Friday, September 26, 2014

Navigating the Waters of a Changing World: The Future of Christian School Education

We live in a world of demographics and surveys.  In a school that is affected by demographic changes and community trends, our vision and plan for the future of our school require us to take a look at everything that could impact our ability to deliver quality, distinctively Christian education to our students and families.  In addition to demographics, change within the Christian community also has an effect on our ministry here.  I'll share a few things that we have observed carefully over the past few years:
  • The conservative Evangelical churches from which we draw most of our enrollment, are going through a process of both aging and declining.  The few "megachurches" which are growing are drawing their members from smaller, older churches.  Actual "Kingdom growth," by winning new converts to Jesus, is not happening.  This means that the number of potential students from this particular constituency is declining. 
  • Economically, the cost of providing a high quality Christian education, in both a school or home setting, is becoming increasingly difficult to bear for the middle class families that have been the primary constituency of Christian schools.  Since the mid-1990's, the number of students in Christian schools has been declining, and the number of school closings on the rise.  The cost of providing an education has increased faster than families' ability to afford it.
  • In our area, every school district except Seneca Valley is seeing a decline in the number of students.  The population is declining in all but a few townships in the southern part of Butler County.  The evangelical conservative church membership in our area is also declining, and aging.  Many of the students in our school are the only school-aged kids in their church, and there are churches in this area which don't have any school aged kids at all.  
All of these factors contribute to an increasing difficulty for families to choose an educational alternative that meets their spiritual needs and is compatible with their faith, and that, in turn, will have an effect on the continued existence of Christian schools, including ours.  It's hard to predict the future, but we can have a vision that will center us and help us plan and prepare for what we might face.

Our school was founded as a place to keep prayer in the educational experience of students.  It has always relied on a foundation of faith in God, and there have been times when human wisdom has dictated that it could not go on, and yet it has.  So any vision, regardless of the practical considerations, must have God at its center.  And while it is easy to say that, putting it into practice is difficult.  We speak of operating and teaching a "Christian Worldview," but there are many things that are not consistent with scriptural teaching which have crept in from our culture, identified as "practical" or "logical" that are not consistently Christian.  A Christian Worldview is not a political perspective, or a six step program to financial success.  It is a lifestyle, and a way of looking at the world like Jesus would look at it.

We've worked really hard, over the past four years that I can speak of, to improve the educational quality and the Christian atmosphere of our school, and these were both cited in our recent accreditation as accomplishments and commendations.  Those are, in my opinion, the most important aspects of what we have to offer.  Our students have the opportunity to aim their academic achievement at high goals, which will benefit them over the long haul, and they are in a place where Jesus is Lord, and his principles are both taught and practiced.  As we look to the future, these are two areas where we must continue to pay close and careful attention, and continue to keep them as priorities.  That's a given.

As the paradigm shifts in the culture, we need to have a vision that allows us to move this forward, and continue to draw students who will benefit from what we offer.  We need to look at ways to make our program available to a wider range of students, continuing to focus on meeting the needs of our conservative Evangelical constituency.

With finances being the main reason students leave our school, adapting to the shifting paradigms of our culture must include some "out of the box" thinking with regard to the way we finance our operation.  I think there are some Biblical models for this.  Currently, we help about a third of our families through financial aid programs that are based on tax credits from the state for business contributors.  The increasing popularity of these programs, combined with the cap on the amount of dollars available has put us into a bind in this regard over the past couple of years.  The vast majority of students in the constituency that will benefit from a Christian school education come from families whose income can't support tuition payments in addition to education taxes.  So finding a way to provide additional funding for scholarships would be one way to reach more students.  Expanding our appeal and ability to offer more would be another.
  • Continuing to press for a political solution is a viable option.  States are increasingly adding "voucher" programs where at least part of the tax money allocated to education goes to schools with the students, rather than to an educational monopoly.  While the possibilities of such programs depend on political trends, we need to continue to speak with a unified voice in pressing for this. 
  • Increasing, and maintaining a near-capacity enrollment is critical to the future of the school.  We need to do everything we can to keep our enrollment at or above where it is now.  We've worked to improve the quality of our academics, and the spiritual life, and these are major attractions.  We now need to work to eliminate "finances" as the primary reason for families leaving the school.  This is something in which you can become involved, and with which you can help us achieve.   
  • Our constituency is Christian families.  This means serving Christ's church.  Our relationships with local churches need to be increased and improved, both within the denomination with which we are affiliated, and with others who share our vision and mission.  This is something you can help with, starting in  your own church.  Since we consider ourselves a discipleship ministry, we need to let churches know we're here, and how we can serve them. 
  • Developing plans for practical expansion are also important.  We are near the capacity of our current facility due to considerations with the septic system and the well, and the possibility of expansion of classroom space is limited.  Having a second campus has been talked about for years, but we may now be on the verge of a time when it becomes a necessary means to reaching new families.  
  • The bottom line is that, as a Christian ministry that places its faith in Jesus, our ministry needs to reflect an attitude and a worldview that puts meeting people's needs first.  It requires sacrifice to do that, but when we signed on with Jesus, we signed on with a guy who gave his life to make sure that we had the ability to be redeemed by God's grace.  Contributing to the health and well being of this ministry isn't limited to financial support.  Everyone has talents and spiritual gifts that God provided, and this is one way that you can give back.  We can't afford to contract with professional firms for services, so if there's something  you can do for us, we'd love to hear from you.  
There will be opportunities for those individuals who desire to use their expertise in planning and development to participate with us.  The Development Committee is expanding, and it needs leaders who are willing to serve, be creative, think out of the box, and help move the school forward.  You are our greatest resource.  And if you're not a leader, perhaps you can find a place to serve where your help would be a valuable asset.  Volunteers run everything here from athletics to technology, and I'm sure you could find something that would appeal to your interests and make a real contribution to this ministry.