(Read Part 1.)
Many Christian parents would like their children to receive both a thoroughly Christian and a rigorously academic (emphasis on both words) education, and don’t see any inherent conflict between these two objectives. This is one reason why Christian schools must distinguish themselves, and be more than simply “not the public schools.”
A case study
As a case study, there is a medium-sized city in the Midwest with three Christian schools, each of which offers grades K-12. School #1 was founded in the late 1970’s, and has less than 50 students. School #2 was founded in the early 1980’s, and has barely more than 50 students. Both of these schools historically struggle to maintain even those enrollment figures. School #3 is of comparatively more recent origin, having been founded in the early 1990’s. It is much larger than the other two schools, with over 350 students. It charges significantly higher tuition than schools #1 or #2, and it shows a pattern of recent, ongoing growth. What makes school #3 apparently prosper, while the other two schools barely stay afloat?
To attempt to partially answer that question, picture yourself as a Christian parent in this city. (I am intentionally being vague about which city, but it’s helpful to know that the city has an above-average percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher, along with a correspondingly above-average mean family income.) As a well-educated, relatively affluent Christian parent in this city, you desire to newly enroll your child in a school which supports and complements your faith, and which also will academically prepare your child for continuation in virtually any post-secondary field of study. You want to provide your child with every educational advantage possible, for whatever vocation he or she may feel called to, or be inclined to pursue.
You begin your research by typing “Christian school,” along with the name of your city, into Google. Three Christian schools are found.
School #1, while receiving mention on some third-party websites, doesn’t even appear to have its own website. This omission seems inconceivable to you.
School #2’s website is simplistic and looks outdated. It provides very limited information, either spiritual or academic in nature.
School #3’s website, on the other hand, appears very well-designed and provides a great variety of readily-accessible information. There is a complete Statement of Faith, which you carefully read through and with which you can thoroughly concur. There is a Statement of Purpose which eloquently speaks of integrating biblical truths, principles, and values with a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum. Great emphasis appears to be placed on the spiritual nurture of students. In terms of the academic program, you find detailed information regarding challenging graduation requirements; diverse and interesting course offerings (with well-written descriptions of classes); excellent ACT mean scores (superior to those of any of the city’s three public high schools, whose results are in fact all very good); and recent college matriculations of graduates, with an impressive list of colleges and universities, both Christian and secular. You read glowing testimonials from parents and students alike. A variety of sports teams, fine arts programs, student organizations, and numerous other extracurricular activities are shown to be in abundance. Almost any question you have seems to be answered.
Which of these three schools would capture your interest the most?
Seeking God’s direction, you pray for guidance. Applying additional due diligence, you call and/or visit schools #1 and #2, to fill in some of the information blanks. Still, unless you discover some compelling reason(s) to favor either school, or feel God’s unmistakable leading otherwise, school #3 will likely be your ultimate choice. The clincher is that for everything school #3 can provide for your child, the tuition does not seem unreasonable to you.
Innovation and imitation
To still be affixing its famous blue-oval emblem onto cars after more than 100 years, the Ford Motor Company has needed to be both an innovator and an imitator. Either of these traits entails certain risks, but for an automaker a much greater risk is to be neither. Complacency has banished many renowned automobile marques to the fading annals of history.
To stay competitive, an automaker must be adaptable. Styles of vehicles that sell well one year may languish on dealer’s lots the next. The OPEC oil embargo of the 1970’s provides an indelible example. With intermittent rationing in effect at gasoline pumps, and as the price per gallon soared, stunned drivers began replacing the automotive leviathans then so familiar on America’s roadways with more lilliputian (frequently meaning foreign-made) alternatives. To avoid ruin, Detroit needed to transform its products to meet the new expectations of the car-buying public.
I came across a news story recently about a Christian school’s decision to close its doors after nearly thirty years of operation. Enrollment had dropped to half of its onetime peak. The pastor of the school’s sponsoring church was quoted as saying, (I’m paraphrasing to protect his privacy) “Christian schooling just isn’t as popular as it used to be.”
Frankly, that statement bothered me. I wondered if his assessment was correct.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the number of students in Christian school classrooms in the United States in 2010 was about 637,400. (Minnesota’s share was about 12,500.) This is down from a onetime peak of perhaps 1,000,000. In most instances, such a sharp decline would indicate a serious problem. In this instance, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Two decades ago, when Christian school classroom enrollment was near its peak, there were an estimated 300,000 homeschooled K-12 students in the United States. Today, the NCES puts that number at 1,500,000. Other sources say it may be 2,000,000 or more.
Although the percentage is always in dispute, surveys generally indicate that not less than 70% of homeschooled students are taught from a Christian worldview, using a Christian curriculum. Assuming that 70% is a reasonably accurate figure, there were about 210,000 students in Christian homeschooling twenty years ago, and at least 1,050,000 today.
Adding those numbers to the corresponding enrollment numbers for Christian school classrooms, there were about 1,200,000 students receiving a Christian K-12 education twenty years ago, and at least 1,700,000 today.
Altogether, Christian schooling appears to be more popular now than it has ever been. Along with that popularity, however, has come a prodigious shift in how and where Christian schooling is done.
Not too long ago, Christian schooling nearly invariably took place in a proven, classic format: with students seated in several rows of individual desks, all facing a teacher and a chalkboard. Today, those traditional classrooms have been joined by a host of other venues.
A.C.E. students will usually be found while at school in semi-private carrels, which are intended to limit distractions and to allow each student to complete assignments at a rate commensurate with his or her abilities.
ACCS upper school students might be found seated around a conference table, their teacher in their midst, with everyone engaged in a lively discussion about Christian imagery in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Christian homeschooling students might be found, by definition, studying and taking exams at home; but they might also be found doing research at the local historical society, collecting soil samples for a science experiment, or polishing their oratorical skills by participating in the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association (NCFCA).
Additionally, nearly all students today have the option, either full- or part-time, of learning in a venue which did not exist only a generation ago: the virtual classroom. From anyplace with at least a Wi-Fi connection, students can register for classes, do assigned reading, listen to or view lectures, complete written assignments, take exams, and converse with their instructor and other students. Qualifying high school students can even sign up for online, college-level courses, which may be eligible for dual-enrollment credit. Unsurprisingly, this option is growing in popularity.
With all of the choices now available in Christian schooling, the overall market, although larger than ever, has fragmented. At the start of the Golden Age, traditional Christian schooling was essentially the only form of Christian schooling. Now it comprises perhaps only one-third of the market.
Some proponents of traditional Christian school classrooms, such as the pastor quoted whose school had recently closed, may see this decline as irreversible. Instead of such a mindset, it is time to transform a quality, yet aging, product—and restore to it the curb appeal it possessed when new.
(Coming soon: part 3)
Larry Nelson is a graduate of “an exemplary Christian school,” holds a BA in history from the University of Minnesota and has been employed in banking for over twenty-two years. He is a member of a Baptist church in the Minneapolis St. Paul area.