It is a risk to try new things, to move in new directions, to love that deeply. But we have reached a time in history where by not innovating we are running a greater risk than staying our current course.Dan Beerens and Erik Ellefsen, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education
Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Christian schooling in North America has been challenged on all sides. First, this crisis prompted a questioning of the value of the Christian school sacrifice, pushing school leaders to reimagine the value proposition of these schools. Second, the demographic crunch (lower birth rates) that started then has been extended to 2035 (and possibly beyond due to COVID), resulting in fewer students in the North American school systems. Third, as traditional church denominations have shrunk and begun to collapse, the religious and social supports no longer exist in many communities along with the ethnic ties that bound communities together in support of these schools. Fourth, greater secularism in our communities brought into question whether Calvinist/Reformed Christian day schools were all that distinctive from other private schools, let alone public schools.
Simply put, the Christian school movement has been challenged at a pace that was unthinkable just ten years prior. But simultaneously, new opportunities have arisen, and a new era of collaboration and innovation is in motion.
As the Calvinist/Reformed Christian day school movement continued to absorb, reflect, and respond to cultural assimilation and change forces (as highlighted in Bruce Hekman’s article), a good number of schools moved, partially or fully, to a more missional approach. This move was made for both outreach and enrollment purposes. Essentially, this approach meant that instead of requiring at least one parent to be a believer, schools instead clearly stated their mission; parents were asked to agree to the mission and goals of the school, regardless of faith commitment. Further explanation of the covenantal and missional approaches can be found here and here.
The expanded view that Christian education is for all, with a corollary desire to reach out to nonethnic communities, led to the establishment of urban Christian schools in the mold of Daystar, Mustard Seed, Potter’s House, and more recent ones such as Hope, Anchor Point, and Living Stones, for example.
Growth in Asian international student enrollment in Christian schools boomed during this time as schools sought to balance budgets and/or increase diversity. In many cases these students were accepted as missional enrollments, even though the school was officially a covenantal school by board/society policy. Depending on state policy, some schools have been able to alleviate budget pressures through vouchers or tuition tax credits.
The increase of Internet speed and connectivity since 2010 made it possible to virtually/visually connect with anyone anywhere around the world who had access. As educators took advantage of collaboration opportunities and resources of all kinds proliferated, there was less need to rely on organizations providing member services. In recent years, networks have exploded, and member organizations have struggled as members questioned the value they were receiving for services. While resources for schools and teachers were scarce in earlier years, they were now readily and immediately available as connectivity access and speeds increased. Consequently, one of the challenges of this time is that as educators procure a variety of resources from everywhere, will they be able to, and will they take the time and care to, frame them within the biblical story for students?
A number of more specialized organizations or groups have arisen to fill voids that were impossible for one singular organization to effectively deliver. Here are some examples. The Van Lunen Center for Executive Management in Christian Schools was established in 2007; it provides school leaders of approximately 20 different faith traditions with a yearlong training program. The Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University promotes the development of Christian teaching and learning K-16 and fosters research and professional development. CESA (Council on Educational Standards and Accountability) emerged in 2011 as a council of schools seeking to raise the standards and overall quality of Christian schools. CACE (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education) was established by the Verdoorn Foundation in cooperation with Dordt University; CACE “exists for the sustainability, improvement, innovation, advocacy, and promotion of Christian education at all levels of learning.” Likewise, in 2010, Cardus, a think-tank from Canada, started a decades-long research study in Canada, United States, and Australia to better discern the impact of Christian schooling on life outcomes. And most recently, The Baylor Center for School Leadership has emerged to build collective leadership capacity in Christian schools.
In Part 2 of this post, we will explore how emerging technology, the question of effective student engagement, and the concern to be distinctively Christian moved schools to seek ways to deepen their instruction. Increased connectivity and a sense of shared mission made global collaboration possible and desirable between Christian education organizations.