I’m a product of a bumper crop. The Christian school bumper crop, that is. Class of ’97, Bob Jones Academy, Greenville, SC.  My graduating class had 136 members, and our school had a total enrollment of over 2,500. Olympic-size swimming pool? Check. Debate team? Check. Sports program? Check. Band? Cheerleading? Drama program? Check. Check. Check.

You name it, we had it. But we weren’t the only ones.

Didn’t like your school? No problem. There’s three more just like it in your backyard. Pick one. Christian schools once enjoyed a life stage in which large enrollments, robust programs, and healthy bank accounts were the norm (ok, maybe not the healthy bank account, but you know what I mean). Christians once left public schools in droves, circling the wagons, “educating our own”, and vowing never to return. Christians were all in for Christian ed. Boy, those were the days! …or were they?

Today’s portrait of Christian education is very different; some may even call it bleak. Getting and keeping students is a struggle, even in the milieu of a culture that is more sinister than ever. Just when we think government and public education can’t get any worse, they continue to amaze. You’d think that Christian schools would be full! Think again.

Let’s face it: Christian schools aren’t what they used to be. Enrollments are down, programs have been cut, and funding is anything but flush. Know a good Christian school with 136 in its graduating class? Me neither. Many of us would be overjoyed just to have that many kids in our school!

Lots of good bumper-crop schools have closed while many have survived, clinging to memories of the good old days as though they may return.

But were the good old days really that good? It depends on your criteria. While the current picture of Christian education is certainly different, I suggest that Christian education, although not what it once was, is better off now than ever. Here’s why:

Philosophy – Modern Christian education is a response to the immorality and liberal ideas of the 1960’s and 70’s. While there is nothing new under the sun, the relatively sudden antagonism toward all things Christian and the subsequent fallout in the public sector made getting out of Dodge an easy decision for Christians. When the right crowd is going in the right direction, doing right is easy. Positive peer pressure on families to get their kids in Christian schools made schools swell with numbers, programs, and funding.Were schools great and therefore drew students to them, or was it more likely that leaders stumbled across a ready crowd and built schools that became great? My point is this:

Christian schools in the 80’s and 90’s were full because they were popular, not mainly because of their product.

When an industry is saturated with demand, supply rises to meet it. Is the result of high demand necessarily a great product or simply an efficient one?  When customers abound because of the popularity of a product, it’s unlikely that all the customers are serious stakeholders. It’s no stretch to say that current Christian education has become less popular. However, we’re better off for it because we are now much more focused on an outcome. When demand decreases, supply and customers go with it. Those who stay are in it for the duration because they believe in the result and purpose. Whether others do or not is irrelevant to them. I’m not sure who said it, but it’s true that one man defending his home is better than ten hired soldiers.

I’ll take one parent who is serious about defending his or her child over ten who have jumped on a bandwagon.

Learning – I really believe that students in Christian schools are able to learn more than they used to. One of the greatest evidences of this opinion is the extent to which most textbooks from most Christian publishers have changed in the last 10-15 years. Whereas Christian textbooks in the 80’s and 90’s were mass-produced for, you guessed it, efficiency, a large portion are now being developed with research-based learning styles, state and national standards, and greater differentiation in mind. The bumper-crop mentality of assuming Christian schools must necessarily purchase Christian textbooks is a thing of the past (at least in many cases). Many Christian schools are now willing to shop around and use the best-quality books available to them, even if they come from the hands of secular authors. Christian publishers are under more pressure than ever to produce high-quality, research-driven materials, and the Christian schools using them are better for it.

And this isn’t just true of textbooks. To be taken seriously, Christian school teachers and administrators must be true professional educators and establish a high-quality learning environment. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but I’m told the interview for teaching in a Christian school used to include only two questions: 1) “Did you attend a Christian college?” and 2) “Do you love Jesus?” Don’t get me wrong, these should still be required questions, but these are no longer the standard qualifications for Christian school employment.

While we Christian educators remain distinctively Christian, we are now, more than ever, distinctively educators.

We are no longer just in competition with the other Christian schools in town but with the other private, parochial, charter, and public schools down the road. Christian parents in this generation no longer desire just a Christian education for their kids, they demand that it also be relevant and competitive. While we can’t provide all the bells and whistles, we’re definitely making more educational noise than ever before.

Were the good old days all that great? Are the now-a-days all that bad? People will always judge the present against their memories of the past, which tend to be rose-colored. Adults in this generation judge schools against their memories of their own school experience. What things do we remember? If you’re like me, it’s sports teams, programs, bands, and lots of classmates. But why is that?

It’s because I was a kid, and experiences in the moment are all kids care about.

Would we put a child in charge of a school? Of course not. So why should we let childhood memories be the standard by which we judge ourselves now?

Christian education has certainly changed in the last decade or two, but my vote is that we’re better off than ever. Our philosophy is strong, our learning is robust, and most importantly our God has not changed a bit. Our work for Him now is just as important as it was then, and I believe in the case of Christian education, it’s better than ever.

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