With the amplified focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion within Christian schools, there is much to consider when building a sustainable, biblically based program. The old adage “if you build it, they will come” is often used to justify the creation of new and exciting diversity programs. However, in an environment where Christian families of color often have options when it comes to private education, the question to ask is not only “will they come?” but “will they stay?”.
Let’s start with this point: Christian school diversity programs are important, and they are needed. If done right, they can honor God because as we see in I Corinthians 12:4-11, God loves diversity. But one misconception is that having a diversity program is the end-all and be-all, yet just having a program means simply that–you have a program. What really matters is the breadth and depth of the work that will help us achieve true gospel-centered equity in our schools, an environment where all kids can thrive. Environment is often left out of the conversation because as schools begin the work, they get stuck on diversifying numerically and programmatically—the recruitment piece. Sure, simply building a diversity program often means that students will come (DEI in numbers), but we should ensure that the students stay because of their positive experiences once at our school (DEI in practice).
In the world of private Christian education, retention can be complicated because there are many internal and external factors that can influence a student’s (and their family’s) decision to continuing attending. Retention is usually connected to relationship, and if minority students do not have a connection point to anyone or anything within the school, they may not feel as if they belong, a critical factor affecting retention. Much worse than students leaving a Christian school are students who stay and exist in isolation at a school that proclaims kingdom diversity and the gospel of Jesus Christ but does not live it out. The environment we create for our minority Christian students can impact not only retention but also their associations with Christianity.
Environment fit is something that can make or break the Christian school experience. The school culture, school practices, and school interactions make up the school environment. Minority students who have been recruited and/or invited in due to diversity efforts may not slip easily into their new setting. Academic, social, and spiritual success may be compromised by the energy the student must devote to combatting loneliness, alienation, and a challenging “fit.” As a result, a well-intentioned diversity program may miss the opportunity to serve one of God’s precious children.
As we continue to focus on diversity work in the Christian schools, we should be mindful of the environment existing for our students. Administrators may assume that because racial issues have not come to their attention, that these issues do not exist at their school. School leaders may assume that they already have an inclusive, equitable, gospel-focused environment. Never assume. Instead, take these steps to build a welcoming and nurturing environment for your students of color.
To start with, schools should seek to understand where their students come from and how that environment compares to their own school. For example, are they coming from a public or private school, a well-funded or financially struggling school, a white majority or majority-minority school? Where students come from will affect how they experience the Christian school environment. Knowing these similarities and differences can help Christian school educators anticipate areas of adjustment.
Another way to address environment is to guide new students of color through the process of acclimation. Entering a new school environment is stressful for all students, but entering one where the norms and practices are not aligned with their past cultural experience adds additional stress. Take school chapel, for instance. Some students of color may not be used to how worship works in a predominately white Christian school. In other settings in and out of the classroom, students of color may hear perspectives from students or even teachers that sound naïve, incomplete, or even racist. New students may need mentors within the school to help understand and process these experiences. They need safe places to express themselves or to possibly report hurtful words or actions. Easing students through the transition will have a direct effect on retention. In the process, schools should listen well to these students, who may have insight on how Christian school environments may need to reform. Christian schools exist to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ and to execute the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20). These principles should guide us as we create an environment where all students can grow academically, socially, and spiritually. If we build a diversity program for the cause of Christ, the students will come, but let us ensure that the love, grace, and peace of Christ is so embracing that they stay.
This article is part of a series on diversity in the Christian school.