Sunday, January 3, 2016

Philosophy 101: Basic Philosophy of Christian School Education

Several of our new faculty members are going through the ACSI certification process right now, and one of the first steps is that they must write a three to five page paper outlining their personal philosophy of education in a Christian school environment.  So I thought that the beginning of a new year might be a good time to review some of those basic elements for our parents and friends.  There's a reason people choose to send their children to a Christian school, and it can usually be found somewhere in the difference between our philosophy, and that of the public education system.

Statement of Faith
As a Christian school, there are some basic beliefs which form the foundation at the very core of our educational philosophy.  These shape the mission and purpose of the school, because they determine the very definition of the term "education," and put all of the elements of instruction, from methodology to basic objectives, in a Christian context.  Briefly, these non-negotiable beliefs include the following:
  1. We believe in the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Jehovah God, whose character and nature as the creator and sustainer of the universe is thoroughly described in the Bible.  Because we believe in his divine nature, and his eternal power, education is defined for us as the process of discovering knowledge that has already been revealed by God, and depending on his imminent presence for the wisdom required to interpret it. 
  2. We believe that the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, known as the Bible, are the sufficient, written word of God, are verbally inspired.  The matter and content of the Bible is truth, without any mixture of error.  It is a perfect treasure of divine inspiration, and is the measuring rod of all truth.  True education, in the form of discipleship of the whole person, requires its integration and application in the study of any academic subject. 
  3. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, with a fully divine, fully human nature unique for his calling as Messiah, the Christ who was sent by God to redeem creation from the fall.  Salvation from sin is required for forgiveness, redemption and restoration to a right relationship with God, and is found through no other means except trusting Jesus as the Christ to be the required sacrifice for sin.  As a result of this belief, education of the whole person must repeatedly confirm this truth, and will be most effective in the lives of those students who have trusted Christ, and depend on him for their salvation. 
  4. We believe in the imminent return of Jesus, as he promised, which is recorded in scripture.  As a result of this belief, the most important expected outcome for students in a Christian school is to be equipped for living life as a citizen of the Kingdom, Christ's church, and to be an effective member and leader of a local body of believers.  Providing students with a sound, quality, academic environment that is undergirded by the integration of Biblical principles and a safe environment where God is honored, worshipped and welcomed is the means to achieve this outcome. 
  5. We believe that the Bible's teaching directs parents to assume full responsibility for the education of their children.  As a Christian school, we see ourselves as engaging in a partnership with parents as they assume this responsibility.  We are engaged in support and assistance from both a Christian and a professional perspective, and should share the same goals and objectives. 
The School Community
Christian schools are ministries which address two areas that are Biblical functions of the church. If we see education as primarily a discipleship function, then those who are to be students must either be disciples, or they must be exposed to an environment where evangelism points them toward a personal relationship with Jesus.  Because we are engaging in a ministry partnership with parents, we have a responsibility to ensure that the family who seeks out the partnership does so as a result of the value and meaning of their own faith in their home.  We seek to partner with Christian parents, with an expected outcome that relates to evangelism and discipleship; evangelism in that we support and undergird the parent's desire to see their children come to faith in Jesus, discipleship in that we provide instruction and an atmosphere with encourages the growth and development of that faith as it grows and transforms the child's life. 

The Curriculum
There is a lot that can be said here, but I'll keep it simple.  There are some guiding principles related to the curriculum in a Christian school.
  1. Since we see education as the discovery of knowledge that has already been revealed by God, and wisdom as the spiritual application of that knowledge, applicable scripture is part of the study of every subject area.  The facts of all subjects are measured by Biblical truth.
  2. Instructional methods are tiered in stages which reflect the Bible's descriptions of human development and spiritual formation.  There are numerous, consistent references in scripture to the process of learning.  Some Christian schools adapt a classical, Socratic model to the Bible's descriptions of the educational process, while others use a more traditional approach, but in either case, instructional methods based on Biblically discerned learning processes are employed. 
  3. One of the expected outcomes of a Christian education is for students to grow and develop into followers of Christ who understand the importance of being a part of the body of Christ as a member of a local church.  Curriculum is designed to encourage and undergird this outcome with the idea of raising up and training the future leadership of Christ's church.
  4. One of the expected outcomes of a Christian education is for students to become knowledgeable and productive citizens of our country, effective employees and leaders in government and business.  As a result of this income, we provide an academic environment that is rigorous and challenging, modeling excellence and providing students with both the wisdom and knowledge they need to be productive members of society. 
  5. Since we expect that many of our students will become leaders, we develop curriculum which leads students  to develop a Christian worldview. 
Faculty, Staff and Employees
All of the individuals who work for a Christian school should be Christ followers who have a mature, growing faith in Christ, and who are able to model Christlike lifestyles for the students and families.  They should be active members of a local church that shares similar beliefs and convictions with the school, particularly in those areas which the school considers to be non-negotiable elements of its ministry. 

Faculty members in particular should have a strong understanding of the basic philosophical elements that make Christian school education distinct from public school, and should be completely supportive of the philosophy of Christian school education.  They should be committed to being a positive ambassador and representative of the school where they teach, and should always speak well of it, promoting it to families within their circle of friends and encouraging families from their church to enroll their children. 

We understand that for many schools, with tight finances and limited resources, it is not possible to offer the children of faculty and staff members full tuition scholarships.  We also understand that sometimes the children of Christian school faculty members are enrolled in special programs that their Christian school cannot offer.  However, in cases where it is possible for faculty and staff to receive full tuition scholarships, those who are willing to enroll their children should be hired first.  That is a demonstration of the kind of dedication and loyalty that should be required of faculty members.

Extra-Curricular Activities
In privately funded schools, where tuition from parents constitutes the primary income source, extra-curricular activities become matters of fine tuned stewardship.  They must fit within the school's mission and purpose, and contribute to the expected student outcomes in both Kingdom leadership and community leadership. 

Extra-curricular activities exist to contribute to the school's Christian atmosphere.  The key is quality, not quantity, and because of the limits on facilities and resources, they should not become a drain on the school's operation.  In some cases, extra-curricular activities may attract students, but a strong sports or theater program should not be the primary reason for families to seek out a particular school in which to enroll their children, nor should the absence of such programs be a discouraging factor.

Accreditation and Commitments
"Accredited schools are excellent schools, and excellent schools seek accreditation."  I heard that after becoming involved in ACSI, and experience has taught me that it is true.  As a Christian school, our goal should always be to provide a high quality education in a Christian environment.  We are following Christ's example, so that requires us to strive for excellence.  His standard, after all, was perfection.  But there's more to it than that.  Our parents have the option to place their kids in public school, after all, and avoid the financial strain that added educational expenses add to the family budget.  Accreditation says that people from outside the school, with a high level of educational expertise, have examined our instruction, our curriculum, our facilities and our overall program, and have found that it either meets or exceeds the expected standards. 

Public school is always available.  Because of that fact, I think it is very important for us to measure ourselves by examining what they are doing, and since it is the default option, we should do better.  Accreditation is a starting point.  PCS has shown a remarkable ability to focus on the recommendations from each accreditation visit, and show growth and improvement.  We're small, we're out in rural Western Pennsylvania, our facilities are nothing fancy, but we are recognized as a great Christian school.  Our most recent accreditation commended our Christian distinctiveness and our academic excellence. 

One of the marks of an excellent school is its enrollment, its ability to retain and re-enroll students, and its ability to attract new ones.  Since the economic recession began slowing down in 2010, PCS has seen a 25% increase in enrollment, and has achieved a re-enrollment percentage in excess of 90% each of the past three years.  That speaks volumes about the quality of our program, and the effectiveness of our ministry.

Christian schools have the potential to be a powerful and effective ministry force, both in our country, and around the world, wherever there is a mission field.  It is still a developing ministry.  And while it peaked in the 90's, and has experienced decline that mirrors the decline in church participation in America, there is still room to grow, and increase our effectiveness. 

For one thing, Christian schools are still not accessible to all of their potential constituency.  With a tax supported educational system, the added financial burden required to pay tuition and fees for a private school exclude a fairly large segment of the potential Christian school constituency.  One of the crucial components of any Christian school ministry is making a contribution to the school choice movement.  There are about as many different plans for school choice as there are states, perhaps more, but Christian schools must remain on the cutting edge, not only coming up with the innovative ideas to equalize financing but to advocate for those that politicians catch and decide to employ. 

More churches, and church leaders, need to come to an understanding of the usefulness and effectiveness of Christian schools, in keeping young people active and engaged in their churches, and in providing effective, trained leaders for churches.  The public education system clearly operates under a philosophy and with methodology that is secular in its purpose, and which has the effect of undermining the church and the gospel.  Churches that sponsor, or are home to Christian schools have an understanding of this ministry.  But it is time that the church, and its leaders, see what is happening in the public education system, and instead of seeing Christian schools as shelters from the real world, see them as places which will raise up a generation that knows the gospel message, and has the intellectual skill and knowledge to defend it's principles.