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At the expense of academics

By raising the bar, and raising it high, we will be better equipped to impact our world—and that does not have to be accomplished by sacrificing faith and family.
Protestant Christian schools… are providing a place where students become distinct in their commitment to faith, but are not advancing to higher education any more than their public school peers.
Cardus Education Survey (CES) 2011, p. 6

In 1996, I accepted a teaching position in a Christian school that was housed in a former chicken coop.

The sales pitch I had heard was good, and the interview questions were appropriate. But what had not yet been revealed was the lack of academic instruction being offered at every level.

God leads us to certain places for certain purposes. I had been led there, ostensibly, to teach first and second grade children. I would teach from a Christian perspective, providing a daily witness of what it means to be a Christian and to live your life accordingly—geared, of course, to six- and seven-year-olds. But the soon-to-be-revealed "hidden agenda" of God put me in a position where I could have some influence in the battle for excellence in academics—to ruffle some local chicken feathers, so to speak.

At the time, the furthest thing from my mind was that I, a teacher in a school, would have to fight for quality education in what was being advertised and sold to parents as a school—a Christian school no less, committed to honouring the Lord of the universe. To say that this school had not set standards high enough is inaccurate because, truthfully, they had yet to even create standards.


The purpose question

I was asked to serve on the board of trustees my second year at the school (a dysfunctional arrangement best left to another reflection). When I commented on the teaching and learning taking place in the school—for instance, on the woefully lacking second grade science curriculum—a high-ranking board member emphatically stated, "I would rather my daughter be a good person than know what a molecule is," as though these could not occur simultaneously. Heated, lengthy debates ensued for several years. Once, a dissatisfied parent board member looked straight at another member during (let us call it) a philosophy of Christian schooling debate, and loudly stated, "YOO HOO, this is a SCHOOL!"

[T]he motivations and outcomes of Christian schools [are] in large part accurately aligned.
—Cardus Education Survey (2011), p. 6

We believe that our main purpose is to be a school where children will accept Jesus Christ as his/her Lord and Savior while receiving academic instruction.
—The school's then purpose statement (1990; emphasis mine).

At that school, there was no student at any age, and certainly not one about to be awarded a diploma, who did not profess that Jesus was the Lord and Saviour of his or her life. No profession, no diploma.

The 2011 CES report states, "Our analysis leads us to question if an authoritarian culture at some Protestant Christians [sic] schools is contributing to a faith that focuses on pietism rather than piety by way of a dictatorial approach to study of the Bible, which may result in a surface engagement and understanding of the whole of the Christian faith." Indeed.

I am now Head of School at Providence Christian Academy, an independent, non-denominational Christian school in Freehold, New Jersey, and I've been asked for a subjective response to the CES findings. Ever since I first became involved in the CES discussion, at a roundtable event in California in 2007, I have viewed the survey through trifocals (literally and figuratively!): as a professional in the vocation of Christian schooling; as a former student with some Christian school experience; and, at this very moment, as a parent of two children who attended public schools, including college.


Defensive mode

When I heard and read the initial results I felt deep disappointment, sad affirmation, and relief from the guilt I'd felt as a parent who chose to forego Christian schooling for my own children. Consider with me the Protestant Christian high school that was available to my kids when they were growing up (the only alternative to public schooling). My dear niece and nephew had already graduated with honours and high honours from this very school. It was a proud moment for everyone involved when they received their diplomas with such accolades. But my beaming nephew's first words to me after being dismissed from the ceremony were, "I am never going back there, to that joke, as long as I live."

This same niece and nephew applied to and were accepted by their local county college. Upon completing admission testing they were informed they had to take remedial math and English because their entrance exam grades proved that they needed remediation before they would be able to successfully complete 100-level math and English courses at the community college level. With honours and high honours from a Christian high school? Imagine the distress of parents who had already paid tuition for high school educations, while still paying New Jersey-level property taxes which fund the public schools, now faced with paying for non-credit classes just to get their children to a college entrance level! Here is the mission statement of the school from which they graduated: ". . . exists to equip students to have a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ and to intellectually prepare them for their future with a Biblical perspective."

The CES results accurately suggest that the outcome of Protestant Christian schooling directly relates to the identified mission of the schools. Christian schools that make a relationship with Jesus Christ the priority are frequently succeeding in their mission, but too often at the expense of academic instruction.

These results cannot and should not be ignored. I know that these data have rattled cages that have sat too long unused, some even rusting. I have colleagues near and dear to me who are still in the defensive mode after hearing the results of the survey. They cite time, money, and other resources as reasons they cannot offer academic excellence, particularly in the upper grades.

I want Christian schools to be the example and source to which other educational institutions turn. There is endless witness and testimony to be provided if each Christian school were to be the answer to a parent's question: "Where should I send my child for the best possible education?"

The CES opens the door for more questioning and analysis. It leads us to discussion and an even deeper look at what a Christian school graduate of decades ago now looks like, and what we can do to improve on the outcomes of Christian schooling in order to impact the world in every possible area. These results are going to help those who truly believe that there need not be the either/or decision on the part of a parent as they seek to choose the best for their child.

I believe the findings challenge us to step forward and make changes. An example of a recent positive development is the formation of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability (CESA), which grew when a group of like-minded individuals realized that if Christian schools are to thrive and make an educational impact they must provide a high quality education, meet the demands of wise consumers, and do everything within a Christian framework (CESA 2010).

I hope that the CES is speaking to every association involved in the promotion and support of Christian schooling.

Will Christian schools take the bold steps necessary? The CES puts forth thirteen extremely important questions that will help in the process of change and improvement, if we are bold enough to face and discuss them. I believe that it will be by raising the bar, and raising it high, that we will be better equipped to impact our world, and that it does not have to be accomplished by the sacrificing of faith and family.

As each of us look at the CES through our own lenses of experience, may we see and hear with our minds and hearts, and be moved toward excellence in education, deserving of the name many of our schools carry in their titles, whom we seek to serve, honour, and glorify.

Help us spread the word:
Nadean Sheppard Nadean Sheppard
Nadean D. Sheppard is Head of School at Providence Christian Academy, Freehold, N.J. ... read more »

Posted in Education, Parenting, Religion. Linked to Cardus' Education research project.

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