(Read the series so far.)
New features have revolutionized the experience of driving an automobile. Who would have imagined 30 years ago that a car could guide its driver with verbal, turn-by-turn instructions to get to unfamiliar destinations? What might have been considered science fiction then is now an in-dash feature even on many mass-market cars. Remote entry systems, airbags, backup sensors and cameras, stability control systems, and numerous other advancements in convenience, safety, and comfort have gone from nascent ideas in the minds of inventors to ordinary items on automotive equipment lists.
Certain features are now in such high demand among particular segments of buyers that persuading them to purchase a car lacking those features may be difficult or impossible. Try selling a car without air conditioning in Phoenix! It will eventually sell, but your market of potential buyers will be limited, and you will have to settle for receiving much less for it than could be expected for similar cars equipped with air conditioning. The twofold lesson is that many buyers may be willing and able to pay a higher price for certain features; but without those features they may not be willing to make the purchase at all, at any price.
Parents thinking of providing their children with a Christian education have a range of options today. Choices are available which didn’t exist in past years, and even newer ones are surely under development. Traditional Christian schools must be willing and able to adapt if they wish to avoid further marginalization. Some schools have their very survival at stake!
One element of a Christian school that influences enrollment is its rulebook. Every organization needs a solid framework of rules to facilitate its operation. Rules maintain order by governing conduct. Rules also may adversely affect a school’s enrollment by becoming too much of an impediment, if not judiciously administered. In this regard, superfluous rules can be as detrimental as a lack of prudent ones.
In his books, Christian author and conference speaker Dr. Tim Kimmel has proficiently examined the complex interaction of rules and behavior. He counsels that cultivating a gracious spirit in a school may actually reduce infractions of its rules. Students are less apt to develop or harbor rebellious attitudes in an atmosphere where mutual respect and evident concern for students’ well-being are norms. Conversely, rules which are seen by students as being authoritarian or capricious can stimulate the types of behavior they were ostensibly established to prevent. Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 are germane to this point, as undue provocation of the young can occur in the classroom as well as in the home. Although fathers are specifically addressed in these verses, Christian schools wield a fair degree of parental surrogacy in dealing with students.
So what constitutes a “good” rule in a Christian school? A good rule is one which honors God and does not impede a school from accomplishing its mission. In this definition, there should be no conflicts. Of course, some rules may be mandated by legal requirements; others may be the result of health or safety considerations. Nevertheless, all other rules in a Christian school should be predicated on bona fide biblical precepts, to the utmost possible extent. Any other basis can undermine a school’s credibility.
Here is an example of a dubious rule: “No excessive cheering at school athletic events.” At first glance this rule seems ill-conceived. What is its rationale? How is “excessive” defined? How are infractions measured? What punishment is justifiable? Many parents would look askance at a rule which could penalize their child for what they see as completely acceptable youthful exuberance.
Some rules in the dress code category can be similarly equivocal. Wearing lime green nail polish? It becomes an act of rebellion by schoolgirls only if a school elects to treat it as such. Unlike truly rebellious acts, it is not inherently so.
The bottom line is that unnecessary rules at Christian schools should be deliberate abnormalities, not desultory norms. Since they can create dissension and can function as a deterrent to both new and re-enrollments alike, they should exist only if in support of some greater good.
A second element of a Christian school that influences enrollment is its admissions policy. Who may attend? It seems a simple question, yet as anyone familiar with Christian schooling knows, there is no consensus answer. The differences in admissions policies, even when subtle, make some students unsuitable prospects in the eyes of some schools, and make some schools unsuitable prospects in the eyes of some students or their parents—but not necessarily for reasons one might expect in either case.
If a Christian school genuinely desires to thrive, it should frame its admissions policies to maximize its potential for enrollment. Can this be done without compromising a school’s principles, or without sacrificing quality?
One facet of admissions is universal. Students and their parents must be at least outwardly amenable to a school’s rules and policies to be admissible. (Inward amenability is harder to ascertain.) As already discussed, rules are an adjustable hurdle in the admissions process. Just as the bar can be set ineffectually low, it also can be set unnecessarily high. The goal must be to set it at an optimal level.
Another facet of admissions is divisive. Must students and/or their parents be Christians (using the evangelical meaning of the word) to attend? In the practice of admissions, sincere convictions differ. Some schools will accept only Christians, while other schools will accept non-Christians also. Offering enrollment to otherwise-admissible non-Christians would certainly enlarge a school’s pool of potential students. It would likely also elicit sharp criticism, both from without and within. Such a polarizing choice warrants careful, informed consideration.
Why might non-Christians want to attend a Christian school? A reason commonly given is shared with many Christians: dissatisfaction with one or more aspects of their local public schools. For example, Christian schools may offer a sense of greater physical safety or smaller class sizes, which have a broad appeal irrespective of one’s faith.
Among Christian schools that have a student faith requirement (at least by a certain age) for attendance, the prevailing view is that unbelieving students could exert a negative influence on their believing peers, and that their presence could undermine the mission or operation of the school. Therefore, why take that risk? These schools emphasize the harm that could result.
Among Christian schools that do not have a student faith requirement for attendance, the prevailing view is that policies that exclude non-Christians are based largely on uncertain premises. They contend that the correlation between justification and sanctification can be tenuous during the adolescent years (meaning that simply excluding non-Christians will eradicate neither negative peer influences nor improper behaviors); that student professions of faith prove to not always be reliable anyway; and that other Christian ministries to youth (Sunday Schools, AWANA, Vacation Bible Schools, summer camps, etc.) virtually always encourage non-Christian attendance, with evangelism as a primary aim. Therefore, why should Christian schooling be different? These schools emphasize the good that could result.
Distinct as they are, each of these views has an abundance of advocates, many of whom can readily invoke biblical passages and principles corroborating their chosen policy. Each view can present a compelling case; nevertheless, each view presents certain difficulties. For example, it seems precarious to stake a claim that admitting only Christians represents a superior spiritual standard, when in practice that policy entails eschewing regular, substantive opportunities to speak and model Truth to non-Christians.
(Coming soon: part 4)
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.