Friday, November 17, 2017

Terra Nova Test Results are in, and it's Good News!

Portersville Christian School uses the Terra Nova Achievement Test as one of the means available to produce student achievement data which allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of our educational program.  Along with the PSAT and SAT results for students in grades 9-12, the Terra Nova is administered to students in K-10.  We chose this particular test because it is updated regularly, based on research and results, and because it provides detailed insights into student mastery of specific curriculum objectives.  It allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of our educational program, and make adjustments in expected student outcomes.  It also allows us to see where individual students may be struggling with objectives and concepts so that we can provide some additional assistance.

Terra Nova provides individual student reports that are pretty easy to read.  When looking at an individual report, there is a bar graph that will show the student's progress based on their percentile rank for each section of the test.  The percentile rank tells you how that particular student did in comparison to all of the other students in the same grade across the country who took the same test at roughly the same time.  The mastery score tells you how the student did based on the expectations of the test objectives for a student in a particular subject on their grade level.  You can look at each section of the test, and see areas in the content where the student excelled, where they were meeting the averages and expectations, and where they may have some specific weaknesses.  Mathematics and Language Arts are broken down into specific concepts and areas of study. 

The bar graph on the home report is the key to understanding the test results.  If the bars for a student's performance extend into the gray areas, their test results indicate that they are performing at the expected standards for their grade level in each subject area.  The gray area is bisected by the 50th percentile line, is divided in to quarters, and reflects the spectrum of possible test scores.  If the bars extend beyond the top of the highest gray quarter, the student is most likely exceeding grade level expectations in that particular subject, and is performing at a level that is considerably higher than their peers in the same grade. Those rankings and scores reflect percentiles that are set in place nationally, by all students who took the test at that grade level.

PCS students generally perform well above the expected outcomes provided by the test, and have percentile ranks that exceed the national norms.  Students in grades 7-12 average in the 75th percentile in Reading and in Language Arts areas, and in the 72nd percentile in Mathematics.  Scores in Social Studies and Science vary, but the overall averages are in the 73rd to 78th percentile across the board.  Half of the students in those grades achieve percentile ranks in Mathematics and Reading which rank them in the top fourth of all students who take the test, and over 90% of our students rank in the top two percentile quarters in Mathematics and Reading. 

Elementary students average at the 70th percentile in Mathematics, and at the 75th percentile in Reading and Language.  Though we don't have major curriculum emphases in social studies or science until students are reading well, scores in those areas also exceed the national norms.  Generally, the scores reflect a curriculum and instruction that is accelerated and advanced.  

Parents should pay particular attention to the scores which show a percentile rank that is below the 25th percentile.  This could be an indicator of a student struggling with curriculum objectives or with difficulties in instruction and classroom performance.  This may be an indicator of a specific learning issue, a physiological problem like impaired vision or hearing, or it may be a developmental issue related to learning readiness. 

We evaluate the test results to make changes in the curriculum objectives.  If we see consistent scores in a particular area of instruction, we re-examine the expected student outcomes and objectives, and rewrite the curriculum guide to address the weakness.  We want to ensure that our students are getting everything they need to prepare them for the next level, and to make their educational experience a valuable asset to their life. 

The scores our students achieve are well above the averages earned by students in the public and charter education system, and rank in the upper half of Christian schools who administer the Terra Nova.  Since ACSI recommends the use of this particular test, the norms and percentile ranks tend to come out a little higher than an achievement test used primarily by public schools.  We are pleased with the results of this year's test. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Antigone

Why would a Christian school fine arts department perform a Greek tragedy, like Antigone? 

That's a good question. 

Christian schools have struggled with theater arts performances for a long time.  There are those who feel that Christian schools should only perform plays and musicals with Christian themes.  We certainly understand that view.  The stage provides an opportunity for the school to promote and express its message using the talents of its students and the leaders of its theater arts program.  So it makes sense, to those of us who are Christians, and who have a clear understanding of the gospel of Christ. 

On the other hand, a Christian school education is much more than just an indoctrination into all things "Christian," as a label.  Christianity is much more than a set of beliefs or doctrinal statements.  In fact, to reduce it down to that is to remove what makes it dynamic, active and relevant.  In our classrooms, we don't just teach basic Biblical principles, we teach students how to live their life, and how to encounter the world, through a Christian, Biblically-supported worldview.  The core of that perspective is being "in the world" without being "of the world."  And the stage is one of the most practical places to provide students with visible examples of exactly how to do that.  It also provides them with an opportunity to experience what it means to glorify God with their talent, while gaining an understanding of how the gospel of Christ can be preached in the world. 

Discernment is one of the major goals of an education in a Christian school environment.  Learning how to trust the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and apply that to an understanding of the scriptures is a lifelong discipline of the faith, and is also a daily experience in this Christian school.  The Bible doesn't equip believers for an experience inside of a "Christian bubble," it prepares them for a lifestyle through which Christ can be seen, and preached, and through which God is glorified.

"Antigone" is, perhaps, one of the most relevant and useful theatrical performances in helping students understand the contrast between the world and their faith.  It comes directly out of the cultural background into which Jesus came, about 400 years before his birth.  Not long after Sophocles wrote it, Alexander the Great conquered Palestine, and the Greeks intentionally, and successfully forced their culture onto the Jews.  The Greeks treated the Jews with disdain and arrogance because of their monotheism which they regarded as ignorant and provincial.  Greek philosophy was forced into Jewish culture, with serious consequences, though it was short-lived.

The darkness that is the underlying theme of Antigone was the prevailing world philosophy into which Jesus was born, and to which the Christian gospel was written to address.  The New Testament was primarily written in Greek, and all of the evangelistic efforts of the early church were aimed at the Greek-dominated culture of Asia Minor and the Middle East, including the Jews of the diaspora. The gospel message of Christ directly addressed the kind of darkness of human wisdom and philosophy that is illustrated in Greek tragedies like Antigone, and the performance of a play like this provides a perfect opportunity to show students, and audiences, how the Gospel addresses worldly darkness with perfect light.  And you can be sure that the opportunity to point this out and teach the students this way is not missed here.  If you stayed after for the discussion, you heard this from the students.  Ask them what they got out of it. 

Classical literature is a large part of the English instruction in the classroom here, precisely because it is the literature of the world at the time that Jesus came.  Understanding it is a key component in understanding the context of the New Testament, most of which was written in Greek.  Performance of a classical Greek tragedy like Antigone  provides an active, visible element to this instruction.  Seminaries and theological schools use foundational elements of understanding classical literature to train pastors and Bible professors in the interpretation of scripture.  So do we. 

There are also principles in Antigone that are clearly seen as part of the theme.  Standing up for what is right in the face of evil that has captured the power of worldly authority is the underlying theme.  Christians have been faced with this throughout the history of the church, though most of our students don't have any context in which to understand this.  Acting it out puts it on a different level than seeing words in a textbook, or watching a movie.  Antigone illustrates the importance of affirming the certainly of your convictions before making the ultimate sacrifice of your own life. 

For at least the past eight years, the directors of plays and musicals at PCS have provided students and audiences with a "Director's Concept," a written way of discerning the Christian principles illustrated in plays and musicals, and of interpreting and viewing the production from a Christian perspective.  I think this is an essential part of the performance of works at a Christian school, and I hope that every member of the audience takes the time to read it. 


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Something That Needs to be Said...

"So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things.  Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites.  And the tongue is a fire.  The tongue, a world of unrigheousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies; it pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire and is itself set on fire by Hell."  James 3:5-6, HCSB

In the course of a conversation, from my perspective, there are some phrases and words that tend to give some clues about things that are happening, and which raise a level of concern about what might be transpiring.  When addressing an issue at our school, the phrase "I've spoken to several other parents about this," or "I heard from some other parents that..." is an indicator that there is conversation taking place which would be more effective in solving a problem if it were going to the source that could solve it, rather than having it discussed in a forum where there are no answers, and not much accurate information.

Generally, those terms indicate gossip.  Gossip is one of the most difficult things to deal with in the Christian life, because it takes such subtle forms, and because we can easily talk ourselves into some other reason for our conversations.  It is also one of the most harmful, because it leaves false impressions, plants false information, and is usually rooted in selfish behavior.  It divides, and it causes harm to people who are the subject of it.  In a church, and by extension, in a Christian school, it can lead to ruptured relationships and have very harmful effects on the school's ministry and its employees. It results from selfishness, among other motives. 

Our expectations here are high, and they include the integration of Biblical principles to the point where these things are visible in practice, and expected when it comes to operation.  We teach skills, by various methods, including modeling Christ-like behavior and responses to adversity.  We have a very specific way of dealing with all kinds of issues that are going to come from being human beings in a fallen world, and that way includes adherence to Biblical principles for guiding the Christian life.  When there is conflict, and things don't appear to be as they should be, the expectation is to follow the Biblical principles toward resolution. 

There are plenty of people who have both the leadership skills, and the authority, to resolve problems for parents and students here.  This information can be easily obtained as common knowledge by reading the handbook, and by following the instructions found there.  Resting on New Testament teaching recorded in Matthew, Chapter 18, the best way to solve problems is to go directly to those involved, and give enough information so that they are aware there is a problem, and can do something to resolve it.  Put a little bit of prayer and consideration ahead of the complaint, and that should solve the problem.  If not, you go to the next person in authority, maintaining all confidences and guarding your temperament. It is never permissible, from a scriptural perspective, to inform others of your problem and gather support for your side before you take it where it needs to go. 

Don't assume that there's an awareness of your situation without your having provided information to an administrator about it.  Usually, school administrators are not privy to conversations that seem to clue everyone else into what is "going on," and unless there's a compelling reason to look, we're probably too busy to take notice.  It's more difficult to be objective if people have taken sides, and you hear one before the other. 

Things are off to a good start this year.  PCS has gained in stability and productivity over the past few years, to the point where the enrollment is growing, and stable, educational achievement is moving forward and achieving recognition, the building is undergoing much needed repair and replacement, new families are seeking us out to meet their educational needs, the financial situation is stable and healthy, and students are growing in their faith and in their awareness of God's purpose for their lives.  Be considerate of our desire to keep moving forward. 

There's a reason that James compares the tongue to a fire.  A week or so ago, my neighbor's garage, which lies about 40 feet behind my house, caught fire.  It wasn't a big blaze, and the fire department got there within minutes.  It didn't spread, but in just the ten or fifteen minutes that it burned, it did plenty of damage to the garage, and made it such that there are some purposes for which it cannot be used until it is completely repaired.  A few more minutes, and the garage might have been a total loss.  As we serve the Lord here, we seek to accomplish his purpose.  Following his principles makes that possible, and we can do things that are well beyond our own ability.  Help us.  Be careful.  Bless us with your conversation. 

 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

More Than Meets the Eye

As we begin this 2017-18 school year, there are some things about the ministry of Portersville Christian School that are deserving of your attention.  Walking into the building, things look the same each year, though we did add some new lighting this summer.  The beginning of the year is always a good time to take a look at what happens here, and to do some reflecting in order to avoid taking what is a blessing for each student for granted. 

The quality of instruction offered here is high.  In our area, there are few places where the academic quality of the school program is equal to what is offered here, and that's not just a casual boast.  We work hard to make sure that our course objectives are aimed at high goals, and that expected student outcomes are based on higher goals, and not just achieving the "average."  Because of our size, we are limited in course offerings to those classes which eventually point students toward a higher education, and the measurements and results we get tell us we are achieving this goal. 

There is a very strong Christian atmosphere on the campus.  There are many ways that Biblical principles are included as the core foundation of the school.  A Biblical perspective is present in every subject area on every grade level.  In addition to that, there are many activities which supplement the curriculum, providing ministry opportunities for the students.  Our students come from over 60 different churches, and a variety of denominational backgrounds, but in spite of differences in the way we interpret the Bible and practice our faith, there is unity among our students and families that supports and undergirds our work.

There is mutual sacrifice in the use of resources.  It costs approximately $16,000 to provide an education to one child for one year in the state of Pennsylvania.  Our school budget is sustained primarily by the tuition that parents pay, but the highest tuition rate is $7,500 and that doesn't come close to what is needed to provide the quality education that we do.  Contributions are made to the school which help cover expenses and provide financial aid to those whose income wouldn't sustain the tuition payments.  Our athletic and fine arts programs are self-funded, and self-sustaining, and do not receive budget money.  But even at that rate, our tuition and fees, which are low compared to the overall cost of Christian schools, and of an education, must be supplemented by other things in order for ends to be met. 

Perhaps the biggest reason for our ability to provide what we do rests with our faculty and staff.  The average teacher salary in Pennsylvania in the public education system is $59,000, with an additional $11,000 provided in benefits.  Our teachers here work for slightly less than half of that amount, an average of $26,000 with about $6,000 in benefits.  The rest of our staff is also paid considerably less than their public school counterparts.  It would nearly double the tuition to get our pay scale up to the minimum levels of the public education system.  Some Christian schools have committed to do this, but it makes it very difficult to find enough families to sustain a school enrollment.  Even at our level of tuition and fees, more than 70% of typical Christian families cannot afford to send their children here. So the teachers and school staff work for less, because they love what they do and they want to serve your family. 

There is a high level of efficiency in our use of resources.  We are providing an excellent education of superior quality at a cost of about half of the average.  Sometimes, that means we have to decide to do without something we'd like to have. It means that while we offer a quality extra-curricular program, we have to be selective about what sports we can offer.  We've invested more in student materials than we have in infrastructure improvements.  Being able to acquire something of quality at a price far below what it would cost based on its value is known in our society as a "bargain."  Well, what you're getting here is a bargain. 

We depend on prayer.  That's not just a cliche, that's what we do because it works.  We are confident that as long as we head in the direction we discern that God wants us to go, he will keep us moving and protect us.  It is the means by which God speaks to us, and provides us with the leadership of his Holy Spirit.  It's how we are blessed. 

And we are most definitely blessed.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Gifts and Offerings...

The school year is over.  It went by fast, and the next one seems like it is closer than the time available to prepare for it.  Graduation parties are in full swing.  The building construction, installation of new lights and ceilings, is virtually complete and the difference is remarkable.  New students are admitted and new applications are received on almost a daily basis.  Summer is just around the corner. 

It was a good school year, from many different perspectives.  Our senior class earned as many honors and accomplishments for their academic work as any recent class at PCS.  They have continued the recent strong showing of SAT and ACT scores in mathematics.  Their post-high school plans reflect a diversity that is unique among recent PCS classes, among the usual college admissions are students who are attending a technical or trade school, entering military service, entering a business apprenticeship, or taking a gap year.  Their college choices also reflected a diversity, including Cedarville University as the most popular choice, along with some new names, including Covenant College, The Citadel, and Taylor University. 

We celebrated many athletic accomplishments this season.  Boys varsity and junior high girls SWCAC basketball titles, with varsity soccer, volleyball and junior high boys basketball teams in championship games. The girls varsity basketball team earned a fourth place at the NCSAA tournament in Ohio, and the boys varsity brought home their second title in a row. Archery with top placements in preliminary tournaments, at state, and at nationals.  It was all good.  The athletic program provides a way for students to get a well-rounded education, learn how to manage their time between school and personal interests.  I'd say that enjoying the level of success that we did this part year was a blessing, and a gift from God as well.  Athletic success contributes to a positive atmosphere in the school community. 

Our fine arts program also had a great year.  Starting with a light comedy, ending with a wonderful musical performance highlighting a lot of vocal talent, we saw the growth of our instrumental music program during their Christmas and end of the year concerts.  As always, the elementary performances were delightful blessings, even leading us to worship at times. 

Of course, there are as many different perspectives of a school year as there are students, teachers and parents who are involved in it.  Not all of our students are involved in extra-curricular activities, and so the success that is experienced there might not have any affect on them.  Some students struggle with school, for a number of reasons, and so the experience of getting up to come here each day is not always pleasant.  Wondering, at the end of each grading period, and then again at the end of the year, whether your grades are going to be acceptable or not, does have an affect on how you perceive the school year.  But regardless of how the year is perceived, or a student's athletic ability, singing or acting talent, or aptitude and ability to perform well in class, our mission and purpose starts with the words "to glorify God...." 

All of these things that are mentioned here are gifts, given by God, to enhance and bless those who are a part of the ministry of this Christian school.  And regardless of any individual perspective, these are gifts which God uses to bless us.  They affirm us, strengthen our faith and trust in God, and in and among them are the answers to many prayers.  

Our response should be to give all of these things to the Lord as an offering, specifically for the purpose of glorifying the name of Jesus. 

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.  Romans 12:1, NIV

So as we wrap up this school year, and look forward to another one, we pause, and give all of the blessings we received back to the Lord, as an offering, to his glory.  This is part of the abundant life that comes to us through our trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  We are able to take pleasure in, and enjoy blessings that God gives to us, responding to him with gratitude. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What's Happening in Legislative Advocacy?

At the State Level
As many of you know, I am a member of the committee known as ACSIPA, which is involved in legislative advocacy for Christian school education in the state of Pennsylvania.  Specifically, we represent the 160 Christian schools in Pennsylvania that are members of ACSI.  Since many of the issues that affect us also affect other private, religious-based schools, we work together with a couple of the smaller Christian school organizations, along with Catholic Conference, the Jewish educational association and the Quaker schools.  ACSIPA is a member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American Private Education, which also includes independent private schools that are not necessarily associated with a church or religious organization. Only Catholic Conference has an office and staff member in Harrisburg for their school issues.  The rest of us send volunteers several times a year to meet with legislators and their staffers.

We're fortunate in Pennsylvania to have a level of independence and autonomy as a private, Christian school that allows us to develop our educational system as we see fit.  Our Christian schools are known for excellence, we do a good job of meeting, and exceeding the expected student outcomes, and we meet our acceptable yearly progress benchmarks.  As a result, there is little interference with what we do.  And at the present time, from a legislative perspective, there is a high level of pro-school choice support among the members of the PA house and senate.  In addition to the tax credit programs, our schools also share in the state's transportation funding and in the textbook and equipment fund.  The legislature appears headed toward an expansion of the tax credit caps by as much as a third of their total value, and there is support for further measures which will increase the choices parents have in their children's education.

Pennsylvania legislators have considered school choice measures like voucher programs in the past.  There is some movement in the legislature to consider similar programs this session.  We've been told that the voter voice we use on the ACSIPA website is helpful, and legislators do pay attention to the email they receive.  To keep updated on what's going on in Pennsylvania, you can look at the ACSIPA website at http://acsipa.org.

Common Core is also a state-level initiative.  In Pennsylvania, the Keystone Exams reflect Common Core objectives as minimum standards for passing and graduating from high school.  There are a lot of myths about Common Core, many of them promoted by the media.  This was an initiative started by the National Governors Association through state departments of education in 48 states and the District of Columbia.  The aim was to develop uniform standards based on states where best practices were achieving the objectives and expected outcomes, and establish basic minimums in English/language arts and mathematics.

In Pennsylvania, private school students are exempt from being required to pass Keystone Exams to graduate from high school.  Our standards and objectives exceed those of Common Core at every grade level, and the means of measuring our acceptable yearly progress, which includes the Terra Nova test, the PSAT and our SAT scores, show that PCS students exceed the expectations of Common Core objectives.  Our Terra Nova scores average around the 70th percentile, which is about 12% higher than state or national scores, and our PSAT scores also run 10-12% higher than national norms.  PCS has always placed an emphasis on mathematics and language arts objectives, including the instruction of writing skills beginning in middle school.  

At the Federal Level
Many people have asked about what might be developing now that Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education and what that might mean for private, Christian schools, since she is a product of them.  To answer that question requires an understanding of how the department works.

DeVos met with leaders from CAPE (Council on American Private Education) a few weeks ago, and outlined her plans for the department.  Primarily, the DOE will be focused on helping implement the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in January of 2015.  The ESSA is the protocol for the DOE, replacing the act known as No Child Left Behind.  It contains provisions and program initiatives for continuing to raise standards for public education, and oversight of the distribution of funds that have been allocated for the implementation of its programs. There are some benefits in the ESSA for private schools, most notably funding to assist with STEM initiatives, and some supplemental funds for textbooks, equipment and supplies for students.


A voucher program at the federal level would not originate at the DOE, but would have to come from Congress.  There are a few legislators who have proposed bills, but the house study committee, which sets the legislative agenda for the year, and is controlled by the party in power, has not placed consideration of vouchers for private school students on the agenda.  Federal expenditures on education average about $2,000 per student per year, so it is not likely that any federal level voucher program would provide enough money to cover all of the tuition and fees for private education.  There are also a number of court decisions which restrict the channels through which federal tax dollars can be channeled into private education, especially religious-based schools. 

I am also part of a group of about 20 school administrators from across the country who meet in Washington, DC in September to advocate for Christian schools and private education issues.  There is just one legislative liaison in the nation's capital who works on behalf of all of the Christian schools in the US, so volunteers are used to help there as well. 

Locally
PCS remains one of the area's highest achieving private, Christian schools.  Ranked as the #2 Christian school in Greater Pittsburgh by Best Schools, based on parent surveys and school data, our staff continues to work toward accomplishing our mission and purpose, glorifying God, serving Jesus, partnering with family and church, and instilling high standards in our students.  We value the unique combination of religious freedom and educational autonomy which allows us to incorporate Christian discipleship into the whole learning experience of children and youth. 

Our needs include resources that will allow us to expand our ministry and share its benefits with other Christian families who live and work in our area.  We believe that families have the right to choose the kind of education their children will receive, in the kind of environment in which they want them to receive it. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

We Need Your Help Again: EITC/OSTC Increase Passes the PA House

The Pennsylvania house recently passed a bill that will expand the cap on EITC and OSTC scholarship tax credits.  The program has been a success, so much so that previous expansions have allowed it to reach capacity in a relatively short period of time.  It is clear that there are many families in Pennsylvania who are looking for schools that match their family values, and provide quality education. 

PCS benefits from this program in a couple of ways.  It helps increase our enrollment, because it enables more families to consider sending their children here.  Our school's ability to provide the programs and activities that it does would be limited if those who receive EITC scholarships were not able to attend.  It would affect all aspects of school operations, including academics, athletics, fine arts, and other activities.  Across the state, over 40,000 students receive scholarships, representing almost 40% of those who attend private schools, including Christian schools.  Several ACSI schools which minister in lower income areas would not exist if it were not for EITC or OSTC. 

The expansion bill just passed by the house adds $50 million to the EITC cap, increasing it to $175 million, and adds $25 million to OSTC, increasing it to $75 million.  It provides the potential for adding up to 20,000 additional students to the program. 

This is not "state money."  In school choice programs, there is always concern that tax dollars from the state going into private schools carry government regulations.  That is not the case with EITC and OSTC.  These are scholarships contributed by private businesses.  They work the same way a charitable contribution works with tax deductions.  If a business makes a contribution to a school's scholarship fund, it is allowed to deduct up to 90% of the contribution from its taxes. 

How You Can Help!

The bill must now be considered and passed by the senate to be presented to the governor for his signature.  The advocacy efforts on behalf of ACSIPA, Catholic Conference, and other private school interest groups have helped get the bill this far.  Our legislators have heard from our constituency, and recognize that this is their constituency, too. 

Please go to the ACSIPA website, at http://acsipa.org and click on the "Voter Action Center" tab.  The screen will say "Active Issues," and the top issue is for Pennsylvania schools.  Click on that issue, and you will be taken to the screen where you can send the email in the text box to your legislators.  Based on your zip code, your specific representative and senator will receive the email, along with the governor's office.  It is the count of total emails that matters, though you do have the option to write one of your own. 

Everyone at our school benefits from this, so whether you receive a scholarship or not, your help in supporting the bill would be appreciated.  It is becoming increasingly important for Christian schools to step up and take the initiative in financing the cost of providing education for students.  Currently, only about 20% of Christian families have the required level of income to provide a year of tuition and fees for two students.  If this ministry is to be successful in reaching students, and meeting the expected outcome of graduating students who are strong in their faith, and make their decisions from a Biblical worldview, programs like EITC/OSTC, and other means of providing choice for parents will have to be developed that make access to a Christian school a reality.  That means that our business supporters will need to step up their involvement, and our churches will have to understand the many ways Christian schools are already benefitting their ministries. 

Thank you for your help.