In the fall of 1984, I entered kindergarten at a tiny Christian school in Toledo, Ohio. Oh, how long ago those days of recess, circle time, and crayons now seem. Over a quarter century later, I completed a graduate program from a Christian University. From start to end and everything in between, my formal education has been exclusively Christian.
Christian education has factored heavily into my professional career as well. For over a decade, I served as teacher and administrator in Christian schools. These experiences have provided a unique personal perspective on the pairing of faith and learning.
Christian schools are not easy. When the “Christian” label is attached to a school, it has a way of producing societal perceptions and expectations that aren’t always healthy or realistic.
Christian schools aren’t churches, although many operate as extensions of churches. Some require a commitment of faith. Others don’t. A parent may sign an agreement indicating support of the school’s values, but what happens when the school isn’t actually supported in the home? Like I said – not easy.
Parents possess wildly different views on education.
For believers, some prefer an environment which reinforces family values – maybe in a Christian school or maybe right at home. While others favor a “salt and light” approach by placing their child(ren) in a public or non-religious setting.
Some parents would like to send their child(ren) to a Christian school, but find the tuition cost prohibitive. I’ll talk more about this later.
No matter your personal persuasion, considering the best setting for your child is important and worthy of thoughtful consideration.
A Case Against Christian Education
A few years ago, I conversed with the leader of a well established Christian school. As we talked, he shared his “two ditch” theory with me – positing that many Christian schools fall into one of two ditches.
In the first ditch, you find schools that fully embrace their role as institutions of biblical truth. You’re likely to hear a lot about chapel, daily Bible classes, and safe and nurturing environments. And, in the better of these institutions, teachers care deeply for each student.
At the surface level, these represent admirable, even aspirational qualities for Christian education advocates. However, the downside for schools that occupy this first ditch is their common inability (or unwillingness) to foster an atmosphere of academic quality. For those of you familiar with Christian education circles, how many times have you heard a former graduate say something like this: “I had great friends, and loved my time there, but the education was lousy.”
First ditch schools often employ a Sunday School/youth group approach. Students will learn about Scriptural truth, they will understand behavioral boundaries, but they’ll do so at the expense of a first-rate education.
The reasons are many.
Some Christian schools are unable to attract good teachers because of what they pay. Without good teachers, it’s hard to offer good instruction. In other cases, schools simply respond to the demands of their community. Certain parents are more concerned with their child’s campus environment than anything else. They’re looking for a safe haven.
In an effort to meet budget, other schools rely upon scholarships that invite students with special needs onto campus. These schools steward their financial and instructional resources in confoundingly opposite ways. Some Christian schools are legitimately equipped to meet the needs of diverse learners. Many are not. When mainstream classrooms become inordinately populated with students who learn differently, it presents a significant challenge for teachers and students alike.
There are plenty of other factors which contribute to first ditch schools, but this is a blog, not a dissertation.
In the second ditch, you find a series of schools who’ve made an institutional commitment to academic quality. You’ll find promotional materials featuring impressive lists of top tier colleges where their graduates have been accepted. They (wisely) operate like a business. And tuition may be less affordable than first ditch schools.
Second ditch students commonly test above their peers from other schools. And, parents get what they pay for. Classrooms typically include teachers with advanced degrees who, at times, wield an aristocratic connectivity with decision-makers at desirable institutions of higher learning.
But, not unlike present day Ivy League institutions, somewhere along the way, these schools gradually abandoned their faith commitment while genuflecting at the alter of academic elitism.
Reputation became paramount, and mission statements “evolved.” They grew convinced of an inexorable divide between faith and intellect.
As a parent and educator, I’ve learned to identify schools that reside in either of these ditches, and have decided to look elsewhere.
A Case For Christian Education
The best schools, of any kind, are those whose standard is uncompromising excellence. In the classroom. On the court or field of play. In the band room, art gallery or on stage. You get the picture.
Christian schools are no different. A balanced approach that recruits and retains the most qualified administrators, support staff, teachers, and coaches requires an intentional commitment.
Excellence doesn’t happen by accident.
These schools eschew legalism by prioritizing character over behavior. They espouse a life modeled by the way Jesus lived and loved.
Christian schools of excellence believe in academic rigor. They partner with parents to provide an education which prepares children for life beyond the K-12 years. Grades are earned. Earned.
Arts are prioritized. Right-brainers are engaged and stimulated by equally passionate professionals who open doors for creativity and expression. Music. Visual art. Performing art. Graphic Design. And so on. This is so important! With rare exception, show me a Christian school with strong Arts and I’ll show you a strong school.
On sports for a moment: any standard of athletic excellence measured by wins and losses alone is misguided. Teams should aspire to reaching their full potential. And championships are worthy byproducts of those aspirations. But wins and losses never tell the full story. Athletic departments that emphasize commitment to team, winning and losing with class, as well as character and skill development (to name a few) often reap the benefit of on court/field success.
Some Christian schools of excellence are costly. Others are more affordable. And while you’re more likely to encounter a ditch school, Christian schools of excellence can be found.
Finding the Right School
Whether you’re a supporter of Christian education or not, here are some questions to ask when searching for a school home:
- What qualifications do you look for in teachers? I consider type of degree and training to be of greater importance than state certification. I share why from a public school perspective here. If the school’s answer stops at four-year degree and certification, you’ll want to dig a little deeper (e.g. do you require teachers to have degrees within their field of instruction?).
- How does your school meet the needs of students with learning differences? You’re looking for honesty, not egalitarianism. If you have a child with specific learning needs, you’ll want to know if the school is equipped to meet those needs. If they stumble and stammer (or have one individual servicing the entire student body), this may not be the right school for your child. On the other hand, if your child does not require special services, you’ll want to know the percentage of students in a given grade that have learning differences. Has the school established a ceiling on how many students with learning differences they’ll admit per class? Ask. This is something you’ll want to know. If they don’t know or won’t tell you, this is a red flag.
- What extracurricular programming do you offer, and what is emphasized? Depending on your child(ren)’s interests, this may be of great importance to your family. If your son plays drums, does the school offer any kind of percussion programming? If your daughter plays competitive club volleyball, you’ll probably want to meet the high school coach. For some of your children, simple exposure to arts or athletics may be enough. For others, a more advanced program may be of interest. Talking with current school parents can provide a helpful glimpse as well.
- Do you offer financial assistance? Many Christian schools provide financial assistance to qualifying families. Too often, it can be easy for some families to assume private school tuition is beyond their means. But you won’t know if you don’t ask. You may be surprised.
Depending on your child(ren) and what you consider important, there will be additional questions unique to your family worth asking.
Your child’s education is important, but choosing the right environment needn’t be rocket science. Consider your family values, research, talk to parents, and visit the school whenever possible.
Keep your child(ren) in the loop as well. You may make the final decision, but their input should be encouraged and considered.
Perfect schools don’t exist, but doing your homework goes a long way in making a decision you and your student(s) will feel good about.
Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_G_Holland.