[Editor’s Note: We’re often asked what others have been doing in the field of Christian education. Many worthy (and reproducible) developments dot the landscape, from homeschool support groups to institutions like Florida’s Grace Community Schools, Virginia’s New Geneva Christian Leadership Academy, and the international reach of Ron Kirk’s educational model. Much can be learned from the seasoned leaders who have invested their lives in such work. In that spirit, we draw attention to a somewhat different model that has begun to gain traction in New Jersey. Not everyone will adopt this model, nor does it fit every shade of educational ideology: it was innovated by those closest to the problems who confronted the question of how best to align practical concerns with Biblical imperatives. This report from the front lines does, however, provide a beacon of hope for others seeking to carve out their own answers to these difficult questions.]
Whenever a particular culture has a problem to solve, it is wise to look around and recognize the current age. Questions like “What are the obstacles that our current generation faces?” must be considered so that our plan of attack incorporates areas of concern. Any school system with a Christian intent must temper its expectations in light of the many present-day obstacles. The typical Christian parents who refuse or deny a free statist education must search very hard for an alternative education that offers all the bells and whistles found in government education.
Today’s modern Christian parents must take into consideration cost, discipline, educational content, and time in seeking out a Biblical education for their children. If those parents are Reformed, the task becomes that much more difficult.
At Westminster Christian Academy in Ocean City, New Jersey, we have created a unique system which is easily affordable for any parents, requires their children to be away from home for only a minimum number of hours, and even adds the bonus of completing the first two years of college while still in high school. Our students regularly graduate by the age of eighteen, and often earlier, with an Associate of Arts Degree from a local college. The total cost of high school and college for a four-year period is under $14,000. At the end of four years they have their high school degree, and their first two years of college completely paid. Our students typically receive full academic scholarships; rarely if ever do they take the SAT. The whole process allows them to begin their Bachelor’s Degree without any student debt.
We accomplish all of this in a twelve-hour school week, leaving the children free to either apprentice part-time, work towards paying off college debt, or spend quality time with their parents and siblings. We are not so bold as to argue that everything we do is upheld by Biblical principles; however, a lot of what we do at least does not violate Biblical principles.
Stating the Problem: Church Decline Serves as a Faulty Model for Educational Decline
It is the author’s opinion that decline in our society is the direct result of church decline. It is only when the church declines that non-churched society is emboldened to seek decline. The best example is the antinomian decline and rejection of God’s law in worship and practice that has emboldened the state to pass laws contradictory to the laws of God. If the church will not take the laws of God seriously, why should the state? Ultimately, the church in America has lost its way, to the point now where the government imitates the lawlessness of society found in the antinomian lawlessness of the church.
This decline also had an effect on education in general, and a greater effect on the quality of students and the educational content offered in the traditional Christian school. Most Christian schools are forced to take in anyone, either posturing as a missionary school, or accepting loose confessions as evidence of faith. These multiple philosophies of Christian education can lead to a problem. A typical class can be filled with Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, non-denominational students and others. Teachers are encouraged to strengthen the faith of their students, but must walk on egg shells to teach anything of doctrinal significance.
Many schools will teach the Bible as nothing more than a philosophy we can feel good about. Many traditional Christian schools are forced to take members from churches that deny the gospel and have no use for God’s law. (As an administrator I once got myself into hot water for questioning the faith of a lapsed Catholic). This creates an unhealthy environment for many students and asks them to be examples of faith rather than to have their faith strengthened. This scenario more often than not leads to the deterioration of faith, rather than promoting or strengthening of the student’s faith. Students can become easily stressed if they feel like the direction of the classroom is in opposition to what they are taught by their parents, with teachers often arguing that certain doctrines are “just not that important to argue over.”
With the spiritual decline of the church has come the spiritual decline of the Christian school. The problem is that the Christian school faces the same dangers as the modern church. The modern church has a bad habit of looking around to see what is attractive to the crowds and then imitating it. As the modern church has adopted un-Biblical contemporary worship which includes hymn singing, anecdotal preaching, and people-friendly para-ministries like youth groups to grow their churches, so the Christian school carries the same faulty baggage.
The Christian school often confuses itself for the church, allowing the unconverted access to Christian children in the name of evangelism. Traditional Christian schools also fall into the trap of becoming the family of the child. We know the state wants our children away from Christian parents so they can indoctrinate them with the world, but why are Christian schools following this same model? Do they think that removing the parent as primary teacher and educator away from her children will have any less disastrous results?
Christian schools offer a myriad of after-school activities that rob children of vital learning time with their parents. The traditional Christian school has also bought into the mentality that an educational system must offer various programs, the most common being sports. This emphasis on sports requires sporting facilities which drive up the cost of education and make it unaffordable for families with any financial difficulties or multiple children.
In the following pages I would like to present what I perceive as the biggest obstacles to Reformed families getting a quality education. I acknowledge that homeschooling, at least for now, is the ideal. The article, however, will attempt to address problems and show solutions for those who still would like to give their children an education apart from homeschooling, but desire to avoid the dangers inherent in the state school or in traditional Christian education. I hope that this will serve as the beginning of a model that Reformed churches can easily implement if they desire to run their own schools and help their congregants avoid the costs and pitfalls of multi-denominational Christian schooling. This system is a model for running a reduced hour Christian school, keeping it affordable, and completing the first two years of college while still in high school.
Assessing the Biggest Problems: Time and Cost
The first problem in the modern educational (secular and traditional Christian) system is time. The statist system believes it is at best standing in place of the parent, at worst becoming a parent to its students. Unfortunately, the Christian model imitates the secular model by also keeping the students far longer than is necessary to provide them a quality education. Studies have shown that children really only remain focused for about a third of the time that they are in school, so typically a six-hour day involves about two hours of learning. The Christian school may rightly argue that their content is superior because traditional Christian education attempts to integrate Christianity into each of its subjects, but even the traditional Christian school still falls prey to the statist agenda to keep children away from their parents.
There is no excuse for a school to still be functioning past the lunch hour. Studies have shown that the most successful systems, especially in Europe, educate their students almost half as many hours as the American schools, yet still have higher test scores. Four hours per day is sufficient to complete all the academic tasks of education. The rest is window dressing and pandering to the social agenda.
It should be understood that the state schools present a model in which their students learn by experience. In other words, in a world without absolutes, a child must simply move from one experience and take “what they can gather from coincidence.” It is disingenuous to think the state clearly does not have an agenda; nevertheless, traditional schooling often finds itself imitating the “experience” model.
Christians learn that experience is the worst teacher. Christians know who put us here, why we are here, and where we are going. We have the church, the Spirit, the moral law, and parents to protect us from learning by experience. There is no excuse to keep kids from their parents for such long periods of time. The consequences of removing the parent for long periods of time can be devastating regardless if that child is in secular or Christian education.
The second problem, at least with traditional Christian schooling, is cost. In the state of New Jersey large portions of our extremely high property taxes pay for public school education. That means everyone who owns property must pay for public school education even if he has no intention of sending his children to state-run schools. State-run school systems can boldly present themselves as unprejudiced against any particular religion while banning the Bible from its schools, yet this does not disqualify a Christian parent from having to pay for anti-Christian education (even an education that is in violation of his baptismal vows). One obvious alternative is traditional Christian education, but at least in New Jersey, if parents want to pay for traditional Christian school they will be paying for two educational systems, the Christian one they use and the government school they won’t.
In our area (southern New Jersey) the cost of traditional private Christian education ranges from a low of $4,000 for a year all the way up to $10,000. Add to this the fact that most schools are very dishonest about their costs, stating one low number as the tuition, only for the parent to find out later they must pay registration costs, textbook costs, activity fees, and additionally raise more money by fundraising. The cost becomes impossible for those who follow the creation mandate of being fruitful and multiplying; these parents may find themselves having to pay for anywhere from two to ten children, which for most families is impossible.
What traditional Christian schools fail to realize is that their high costs drive both parents out of the house to work, creating a greater divide between the parent, the God-mandated educator, and the child. I have personally seen high Christian education costs lead to parents simply sending their kids to godless public schools, or having two parents work so hard they almost never see their children. It’s a sad scenario.
Finding a Solution: Addressing the Problem of Time
Westminster Christian Academy meets three times (Mon., Wed., and Fri.) per week from 8:00 a.m. until noon. We have around seventy students, and we cap our school at that number. By God’s grace we were fortunate to have a local Presbyterian church allow us to use their building. They charge us nothing except we pay a janitorial service to clean twice a month. We also donate a good deal of time painting and doing other labor. Insurance for the students is our biggest cost, but remember we only insure them for twelve hours per week. Check around, you might find a church, especially a struggling church that is willing to make you a good deal. We meet a total of one hundred days, but the students have homework on Tuesday and Thursday. We post this required work on our website (WestminsterChristianAcademy.org) on Saturday night, before the following week.
When we first began the school we were strictly a high school. It soon became apparent to me that we could be doing more. As a college professor, I soon realized that our requirements in our small high school were exceeding the requirements of our local community college.
I discovered this when I began teaching at the local state college. During this time I was regularly invited to attend seminars. At one of these seminars we were told the history of the community college. We were told that New Jersey in 1969 began requiring that a community college be formed in each county in New Jersey. These colleges would aim at groups of people (mostly women and minorities) who did not traditionally attend higher education.
Soon, I learned, this created a disconnect between the two and four-year colleges because the four-year state schools were not eager to take students from community colleges. They were probably annoyed at losing some students for the first two years and they had legitimate concerns that community college students might struggle when they came to state college. Over the years, the four-year colleges warmed to community colleges and with the help of the state’s regulations began to regularly accept two-year community college degrees. The above system was noble; however, it most certainly led to deterioration in both college systems.
We as Christians must recognize that a college degree is not what it used to be. Most Christian schools are doing work that is at least as cumulative as a college semester every year. Any students taking honors classes or advanced placement classes are certainly doing more work than typical college students. This became a concern to us, so we began thinking to ourselves “just because society is dumbing this down does not give Christians an excuse to do the same.” We also soon realized that our high school students were taking some classes in high school, only to take the same class again in college, sometimes at an easier level!
For example, our English Comp class at Westminster was even harder than the college courses being offered at the local college. Soon we realized that doubling up the same class twice was a waste of time. Our new thought process became, why not do the last two years of high school and the first two years of college at the same time? If college is the new high school, then let’s attend college while in high school. We soon learned that this could save parents a great deal of money and time.
So we created an alternative system. We generally start our students in college work at age sixteen or earlier so that they can get their first two years of college done during their last two or three years of high school. The math is simple: an Associate’s Degree requires the completion of twenty-one courses. We offer eight courses per year and sixteen courses in two years. This of course leaves the students five courses short, which they can either complete by doing five courses their sophomore year, or come back for one more semester, or take courses during the summer. At sixteen we encourage our students to take one or two college courses per semester. This gets them acclimated to Blackboard (an online learning platform) and allows them to prepare themselves for full college course loads.
At this point, the reader might ask, “How can your students complete high school and college at the same time in just twelve hours per week?” The answer is that the classes they take in college serve both as the classes they take for high school and college credit. For instance, students who take ENG 101 are given a high school and college grade for the same course. One semester of college equals one year of high school. So if students take ENG 101 and 102 at the college level, they also have completed their last two years of high school English. You can easily apply the first two years of college to the last two years of high school. For instance, the core curriculum requires biology so biology becomes their sophomore or junior science; they will take HIS 101 and 102 for their junior and senior year high school history requirements; they will take Statistics for math, Art and Music become electives, etc. You might have to get a little inventive, like counting Psychology as a science class or Marriage and Family as a health class, but you get the picture.
One perk of this system is that our students find themselves with a lot of free time when not in school, which will easily allow for a part-time job to defray college costs, or time for an apprenticeship, or time to focus on hobbies such as reading, sports, or music.
Finding a Solution: Addressing the Problem of Cost
Now that we have a solution for time, let’s look at a solution for cost. The obvious alternative to state education is either homeschooling or traditional Christian schooling. As was mentioned earlier the cost of traditional Christian schooling is very high, and impossible for most, so we will focus on alternatives. Homeschooling is still a great option if a family can swing living on one income. This will take care of the cost of Kindergarten through the first year of high school; unfortunately, many parents do not feel equipped to teach some of the harder subjects past the ninth grade.
As a school, we began wanting to offer just the classes the parents needed, what many refer to as a co-op. We soon found that parents wanted more, but the cost was prohibitive and most homeschool parents do not want to miss seeing their children for a large part of the day. A full day of classes usually drives up the cost; however, we realized we could keep the cost down if we limited the number of hours the students spent at school. The limiting of hours solved two problems, the problems of cost and time away from home. While this financially solved the problem of high school, it did not address the problem of college, which is where parents or young men and women can quickly find themselves in massive debt. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the solving the problem of time also helped to solve the problem of cost.
Most know that the cost of college has increased 500 percent over the past two decades, while becoming less relevant to future work. The typical young Christian who follows the traditional route of attending college for four years and incurs average loans may find himself anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 in debt. If one marries a fellow student, which often happens, and takes on their debt, well, then you can double that number. No parent desires to see his child beginning adult life with massive debt, especially in a career that does not even require a Bachelor’s Degree. Below I would like to show the reader a model of education that can meet the needs of homeschoolers, co-opers, or possibly something that can be imitated by a church.
First, we applied to be a certified non-public school and this allowed us to receive textbook aid, transportation aid and technology aid. This defrayed some costs. Our total tuition is $1,900.00 per student, but we reduce this significantly for each additional child. We never charge more than $5,000.00 per family. We charge no additional fees, nor do we fundraise. We offer no sports or any after-school activities because we do not believe the role of an academic institution is to offer social events: we leave fellowship to the church. We occasionally take a field trip, but only when very useful, and these are never required. Our state reimburses all parents living within twenty miles of the school a stipend of $840.00 per year. With this discount, tuition comes close to $1,060.00 per year. Our parents that have more kids spend less per child. For instance, if parents pay for three students $5,000.00 in tuition and get $2,520 in transportation reimbursement, then they are only paying about $800.00 per student. We also encourage car-pooling to save money.
But now let us turn our attention to college costs, which are the biggest culprit of debt. As mentioned earlier, we have our students take their first two years of college during their last three years of high school. Financially it looks like this. Our local community college is Rowan College at Burlington County. This college is large enough to offer the entire Associate of Arts degree on-line. Students can take seventeen of the required twenty-one courses while still in high school without taking a college entrance exam.
A college entrance exam is necessary to complete four courses which include ENG 101, ENG 102, Public Speaking and Statistics. Each class costs slightly less than $400.00 each. If a student takes four courses in the fall then the parent will pay around $1,600.00 per semester for college costs. The total cost of the college degree is around $8,500.00. Most of our students begin taking college courses during their sophomore year of high school. In order to finish their degree in three years they must take five courses their sophomore year, eight their junior year and eight their senior year.
The total cost of this three-year process is $5,700.00 in tuition to Westminster and $8,500.00 to Rowan, or $14,200.00 to both schools. The parents will get $2,400.00 back in transportation reimbursement over that three-year period, bringing the total to $11,800.00 over three years, or $4,300.00 per year, for both college and high school. This number pays for their last three years of high school and their entire Associate’s Degree. The only additional expense is the cost of books but there are ways around the high cost of textbooks: for instance, renting, electronic copies, sharing, or buying from Amazon. At Westminster we use our textbook aid to buy college books for the kids whenever we are able.
As far as the difficulty of classes is concerned, we have all our students sign up for the same four classes each semester. This way the teacher can serve as an instructor and monitor, assuring the students of deadline dates and helping them to hand in quality assignments. We assign one teacher per college course and give the students forty minutes to one hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to complete the week’s tasks. The teacher of the course not only serves as a teacher and facilitator, but also a filter, correcting anything that would violate the gospel. Students use Tuesday and Thursday to work on extended assignments such as papers. We have not found the work load any harder than high school, and we are able to complete high school and college at the same time.
As you can imagine, parents were originally skeptical of our system and still today we get calls from parents seeking to understand how so much can be accomplished in so little time. After seven years in the system, I have yet to speak with anyone who is not pleasantly surprised at how easy it is for our students to complete their first two years of college while still in high school.
It should also be understood that any school that attempts to accomplish the task of dual high school and college education is going to need teachers who are willing to prepare the course work in advance. In our school, we use three teachers to teach all twenty-one courses. Each of these three teachers works only days ahead of the students in order to teach the material (from a Christian perspective) only a day or two later. Ideally, you could have four teachers, each responsible for one of the four courses offered each semester. As you can see, this is most easily done by a church-run school.
This article has sought only to address the biggest problems facing Christian parents and education. Most importantly it is a model for the churches that desire to assume the responsibility of educating the children in their congregations. There are also many other problems facing parents who struggle to find affordable education that does not take children away from their parents for enormous amounts of time. Our model is one of many being employed across the nation to deal with the problems of time and cost of traditional Christian schooling and to ultimately avoid placing our children into state schools.
In conclusion, the system at Westminster was generated mostly for homeschool parents who felt overwhelmed by the high school workload and were also concerned about the costs of college. Westminster Christian Academy was our solution. We invite all readers to take whatever information we have presented and to use it as best fits their situation. Ultimately, it is our goal to return education to the church and the parent, where it belongs, and it has been a pleasant surprise that we could do this and still save quite a bit of money in the process.