How a church became a school

Prior to 2004, the declining congregation of Laurelwood United Methodist Church (UMC) had been praying for more children to come to church. While Mt. Scott Learning Center may not have been what they envisioned at the time, what has become of this historic church in SE Portland could not be more in line with the role it once served for our community.

“It is such a blessing that Mt. Scott Learning Center inhabits, thrives, and touches so many lives at our former church site,” says Lowell Greathouse, former mission and ministry coordinator for the United Methodist Church’s Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. “Those who called that place home over the years would be so proud to see what has been done with the space.”

Mt. Scott began leasing the education center space at Laurelwood UMC in the fall of 2004. By that time, the church congregation had shrunk to a handful of people that met on Sundays in a small community room. The once bustling but now abandoned church sanctuary – as well as the rest of the building and surrounding property – was in desperate need of repair and rejuvenation.

The remaining Laurelwood UMC members were praying for children, but the children were not coming on Sunday mornings, says Greathouse. Meanwhile, the church’s tenant (Mt. Scott Learning Center) was growing into one of the state’s leading option schools for struggling high school youth.

Over time, the Mt. Scott nonprofit organization began making noticeable improvements to the interior and exterior of the Laurelwood UMC facility. Partnerships were formed between Mt. Scott and the neighborhood residents and businesses. In 2010 – with the approval of its landlord – Mt. Scott embarked on a two-year project to convert the building’s abandoned sanctuary space into classrooms and offices. This successful conversion allowed Mt. Scott to bring its operations under one roof, increase enrollment, and expand services to the local community.

In 2013, Mt. Scott realized a long-awaited goal by formally purchasing the former Laurelwood UMC facility and adjoining property.  During the summer of 2015, Mt. Scott completed an exterior painting and window makeover of its historic school building in SE Portland. The following summer, thanks to the support of local community partners, Mt. Scott achieved another long-standing goal of converting a previously unusable upstairs space into a beautiful multipurpose room.

As resources allowed, interior and exterior improvements have continued at Mt. Scott Learning Center and align with the school’s goal to serve as a hub for the community. Like the old schoolhouses of the past, Mt. Scott aims to not only be a place where students learn and are cared for, but also an anchor for improving and strengthening the surrounding community. 

A high priority fueling that effort is the planned construction of a youth center facility on property that Mt. Scott owns next to the school. The youth center would provide a much-needed indoor recreation and meeting space for physical education classes, after-school programming, and community events. It would also provide additional classrooms to serve more students, a secondary kitchen, and a private outdoor area. With enough financial support, Mt. Scott hopes to break ground on this new facility in the summer of 2024, culminating a 20-year transformation of the former Laurelwood United Methodist Church. 

“Mt. Scott Learning Center has answered our prayers for children,” says Greathouse. “The fruit of the school’s labor is truly moving and inspirational. There are so many powerful stories about the students and staff who make Mt. Scott such a special place.  In a very real way, they represent the fruit of Laurelwood UMC’s prayers for children to come and enter the building.”

Adds Greathouse: “Laurelwood UMC’s closure gave birth to something new. We are often reminded that life is like seed that falls to the ground and dies. In its death, it produces not only fruit, but new seed as well. Today, Mt. Scott Learning Center and its students represent the seed of new life.”

Please click here to view a short video spotlighting the turnaround stories of Mt. Scott graduates over the past few years.