sterenberg, a middle school math and Bible studies teacher at Kalamazoo Christian Middle School at the time, was sitting in a presentation at a conference for Christian educators in 2003 when the room suddenly faded away and an image of a school and trees filled his head “like a daydream,” he recalls.
“Then I hear this voice go, ‘I want a Christian school in the inner city of Kalamazoo, and I want it to be affordable to anyone.’ Then everything came back, and I looked around like, ‘Did anybody else hear that?’”
As Sterenberg gleefully tells it, he spent the next five years arguing with God about it. But that doesn’t seem to be too out of character for the Kalamazoo Christian Schools alum.
In fact, while attending Kalamazoo Christian High School, he was told by a handful of teachers there that he would make a good teacher, but instead Sterenberg attended Western Michigan University to study architecture. During his sophomore year, however, he says he began to feel “dissonance inside.” While speaking with a friend in the WMU education program about it, she reiterated exactly what his high school teachers had said: Be a teacher.
“And this is so awesome. I said, ‘I think teaching would be a waste of my time and talents,’” Sterenberg recounts with a shake of his head and a laugh. “Can you get more arrogant than that?”
After sitting with the idea and praying to God for guidance, Sterenberg knew he was meant to be a teacher, he says. The world of architecture was too competitive for him, and the idea of sitting at a desk didn’t appeal to him much either, so he switched majors and started taking classes in the education department. By the end of his first semester of education classes, he couldn’t wait to get out of college and into his own classroom. He eventually graduated from WMU with a teaching degree and landed a gig at Kalamazoo Christian Middle School teaching math and Bible studies. The fateful education conference came 15 years later.
From vision to opening
Following that 2003 conference, Sterenberg says, he didn’t even know where to begin opening a school, but, to keep himself accountable, he told a handful of friends about the vision.
“My dad really taught me integrity,” Sterenberg says. “If I started talking about it, I’ve got to start doing something about it.”
In 2008, after five years of “arguing with God,” Sterenberg says, he began reaching out to friends and family through letters and emails, sharing his vision for the school and asking for support. Still, Sterenberg was unsure of his next steps.
“So, what do you do when you don’t know? Even back then, you Google it,” Sterenberg says with a laugh.
He found an article on the internet that explained how to start a school in 18 months, and he started going down the list of tasks — finding teachers, finding a space in which to teach, developing a curriculum, enrolling students and so on — until finally, in 2010, Tree of Life opened.
In Tree of Life’s inaugural year at the site of the former St. Joseph Catholic School, at 926 Lake St., Sterenberg had a staff of two certified teachers and a student body of 12, although he had anticipated 40 students. During the school’s second year, it had 29 students, prompting Sterenberg to begin a search for a larger space.
Through another set of serendipitous “God stories,” as Sterenberg calls them, a local business owner donated a 1.5 acre plot of land in the Edison neighborhood for the school to use for Tree of Life’s new building, which was constructed in 2012. In 2018, that building was expanded from 5,000 square feet to 15,000, with the addition of a gym, more classrooms and a space designated as a Title I room, where students who experience learning delays receive one-on-one help from instructors.
Still, Sterenberg says, Tree of Life is now at its student capacity, with 72 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. About half of them reside in the surrounding Edison neighborhood. The school has 16 faculty members.
Lifting up kids
Tuition for a student, or multiple students from the same family, costs 5 percent of a family’s annual income, with a minimum rate of $25 per month. Ninety percent of the school’s budget comes from grants and donations, Sterenberg says.
Students must bring their own lunches, but if a family is unable to provide a lunch or lunches, Sterenberg and his staff make sure the students eat. Lunch for those students comes from donations from local businesses and community members. Sterenberg says that he and the school are happy to provide fuel for the kids. “How do you learn with an empty stomach?” he asks.
On any given day, Sterenberg is there to lend a hand to his students’ parents. He has helped parents secure housing, donated furniture for their homes, and even fixed a parent’s broken refrigerator ice line when it began to leak water into her kitchen.
Therein lies much of Tree of Life’s purpose, its roots, so to speak: lifting up the school’s children in whatever way they need.
“We’re so much helping kids from poverty and trauma, everything,” Sterenberg says. “Some people have asked, ‘Aren’t you enabling the parents?’ And I don’t care if I’m enabling the parents. The kid needs to be at school, and I will do whatever it takes to get the kid to school. Whether the parents are able or can’t see it or whatever the thing is, I’m going to get ’em to school.”
The Edison neighborhood is the largest neighborhood in Kalamazoo County, with about 10,000 residents and an average household income of about $24,000, Sterenberg explains, and Edison also has the highest crime rate in the county.
“Every kid grows up in a normal home. Always. What they have is normal (to them),” Sterenberg says. “And if they don’t see a different kind of normal, they are going to have that same kind of normal — on and on and on.”
Offering an alternative
Although Sterenberg has much respect and high regard for other schools in the Kalamazoo area, he wants students — and especially their parents — to understand that they have choices in education. He aims to offer an alternative for parents as Tree of Life grows deeper roots within the Edison neighborhood.
“I think there needs to be an alternative,” he says. “It’s so funny — sometimes in America sometimes people are like, ‘We want choices for everything except for school. There’s only one (option).’”
For the first nine years of the school, Sterenberg acted as Tree of Life’s principal, but in 2020 the school hired Dori Beltz as principal so that Sterenberg could focus on the next step: establishing a high school that focuses on getting kids into apprenticeships with local tradesman at an earlier stage than junior or senior year, as is typical in public school systems.
“What if high schoolers graduated with two things they can do with their hands?” Sterenberg asks. “There are so many careers and fields out there.”