by Bill Boerman-Cornell, Steven Harrison, and Neil Okuley
When we taught in various Christian schools, there were moments when each of us thought, “What must it have been like for the founders of our schools to start afresh, with no preconceptions, no established traditions, no tried and true ways of doing things?” You may have thought that same thing in your teaching or administrative career. Starting about six years ago, we had a chance to do just that. When an established Christian high school moved out of our area, there was a need for a new school to fill the void. Local residents formed a board, which worked hard for several years until three years ago when Unity Christian Academy of South Holland, Illinois, welcomed its first freshmen class.
Starting a Christian school presents many of the same challenges that established Christian schools face: enrollment, development funds, recruiting faculty, and making sure the vision is clear to faculty, staff, parents, and others. It also presents some challenges that established schools don’t have to face: finding a space for your school, writing brand new policies, convincing parents to take a chance on a new thing, and surprising things that have to be done almost every day.
But the great gift of starting a new school is thinking intentionally about what Christian schools are, what they can be, and what they ought to be. Three of us got together on Zoom to do some reflecting. Bill Boerman-Cornell has been on UCA’s board for at least six years (he has lost count) and is chair of the education committee. Neil Okuley served as the academic dean for the school for its first two years and became principal at the beginning of this school year. Steven Harrison was hired as the assistant principal of UCA this year. In reflecting on the three-year start of our journey, we came up with several aspects of our school that many Christian schools already have, that some schools might want to think about adapting for their contexts, and that some schools might find themselves called to try outright.
We are conscious that there is much more we do not know about running a Christian school than we do know, but we believe our perspective can offer some insights. So here are some approaches that have worked well for us as we have been building our school and might be helpful for established schools that are thinking of remodeling.
Be Grateful for and Honor Your History and Context
Long before Unity opened its doors, community members were working on building a common vision for the school. The vision was, necessarily, responsive to the community we live in. South Holland is located in the Southeast suburbs of Chicago. Nicknamed “A Community of Churches,” the town began with deep roots in several denominations belonging to the Reformed tradition, but it also had a significant Catholic population. In the two decades before Unity started, that population welcomed significant African American and Latinx residents, along with new churches from these traditions.
When Unity began, its board included the town’s mayor, a farmer, educators with strong connections to the Reformed tradition, a banker, a nun, and the director of a charity with roots in the Catholic tradition, pastors, an IT director, and African American educators from a variety of denominational backgrounds. That meant it was not only a board that was racially, ecumenically, and gender diverse but also a board with deep ties to the community.
Some decisions that the early board made worked very well. The early planning board decided that the governing board should not be elected from the parent association (as is common in many Christian schools) but recruited by the existing board members on the basis of clear commitment to the school’s mission. This was to ensure that the mission of the school would continue and that the board could provide more continuity over the years. They also determined that the board would be a working board and a policy board but would leave as many decisions as possible to the school’s administration and faculty, relying on recruiting and hiring people the board can put their trust in, then letting them do their jobs.
The board also learned some important lessons. It is important to regularly revisit and recommit to the mission. In short, everyone needs to be able to ask why we are here and why we are doing this—and every voice needs to be heard in response to those questions.
There is no value in being different for difference’s sake. Especially when starting a school, it is important to carefully consider the roots you are putting down, both in terms of your foundational beliefs and in terms of policy and procedural decisions.
And all of this goes more smoothly if the board, faculty, and staff are connected to, representative of, and committed to their community and context.
Open the Recruitment Pipeline to Anyone Interested in Christian Education
Christian schools have seen declining enrollment for well over a decade. The usual complaint uttered by faculty, administration, and board members is the same in many Christian schools: “We don’t get the loyalty we used to have in the good old days.” Back then, you could count on every member of a church to send their children to the local Christian school. In some communities, church membership was used to estimate enrollment. Now, the complaint runs, those same churchgoing folks are apt to send their children to the well-funded public school down the street or to a charter school. That this observation is true does not mean that declining enrollment is inevitable or that there is nothing we can do to stop it. In fact, some of the most fervent seekers of Jesus at UCA are teenagers from public school backgrounds and outside of the traditional pool that Christian schools draw from.
Depending where your school is located, thousands of Christian families are likely within a half-hour drive who would love to take advantage of what your school offers. So why don’t they, we might ask? Our doors are open, after all.
Opening the recruitment pipeline involves more than not locking the doors. We need to live up to who we are as Christians and welcome our neighbors by going to them, talking with them, listening to their stories, visiting their churches, and being considerate of their social situation. And that means recruiting students from a wide ecumenical and culturally diverse group. It means recruiting board, administration, and faculty from a similarly diverse group.
For an example of being considerate to a wider social situation, consider a recent Veterans Day Celebration at UCA.
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Steven Harrison joined UCA this year as the assistant principal. Neil Okuley served as academic dean at UCA for two years and this year assumed the position of principal. Bill Boerman-Cornell is a professor of education at Trinity Christian College and has been on the board of UCA since before the school opened. All three of them care deeply for Christian education and really good pizza.