The Changing Christian School

When the editors of CEJ decided to produce an issue on “The Changing Christian School,” it seemed important to start by describing that change with a snapshot of what’s happening in constituent schools. It wasn’t possible to do a comprehensive survey of Christian schools in the Reformed tradition, so we contacted over a dozen school leaders throughout North America. The following educators were able to take time out of busy schedules to meet by email, phone call, or Zoom conference and help paint a picture for us:

  • W. James Armistead, head of school, Washington Christian Academy, Olney, MD
  • Josh Bowar, EdD, head of school, Sioux Center Christian Schools, Sioux Center, IA
  • Matt Covey, head of school, Denver Christian Schools, Lakeview, CO
  • Henry Doorn, superintendent, Southwest Chicago Christian Schools, Palos Heights, IL
  • Jeff Droog, superintendent, Mt. Vernon Christian Schools, Mt. Vernon, WA
  • Ruth Kuder, assistant head of school, Eastern Christian Schools, North Haledon, NJ
  • Jim Peterson, head of school, South Christian High School, Byron Center, MI
  • Bethany Schuttinga, PhD, president, Avail Academy, Edina, MN

All the schools represented were founded by small groups of ethnically homogenous Reformed Christians—often between three and a dozen congregations. While some schools are over one hundred years old, others were founded in the 1950s, after the depression and two world wars ended and those communities could enact dreams they harbored years earlier.

But significant changes came in the 1980s and the decades following. David Zwart, associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, identifies two such changes: (1) lower birth rates, which meant that even schools near a number of Reformed congregations had fewer students to draw from, and (2) a decrease in ethnic and religious identity, which meant a smaller percentage of those students were enrolling in their community’s Christian school. The growth of charter schools and magnet schools, some advertising themselves as “values based,” drew some students away.

For some schools, this led to an existential crisis, and the number of Christian schools in the Reformed tradition has decreased from the 1980s to today. But other schools found ways to continue their mission by serving a broader range of students.

Growing Ecumenical Diversity

For established schools in the Reformed tradition of Christianity, the easiest way to grow was to reach out to other groups of Christians. Today, schools that once served families from a narrow group of congregations tout the number of churches their students attend on their websites. The specifics of that ecumenical diversity depend on which other Christian groups exist in each school’s region. Denver Christian sees its largest growth from non-denominational churches, while Chicago Christian sees more students from Catholic and Lutheran backgrounds. Among the schools surveyed, with the exception of some schools in Western Michigan and Northwest Iowa, the percentage of students coming from a Reformed tradition has decreased to between 5 and 30 percent. Many schools specifically noted the presence of students from Catholic families—this probably would have come as a surprise to their schools’ founders.

Covenantal versus Missional

The growth in ecumenical diversity has led some schools to redefine what it means to be a “covenantal” school (serving the children of Christian families) versus a “missional” school (reaching out evangelistically). Because the covenant between God and his people is an emphasis of Reformed theology, to be “covenantal” once meant serving families who were members of Reformed congregations. Today, being covenantal often means requiring that at least one parent “has a relationship with a church congregation”—although some schools still require a pastor’s letter or a “faith interview” with the family. Other schools have softened the expectations that come with a covenantal model, admitting students with little church background, and most acknowledged an increase in students who are, as one respondent put it, “less biblically literate.” Several schools see an opportunity in this rather than a problem. As Jeff Droog says, “We are still a covenantal school, but we have the opportunity to flex our missional muscles in ways we never have before.”

“We are still a covenantal school, but we have the opportunity to flex our missional muscles in ways we never have before.”

Jeff Droog

Growing Ethnic Diversity

In addition to ecumenical diversity, many Christian schools are experiencing and seeking out growth that reflects the ethnic diversity of their greater community. The student body of Washington Christian Academy, which shares its campus in the DC suburbs with an African immigrant church, is almost 50 percent African American and 15 percent Latinx. Eastern Christian’s roughly 45 percent students of color means that their student body “very closely reflects the racial and ethnic demographics of Bergen and Passaic counties,” where their three campuses are located.

Southwest Chicago Christian Schools’ two elementary campuses, located in different neighborhoods, each represent their location’s diversity: The Tinley Park student body is 85 percent white, while Oak Lawn’s is 45 percent African American and Latinx. Denver Christian, with a student body of about 10 to 15 percent students of color, recognizes an opportunity in serving the more diverse community surrounding their campus. Covey says, “We needed to think very carefully about the ‘why,’ and looking at the Bible and reading the verses that describe a picture of God’s kingdom, we recognized that God loves diversity. And we’re going to love what God loves.”

“We’re going to continually serve a more diverse population of students—culturally, ethnically, racially, and we need to do a better job of that.”

Henry Doorn

Welcoming students from non-white cultures also requires schools to change. Doorn and his board recognize, “We’re going to continually serve a more diverse population of students—culturally, ethnically, racially, and we need to do a better job of that.” Schools have revised curricula and reading lists to include more diverse voices. Some have examined school policies and procedures: At Eastern Christian, Kuder and other school leaders examine “attendance, standardized testing data, discipline and course enrollment to identify any patterns that might represent inequity.” The Southwest Chicago Christian Schools have contracted with the Cultural Intelligence Center to help board members, faculty, and staff develop cultural intelligence and to provide anti-bias training. Washington Christian’s annual student-run cultural festival celebrates its students’ diverse backgrounds with food, dance, and authentic dress, which Armstead says his students probably appreciate far more than the curriculum revision that happens in department meetings.

Maintaining the Core Mission

The increase in students from a variety of churches and backgrounds has posed what many schools see as their most important task: finding new ways to articulate the Reformed outlook they see as central to their mission without using language that feels exclusive to new families. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Steve Tuit is co-editor of the Christian Educators Journal. He teaches English and AP Psychology at Grand Rapids Christian High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is very grateful to the educators who gave their time to have the rich and delightful conversations about Christian education that informed this article.