Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer: A Time of Renewal, Literally!

Technically, by the calendar, when school ends in the spring, it's still spring.  Summer actually starts this weekend.  Once the frenzy of graduation ceremonies, field trips, and final exams was over, it got quiet in the building.  The teachers have all checked out, and we're a couple of weeks into the summer schedule.  I hope our students and their families are resting and enjoying their time away from school, as well as the teachers.  August will be here soon enough.  In the meantime, we are enjoying some blessings of renewal on our campus.  What is happening on our campus is a reminder of God's provision and blessing.

Main Building
There will be some changes on the campus when you come back in the fall.   The main hallway, from end to end, has received a facelift.  New carpet has been installed, and it already makes a difference in the appearance of the building, even though the molding hasn't been installed all the way down the hall. 

The appearance of our building is something that we sometimes either take for granted, or it receives a lower priority because funds, which come from tuition and fees, are just not available.  It may seem less important to have a new rug, as opposed to new computer equipment, or simply because we don't want to add the expense to the budget.  On the other hand, stewardship of our facilities, and care of the building is important.  There was budget money left in the maintenance account, enough to provide the carpet with the help of a couple of contributions. 

And as a side note, the high school classrooms in particular are desperately in need of new carpet.  The seams are separating on the carpets that are in the rooms now, and it won't last much longer.  If you can help out, that would be great.  It will cost approximately $20,000 to do the worst of the rooms.

The Athletic Committee invests a lot of time in fund raising enterprises like the hot lunch program, concession stand, and the magazine sale and this provides resources for the athletic teams.  Most of the sports team uniforms have been replaced in recent years.  It became apparent, during this school year, that the lights in the gym were failing, and needed to be replaced.

Instead of replacing the old style fixtures one by one as they burned out, the decision was made to replace all of the lights with new, energy efficient fixtures.  That job was accomplished this week.  A good portion of the cost will be reimbursed through energy efficiency rebates, and the lights will pay for themselves because they burn about a third of the electricity that the old lights did.  And, wow, I never realized how dark the gym was until I saw the new lights in operation!  It's bright!  The Fine Arts committee also made a contribution of funds to their installation. 

Soccer Field
Through the generosity of a neighbor and former PCS parent, excavation work this past spring extended the soccer field to regulation width and length.  There's about 15 yards added to the west end of the field, but if you didn't see the work, you might not even notice.  The grass has grown in with the recent rains we've had, and once the goal is moved, you'll never know the difference.  The netting at each end will also be replaced. 

With the improvements on our field, and in the gym, PCS has the nicest athletic facilities in the SWCAC, and one of the few schools with everything on campus. 

Through a grant from the National Archery in Schools Program, PCS obtained some first class archery equipment and introduced the sport to students through the PE classes at the end of the school year.  A number of students are excited about participating in this program as a competitive sport.

Technology Upgrades
Our elementary computer lab will be completely replaced over the summer with new equipment.  This will accompany some in-house system upgrades and improvements as well.  There are some technological advances that make it possible for us to introduce some "virtual desktop" units into the lab, rather than replacing expensive PC units. 

Does that sound exciting?  We think so.  It is always exciting when we see God provide.  None of these projects would have been possible without the generosity of people who helped by providing a monetary gift. 

There are still some projects around the school which, if God has blessed you, you would be able to help support.  We would be glad to speak with you about what you can do. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I'm on my Soapbox Again!

Thirty years.  That's how long it's been since I first walked through the door of a Christian school to accept a job.  I've lost count of the number of times I've heard someone tell me that they think students in a Christian school are sheltered from the realities of the culture, and are not being prepared for the "real world."  That we just indoctrinate our students with a literally interpreted Bible, and we don't teach critical thinking skills.  That students from Christian schools struggle in college with abstract concepts, and have trouble relating to the world when they are ready for a career.  That it takes a couple of  years in a public school to "toughen them up" and get them ready for life. 

When you can explain how a curriculum that systematically undermines a student's Christian beliefs and behavior will "get them ready for life," then I'll concede the point. 

We do teach a literally interpreted Bible, according to hermeneutical principles that are widely accepted, and we teach our students how to apply its principles to their lives.  I'd argue, though, that's not a means of sheltering students from the realities of the culture.  It is preparing them do deal with them in a proven and effective way.  If you visited one of our 11th grade Bible classes, you would hear them discussing relevant cultural issues, and determining which scriptural principles apply to dealing with them.  It's not just raising your hand with Jesus as the answer.  Our seniors get into systematic theology, not just memorizing verses and topics, but developing their own in a way that helps them explain what they believe and why they believe it.  We do this because we know that many of our students are going to have their faith challenged when they leave here and go to college and it is important that they not be na├»ve about what they will face.  That's how we teach our students to respond to the real world.

It's true that the students here come from families where at least one family member is a professing Christian.  Our high school students write their testimony in sixth grade, and if they enter here after that, they have to be the family member with the faith.  So they are in an environment with a lot of other Christians.  All that means is that they will learn from each other when it comes to figuring out what reality is.  They will hopefully learn how to depend on each other when they are dealing with the reality of the culture in which they live.  And that will make them far better prepared for it than trying to make it on their own, navigating through everything that comes through the door of the public school system.

The approach we take to preparing our students for life outside of school is to teach them the academic skills which will be the foundation that supports their ability to sustain a career, a marriage and a family, and a life.  We support the values and principles that are taught at home and church.  If we waste a lot of time trying to interpret the culture for them, they will miss out on the important part of an education, and they won't be any better prepared to face life.  So we teach them how to interpret the culture, how to respond to it from a Biblical worldview, and we hope they catch our sincerity.  Then we turn them loose and let them go.  The results, I believe, speak for themselves.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Tragedy in the Family

After forty-one years of providing a quality Christian education to students in the Pittsburgh metro area, North Hills Christian School made the decision on May 15 to close its doors.  Citing "educational circumstances beyond our control," and shedding many tears, the board and staff decided to close the school once this year was completed. 

It is not for me to judge whether or not such a situation represents the will of God.  Those directly involved believe it does, based on their evaluation and analysis of the situation, and on the time they obviously spent in prayer.  The school was a ministry of a church, and the church's ministry will continue.  However, especially in the cultural climate, and the time in which we live, any ministry that closes, especially a Christian school, is a tragedy. 

The time I have spent in Christian schools spans three decades, beginning in 1983 at the Broadway Baptist School in Houston, Texas, where I taught social studies and English.  The school was located on the east side of town, just blocks from the Port of Houston, in a working class neighborhood that was rapidly transitioning into a predominantly Hispanic barrio.  If there was an area of the city that needed a Christian school, it was the East side, the neighborhoods known as Magnolia Park and Woodridge.  Broadway was in a large facility, connected to the Broadway Baptist Church, and had, over the years, constructed a sprawling complex of buildings, including a first class gymnasium.  The school was started by the church in 1946, and peaked in the 70's with over 700 students.  Generations of Broadway graduates are still serving in ministry and missions, and in a wide variety of careers. 

Demographic changes eventually brought about the decision to close.  When I started teaching there, in 1983, the student body was predominantly Caucasian, made up of the remnants of the business community and middle class working community left in the neighborhood.  As the area transitioned, and became predominantly Hispanic, the school did too, and when I went back there for my second go round as a teacher, in 1994, it was about two thirds Hispanic, and a third African American.  But it was half the size it had been in the 80's, and the age and condition of the facility had deteriorated to the point where, in 2002, the board and administration made the decision to close.  The problem was that the school could no longer attract quality teachers, based on the tuition and fees that the neighborhood population could pay, and the quality of education, which was a main reason why parents sent their children to school there, had deteriorated.  That caused further decline in the enrollment.  A charter school has rented, and renovated, the facilities for their use.  The church uses only a part of their former facility. 

There are those who would say that Christian schools opening or closing is simply a matter of God's will, not man's effort.  It is a matter of God's will, but that utilizes the efforts of committed people who have spiritual gifts and have received training to do their job because they are following God's will.  After two decades of solid growth, and an increase in the number of students enrolled in, and thus influenced by, Christian education, the numbers are now headed down, and Christian schools are frequently closing.  For our own sake, up here on this hill above Lake Arthur, I think it is important for us to understand why they are closing, and what we can do to prevent ours from suffering the same fate. 

Financial Issues
For many schools, dependent on tuition and fees paid by families, viability from a financial perspective becomes a key factor.  Though there has been a lot of conversation over the years about schools developing alternate financial resources, and saving out of the abundance that developed in the 80's and early 90's, few were able to set aside enough to make a difference.  The suppression of interest rates has hurt those who attempted endowments.  There's a lot of competition for the Christian donation, and schools which charge tuition are not always seen as good causes for contributors because their constituents are wealthier than the average Christian family.  Then, too, the competition has increased, as many churches prefer to start their own schools rather than supporting an existing one. 

Church Decline
Obviously, most people interested in providing their children with a Christian education are Christians.  But in the past two decades, the number of available families in churches has declined, as the membership of the typical church ages and declines.  A crisis is going on, in which the church is losing 80% of those raised within its walls, and a decade ago, it was said that only half of them come back.  But now, few of them return, so the next generation isn't looking for a Christian education for their children.  And yet, there's never been a more critical need for Christian schools, with upwards of 94% of the population under 30 considered "unchurched."  Without a solid system of Christian schools, we are just a generation away from paganism.

Inside Issues
In spite of our best efforts, people allow other things besides the education of their children to be a priority.  We work hard to make certain that the academic quality of our schools is well above the state and regional standards, and we spread out resources to offer activities and athletics to help with the atmosphere in the school, and yet, we still have people who don't think that's good enough for their kid.  They're willing to let social issues interfere, or determine that the activities and athletics are a priority, rather than the discipleship and the education we provide.  They don't understand the commitment they make when they come, and they don't contribute to the environment of the school when they are here.  And in many cases, it is the student who is left to decide something that is an important parental decision.  This subtracts from our ability to build an effective program.

There is a fear, among some churches, that if their families send children to a school that is supported by a church, they might lose them to that church.  I sure hope people aren't that fickle, though sometimes that's the case.  But rather than support what could be a viable, community wide ministry of providing Christian education and discipleship to students, and helping the school to prosper, some prefer to "start their own" rather than cooperate.  That was great when there were plenty of students to go around.  Now that just means the competition makes it hard for all to be viable. 

Not only that, but sometimes parents see things like charter schools or on-line, cyber schools as viable options.  Charter schools are just smaller versions of the public system, and many of them are not well run, and as a rule, do not provide a high quality education.  Cyber education is still new enough not to have a lot of documentation of its success, but what is there shows a very low performance level, especially if there has not been a lot of parent involvement.  But a lot of parents think they are an option because they are less expensive.  So what price do you put on your child's education? 

The commitment of the people involved in PCS over the years has been solid.  The result is that we have a Christian school with a superior academic environment, a solid program of student activities in fine arts and athletics, a functional, efficiently used facility and a staff committed to excellence.  I used to believe that if you could provide all of that, you could survive, but with an enemy bent on destroying the next generation, and leading it astray, that isn't the case any more.  We need your help, and we need to work together to keep things together.  Pray.  Support the school by keeping your kids here, and by gifts of time and money.  Be a billboard for us. 

And thanks for all you do.  May God bless us.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Achievement Test Scores are Back

We measure student outcomes in education in many different ways.  Grades are a way of measuring whether students are mastering the objectives of the curriculum.  It can be done by observation, by practical application when students accomplish or achieve something beyond what is expected, and even by their ability to take what they have learned and turn it into something practical and applicable.  This time of the year, however, we do measure student outcomes by the standardized achievement test scores they receive.

For the past two years we have given the Terra Nova test.  We made the switch from the Stanford test largely at the recommendation of ACSI, whose regional offices keep up with developments going on in the area of educational testing research.  The Terra Nova is what we refer to as a simple, straight up "achievement" test, rather than a curriculum based objective exam such as the PSSA or the Keystone Exams.  It is based on a national standard from average scores of students who take the test over a period of time.  And that's the key to understanding the test results.

Based on the number of questions in each section that the students get correct, a "percentile rank" is assigned.  The percentile rank indicates where the student ranks on that particular test when compared to the national norms.  I've heard parents get distressed over the fact that their child had a percentile rank of 55 in math.  That doesn't mean they only got 55% correct, it means they did better than 55% of the students nationally who took the test at the same general time.  That's the simplest way to measure where students are in terms of their academic progress.  If they are at or above that 50th percentile, they are well within the margin of where they should be at that particular grade level.  If they go as high as the 70th percentile, or above, that is the mark of excellent academic achievement. 

Our students did well, as expected.  In looking through the individual scores, a high percentage of our elementary students scored in percentile ranges above 70% in math, reading and other language arts.  That is always good to see, because the Terra Nova focuses on the mechanics and skills of these subject areas.  And we have a large group of students who score in the upper 10 percentile rank in those subject areas.  When you put this data on a graph, you get what is commonly known as a "bell curve."  Theoretically, the peak of the bell curve should be the 50th percentile.  But the peak of the bell curve made by PCS students is well to the right of that, on the high side.  Our students and teachers did a great job on the Terra Nova this year.

The other way to measure progress on an achievement test is to compare the previous year's scores, and see how far the student has advanced.  Each succeeding grade's test increases in level of difficulty based on grade level expectations.  There are also some other factors involved.  Going from the first grade test to the second grade test means that the teacher reads much less of the test to you. So comparing the difference between how close you were to the "norm" this year to last year's test tells you how much you learned in that subject over the course of a year.  Most of our students made higher than average  progress as they advanced from one year to the next.  That, too, is good news. 

Achievement tests are not the "product" of your child's education, not by any stretch of the imagination.  They are one of many ways of measuring progress.  In our case, they confirm that the Christian education your children are receiving here is academically excellent.  A high percentage of the schools who administer the Terra Nova are private, Christian schools, which makes our high scores even more significant.  Our students are scoring above average on norms that are set, at least in part, by students in educational environments similar to their own.  That says a lot for the quality of Christian education in general, and especially the quality of what you are getting here.