Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Becoming a Kingdom-Class School

Conferences can be great places to learn things.  The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) usually does them well, especially the administrator conference at the end of January.  The keynote speakers and conference presenters are all experts in the field of education, specifically private education, and their presentations not only help inspire the administrative and board leadership that gathers, but they also provide a lot of valuable, practical information. 

I picked up a few good things from the most recent conference in Lancaster.  Though the phrases and terms are not mine, nor are the organization of the ideas, they are similar to thoughts I've had about Christian schooling for quite some time, and they represent, at least in part, the direction I have sought to go, both personally, and in school leadership. 

So first of all, let me give credit where credit is due.  Dr. Barrett Mosbacher is superintendent of Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham, Alabama, a large Christian school with a long history of service.  Dr. Mosbacher writes a blog which is a great source of information for Christian school leaders.  Dr. John Chubb is executive director of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), an organization which primarily represents independent, academically oriented or traditional private schools, but which includes schools with a Christian mission and vision.  His specialty is professional teacher development. 

Kingdom-Class Schools
Here's the thesis.  Because Christian schools are private, independent, autonomous, and are mission and vision driven, they should be the most creative, innovative, academically excellent, schools in existence.  Naturally, a strong commitment to Biblical core values is a priority, and because we are able to have that as our mission and our vision, we should be able to make unlimited progress toward excellence in everything that we do, primarily teaching our students that they should uplift and enhance the lives of every person in which they come in contact. 

Sometimes, in Christian schooling, we've become bogged down in the "stuff" of doing school, and we allow that to hinder our progress and make us less than we can be.  If our schools are all about the rules, or all about enforcing the dress code, or all about our policies and procedures, we're not sending the right message.  Redemption and restoration are at the very core of Christian faith, and while there's nothing wrong with rules or policies that help students and staff follow a Christ-like path, when that becomes the focus, rather than the students and their future, it is an obstacle to becoming a "Kingdom-Class school." 

The term "Kingdom Class" indicates the mission driven excellence we seek.  It is a way to measure excellence, in a way that is consistent with who we are in our Christian faith.  It represents an educational institution that provides excellent academics, extra-curricular programs that meet student needs and reflect the character of the school, and seeks not only to make progress, but to bring about restoration and renewal for our students in their faith experience. 

Developing Excellent Teachers
Dr. Chubb's book, The Best Teachers in the World:  Why We Don't Have Them and How We Could, has an unusual title, but is focused on what makes teachers great at the job of teaching students the necessary knowledge and skills they need.  The bottom line in developing "Kingdom Class schools" is having Kingdom Class teachers. 

Teachers who are able to enhance the educational experience of their students are excellent teachers.  But in many cases, they are unable to realize their full potential as teachers because of obstacles put in their way.  That can include many things, including a "system" that doesn't really allow them to teach with excellence, or one that doesn't provide them with the guidance they need to improve their teaching so that it reaches maximum potential for students. 

Interestingly enough, it is not necessarily better pay that leads to better teaching, a fact confirmed by the tenure of teachers in private and Christian schools.  The unique problem for those individuals is that since they are obviously not motivated by more money, the school's leadership must find out what does motivate them, and move them in that direction.  And in a mission driven school, they must be completely committed to, and on board with, the school's mission and purpose. 

Students are not generally inclined to evaluate excellent teachers as the "best" ones.  Personal preference factors in their evaluation, so that things which are really not signs of excellence in the classroom, like a low homework load, or free time in class, or a lower level of accountability with assignments, cause students to "like" a particular teacher, and rate them higher than one who holds their feet to the fire, pushes them to their limits, and demands respect of both their intelligence and their character.  It sometimes takes six or seven years after graduation for a student to realize how much of a positive impact a particularly excellent teacher may have had in their life. 

Moving Our School Forward
The Christian School Movement in the United States has been waning for quite some time.  And while misery may love company, it was not encouraging to hear, from Dr. Chubb, that independent schools are also declining.  Across the board, private school enrollment is down by almost 20% over two decades, which has led to the closing of many private schools, Christian and secular.  Part of the reason for that is the development and growth of Charter schools, which are also mission driven, but which are funded by public money and don't charge tuition and fees.  And while much of their growth has come from the public school system, some of it has come from Christian schools.  Obviously, they are meeting the need for mission-driven education that doesn't have a Christian faith element involved. 

Characteristically, schools that have closed in the past two decades do have some factors in common. 
  1. Of 250 Christian schools which have closed in the Northeast region, only one was fully accredited.  The others were not accredited, and did not seek accreditation.
  2. Most of them were in the bottom third as far as tuition costs were concerned, so lower tuition did not attract more students.  What it did do, aside from putting qualified teachers in the poverty range, was cause schools to cut back on professional development for their staff.
  3. There was more weight placed on financial development and raising money than was placed on increasing the enrollment.  Enrollment is the key to a school's survival, and to its thriving existence.  Every student enrolled above the bottom budget line is extra cash flow that can go into financial aid, or an income-based tuition schedule.  But every student not enrolled, even at a discounted tuition rate, is a subtraction, in actual dollars, from the budget.  Maximum efficiency produces maximum budget surpluses.
And what are the things that the schools which have not closed have in common?
  1. Excellence in academics as evidenced in achievement test scores, college entrance exam scores, college admissions, and overall student progress. 
  2. Increased enrollment of more than 10% over a five year period (PCS is approximately 20%).
  3. A re-enrollment rate over the past five years exceeding 90% (PCS is approximately 93%). 
  4. Completion of at least one accreditation cycle, receiving at least a second re-accreditation.
  5. A balance between tuition and fees, teacher salaries, and financial aid that gets close to meeting the Biblical standard for "equal sacrifice." 
We've been here 51 years, and we would like to be here 51 more, God willing.  If we are doing an excellent job, providing our students with an excellent, purpose driven, Christ-honoring, academically challenging education, parents will be satisfied.  And there's nothing that helps enrollment increase more than satisfied parents who talk to other parents about their own experience with a particular school.  Of course, tuition increases and availability of financial aid do have an effect on the bottom line, but in the long run, the enrollment trajectory will move upward in a way that corresponds with the "excellence trajectory." 

We are already an excellent school in many ways, attested to by both our recent accreditation and the commendations of the visiting team, and by the fact that our enrollment has increased significantly over the past three years.