Saturday, March 30, 2019

An Open Letter to Parents

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.  Ephesians 4:29, ESV

We've had a good year at MCA.  There's still one quarter left, but it is a busy one and it will go fast.  There are many good things which can be said about this year and there are some changes which have been made that will contribute to the growth and development of MCA in the future.  When you chose Midwestern Christian Academy for your children, you made an excellent choice.  I have been blessed and privileged to serve as the principal this past year and it has indeed been a blessing.

The verse that is cited above has immediate application in our Christian school setting.  It is frustrating for our teachers and staff to give their best effort and invest time and personal resources over and above expectations only to hear someone complaining about their own child not getting enough, or about a mistake or statement that a teacher made.  We have a staff made up of born-again believers in Christ who also happen to be professional educators committed to their work.  Problems that we have should be discussed privately and personally and always with the intention of building up and giving grace.  Building up and giving grace is expected of those who are employed by the school and it is equally an expectation of those who seek us out to assist them with their God-given responsibility to educate their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord."

Having said that, I would like to address a specific issue around which the most prevalent rumors and gossip have centered this year.  There is no problem with the academic program at Midwestern Christian Academy. Normally, I would not address an issue that comes to my attention because of rumors that are being circulated, but I will make an exception with this issue.  I will provide you with information, supported by facts, which will inform you of the exact status of the academic standards and instructional quality that happens in the classrooms at MCA.

Standards for Curriculum Development and Instruction
Like most other private schools in Illinois, including most of the religious-based schools, we begin developing curriculum objectives for each subject area by using the state standards.  We consider these to be the minimum acceptable standards for the curriculum objectives.  They form a basis from which we develop the learning objectives for each subject area on each grade level.

The textbooks and classroom materials we select for each subject at each grade level are not "the curriculum."  The curriculum is the specific set of learning objectives we expect each student to master during the school year.  Textbooks, workbooks and other materials are for instructional support, assisting the teacher in teaching the objectives and assessing the student achievement in mastering them.  The textbooks do not necessarily align directly with the state standards, but they help students learn what is expected.  All of our textbook series and classroom support materials lead to expected outcomes which exceed the minimum state standards.

Two of the textbook series which we use, Abeka in elementary language arts and Purposeful Design in mathematics contain more objectives and have a scope and sequence that is accelerated beyond the expectations of the state standards.  Both of these textbook series are produced by Christian publishing houses so the content also supports our objective of developing a Christian worldview by linking the skills and knowledge learned by students to a Christian worldview.

The key to student achievement in the classroom isn't the quality of the materials, or the level of technology used in instruction.  It is the ability of the teacher to facilitate a classroom environment which motivates students to achieve the goals which are set for them by the curriculum objectives.  On paper, our teaching staff has educational and experience credentials which exceed those which could be found in any one of a dozen public or private schools in the neighborhood.  All of our teachers have the credentials required to qualify them for their job, and more than 40% of our staff has advanced training beyond those basic requirements.  But they have more than that.  Our staff cares about their students and they exhibit a desire to see them achieve their goals.  Most of what they do is behind the scenes, not in a place where is can be seen by others, and not done in a way that attracts attention to it.  Our teachers go above and beyond expectations in the investment of their time, effort, even their personal resources, to make sure their students are motivated to learn and have the best possible opportunity to do so.

Measurements and Assessments 
The Terra Nova Achievement Test is the primary general assessment used by MCA to measure the progress of students in each grade level, based on achieving the curriculum objectives.  The Terra Nova is based on national curriculum standards and is given by schools in all 50 states.  Most of the students who take the test are in public schools but it is also the recommended test for Christian school students by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) of which MCA is a member.

Each student who takes the test is measured by their individual accomplishment.  They are given a score based on the expectations set by the test as to how they should perform in each subject at each grade level.  We are primarily interested in the mathematics and language arts scores.  We are able to determine, by looking at the percentile rank for each student in each subject how our students do compared to other students in other schools in the same grade.  MCA students have consistently performed at a level that is higher than the average performance of other students in both Illinois and in the rest of the country.  On the average, a student at MCA will have a higher percentile rank than more than 70% of all other students in the same grade who took the Terra Nova.

MCA does not screen students based on academic performance as a requirement for admission like most other private schools do.  Those who give admissions tests and turn away students who do not perform well are more concerned about their test scores than they are with whether their students are benefitting from the Christian mission and purpose of the school.  Our test scores could be higher, though I can't say we are displeased with what we have, which is comparable to any other religious-based school on our side of the city.  But we believe that all students can learn and any students whose parents want them to do so in a Christian environment should have access to that privilege.

MCA meets all of the standards for recognition by the Illinois State Department of Education.  But we want to do more for our students and families in this regard.  Two years ago, the school applied for full accreditation status with ACSI.  The ACSI accreditation commission is nationally recognized for its excellence and has agreements for dual accreditation with MSACS, SACS-CASI, Advanced Ed and other regional accrediting agencies who also provide accreditation to public schools.

We have done a lot of the work required to meet the standards for accreditation during the current school year and I am very happy to report that we received a letter this spring announcing that we have met the requirements for our candidacy to proceed to full accreditation during the 2019-20 school year.  During the next few months, our school staff, along with some parent volunteers, will be completing a comprehensive self-study as we prepare for a visiting team of educators to arrive on our campus, make their observations and evaluate our compliance with the standards.

Not all schools achieve accreditation.  In fact, most of the religious-based private schools in Chicago are not accredited, and not all of the suburban private schools have achieved this recognition. Accreditation is a signal to parents that the school which has achieved it is an excellent school, that it has adopted a set of standards guaranteeing the quality of its programs and offerings, has submitted to a rigorous examination by objective educators from outside the school who have already achieved accreditation for their institution, that all of its faculty and staff have appropriate degrees and credentials to teach in the classroom, and that it is what it says it is.  Accredited schools are excellent schools, excellent schools seek accreditation and MCA is proud to be recognized as an excellent school based on what it has achieved as a candidate for accreditation.

2018-19 Assessment
Our own students provide us with most of the information we need to determine whether or not we are achieving the academic expectations of our school.  We know that our academic standards, as measured by our curriculum objectives, are high.  If you want a good idea of the quality of academic instruction in our classrooms, look at their grades and at our honor roll lists.  Did you see what they produced during the science fair?  That was an impressive display of knowledge and motivation to learn.  Our 3rd, 4th and 5th grade have made two full presentations of their social studies research that required them to find information, discern what was accurate and what wasn't, and organize it into a presentation.  Most students don't do that extensive work until they get to high school.

At the upper end of the school, our eighth grade students are getting exposure to Geometry, which is actually a 10th grade level mathematics course, or at the very least 9th grade and our 7th graders are well into the objectives required for mastery in Algebra 1.  The reading and writing objectives are preparing them for high school research.  I've heard, from a number of our graduates who are currently in high school, that other than some adjustments to differences in the scope and sequence of the curriculum, they have been well-prepared for high school because of their experience at MCA.

MCA students go to a wide variety of high schools.  While we encourage families to continue the education of their children in a Christian school with a similar philosophy of education and commitment to developing a Christian worldview, those options in our area are limited.  Our students go to a wide variety of schools including the few Christian high school programs in our area, charter schools that are mission and purpose driven, including several that specialize in accelerated academics, along with some of the special program high schools in the Chicago Public School system.  This wide variety of schools, with an equally wide variety of entrance requirements, makes it difficult for an independent elementary and middle school like MCA to align its curriculum with theirs.  Naturally, our curriculum aligns more closely with our fellow Christian schools which tend to be more academically advanced than most of the public and charter schools.  The percentage of our eighth grade students who are able to access and gain admission to these programs tells us that we are on or above the mark academically.

Characteristically, graduates of MCA perform in high school in a way that is similar to their performance in middle school here.  If they were an excellent student here, they are excellent students in high school and many of our alumni are excellent students in some of Chicago's more challenging, academically highly ranked schools.  All the evidence we see shows us that MCA students were well prepared for high school and their preparation exceeded the standards for the course of study they chose.  

Give Grace to Those Who Hear
We have, unfortunately, had some parents who chose to speak publicly about their personal complaints and problems rather than follow the principles of scripture.  We have no control over what they say or the choices they make.  We can't judge their thoughts and intentions, but we can evaluate the content of their words and set the record straight by citing the facts.  We don't hit a home run with every student that comes our way.  But if there is an area where parents have concerns, we have an open door policy which welcomes their perspective and works to correct a problem that is discerned from what we have been told.  We've had a few incidents which, because parents chose to go to different places with their information instead of to the place where their problem could be resolved, became highly publicized topics of gossip.  Almost all of the information shared publicly about those events has been either misleading or altogether false

While I cannot disclose details of issues involving students, I can assure you that providing our students with a Christian education that is Biblically centered and academically excellent is our highest priority and it seems to be pretty clear that we are providing that.  We are and will remain unapologetically Christian and that will always be our priority.  But we are working to keep making our school better in all ways and that requires support and assistance from you, the parents who sent your children here.  We already have a long list of things we would like to do to improve what we do for our students.  You can help with your prayers, your support, your continued enrollment and if God leads and blesses, to make a contribution to support and undergird the work of the school.  We are always in a place where we must balance future improvements against costs to parents so if you can help in that regard, instead of criticizing us on social media, write a check.

If you have any specific concerns about anything along these lines, please make an appointment and come into the office to see me. My door is always open.

Since originally publishing this information, we have received our Terra Nova achievement test scores back.  As we expected, MCA students did exceptionally well, compared to previous year's scores and to the overall performance expected from the test.  Our math, language arts and reading scores average in the 70th percentile which is where we expect our students to perform and which represents scores that are higher than those achieved by the public school system as well as many other private schools which also administer this test.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Impact of a Christian School Education, Part 2

A remarkable court ruling occurred in 2002 that reflects the direction American society and culture has been following for over 100 years.  The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the pledge to the flag of the United States was unconstitutional because it contained the words under God.  Citing the constitution's "establishment clause," the court ruling virtually eliminated daily reciting of the pledge by students in the nation's public schools.  The ruling, however, was just another result of what has been happening in the public education system for over 100 years.  The influence of a philosophy most Christian refer to as "secular humanism" gained control of the colleges and universities where teachers were trained for the public education system and over the past several generations, humanism has been the philosophical foundation of American public education. 

Humanism is an ancient philosophy and view of life that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  It is the foundation of the temptation to "be like God" that caused the fall of humanity in the first place.  It is a self-centered rather than God-centered way of life.  As the foundation for educational philosophy, it replaces belief in an all-powerful, creator God with belief in the power of human intellect to resolve all of the world's problems.  In other words, it teaches that humanity does not need God's sacrifice of Jesus for salvation, but that human intellect is able to discern wisdom by using the power of the mind to connect the knowledge gained through education.

Though humanism is what the Apostle Paul called the "philosophy and empty deceit" of this world, it is able to operate in the public education system because it is not considered a "religion" by legal definition.  Back at the turn of the 21st century, Dr. Ravi Zacharias noted that the most significant impact of this philosophy has been to produce generations that "hear with their eyes and think with their feelings".  He noted several major changes resulting from the cultural effects of humanist thinking, including the rapid increase of atheism, sweeping impact of eastern mysticism which denies the uniqueness of Christ, the controlling impact of visual media, the shift toward a self-absorbed, youth-centered world and the loss of trust in a single source of authority with the right to lay claim to moral direction.

The crime rate is soaring, the family unit is disintegrating and the church, including the Bible-believing, Evangelical branch of it, is experiencing larger and more significant numerical decline in membership and influence than it has through most of modern history.  Such is the result of decades of relying on education as the hope of society.

That is why we need Christian schools. 

We can point to research which shows that students who have been educated under a Christian philosophy in which all of the knowledge they gain in all subject areas is connected to a Christian worldview are more likely to remain connected to the church as young adults and to have a strong grasp of what it means to live their lives directed by and submitted to the will of God. 

Several denominations discovered the value of connecting the educational process of acquiring knowledge and skills to the fundamental doctrines and beliefs of the church by creating schools for their children and youth where this was the foundation of the educational process.  The Catholic church has raised up generations of church leaders, including most of its clergy, in its schools which it started at a time when Catholic leaders believed the public education system was "too Protestant."  The Lutheran church depended heavily on its schools as places to recruit their clergy and prepare them for church leadership. 

Evangelical Christians were late to the table in the Christian school movement but have been the most recent to benefit from the knowledge, skills and leadership they've found among those who have graduated from Christian day schools over the past four decades.  The presence of a large number of committed, dedicated vocational and lay leaders in Evangelical churches from Christian schools was a significant push-back against the encroachment of humanist influences on churches during the last four decades of the twentieth century.  Christian schools account for a majority of those who serve as pastors, vocational ministers and particularly missionaries among Evangelical Christians in America. The losses in attendance, church membership, number of mission and vocational ministry volunteers and other problems faced by Evangelicals over the past decade and a half directly correspond to the drop in enrollment of Christian schools in the country. 

If Christian schools were not a philosophical and educational danger to secular humanism, there would not be such an effort being made to put them out of business.  The public education system has always resented the "competition" they receive from private, Christian schools and as these have increasingly been seen as an "alternative" to public schools, the public system has developed its own alternatives to compete, such as cyber education and charter schools.  And since most Christian schools are left to survive on their own and don't have the support of nurturing, sponsoring congregations, the number of Christian schools and students enrolled has declined significantly since 2000, by over 45%. 

In a time when most people base their moral choices on circumstances, there has never been a greater need for a Christian school to connect knowledge learned to a Biblical world view and to support and undergird critical thinking with the principles of truth found in scripture.


Monday, March 11, 2019

The Impact of a Christian School Education

It's the time of year when many columns and blog posts like this one are getting written by school administrators around the country.  Every year, parents must decide whether their children are going to return to the Christian school they are attending, whether they can afford it, what benefit they are receiving from it and after all of that consideration, pay the re-enrollment or registration fee to set aside a spot for their children.

I'm going to offer you some help.  Christian schools are significant contributors to the faith formation and character development of their students and while there are never any guarantees when you are dealing with people who have a free will, there is plenty of evidence to point to the fact that the Christian school education you are providing for your child at Midwestern Christian Academy will be well worth the financial investment and sacrifice in the long run.

Kids spend a minimum of seven hours a day at school.  Those who choose to become involved in extra-curricular activities and athletics will spend more than that.  Other than their home and family, the school is the largest single influence in the life of its students and has a major impact on the decisions they will make which will affect the rest of their lives.  Their teachers will be among the most influential adult relationships they have and their classmates, their peers, have a powerful influence over your child's thinking and behavior which grows as kids get older. 

Only 8 percent of American students are enrolled in a school that can call itself "religiously based," including Catholic, Jewish and Islamic-based schools as well as other Protestant Christian schools, including those who are Evangelical in their emphasis.  Most of the "religiously based" schools are either committed to training children of their own persuasion in order to avoid secular influences and the influences of other faiths, or they have become academic havens from a low-achieving, low performing public education system.  Fewer than half of those who enroll in a "religious based" school will encounter principles based on an Evangelical Christian faith that acknowledges God as the creator and sustainer of the universe and Jesus as savior and Lord and that operates from a philosophy of education grounded in Biblical truth like Midwestern Christian Academy.

The gigantic influence of the public school system on the culture and its churches has always been visible.  Most Catholic schools got their start back around the beginning of the 20th century because they observed that the public schools were so overwhelmingly under the control of Protestants, that their students were being converted in school.  The Christian school movement among Evangelical Christians started in the Post-War period of the 1950's because of a perception of "increasing secularization" of the public schools, resulting in Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960's removing public prayer and Bible study classes from the schools. 

The "progressive" education movement has, over the past half-century, succeeded in controlling most of the teacher training and certification programs in colleges and universities and over time, the state-adopted curriculum objectives and classroom content.  While that is considered to meet the "religious neutrality" establishment clause of the Constitution, the progressive education movement is completely humanist in its philosophy, a position which runs counter to belief in an all-powerful God and the need for a Savior.  And there are objectives in the classroom content of the public education system--and by extension cyber and charter schools--which teach kids that there is no absolute truth, and which run counter to virtually all Christian beliefs and doctrines. 

There's also no question that progressive public education has had a negative impact on the church.  Evangelical Christian churches and denominations made note of a slowdown in their growth beginning in the late 1970's.  One of the first church research studies that came out in the late 70's noted that over 70% of the students who were active in their church youth group while in high school were leaving the church by the time they graduated from college.  Several church and denominationally based research organizations have noted that this figure has soared to higher than 85% currently and the old claim that "they'll be back when they have kids" is not materializing.  The median age of churches who identify with the Evangelical branch of American Christianity has steadily increased and is now somewhere around 65. 

Membership figures are deceiving, since many denominations and churches have large percentages of "inactive" members on their rolls.  Attendance is a better measure.  The Baby Boom generation is the first among modern Americans in which regular church attendance has fallen below the 50% threshold.  Among Gen-X'ers, actual weekly attendance is around 25%, and among Millennials, it's about 10%.  These figures correlate with the growing influence of secular humanism in the public education system. 

So the real question is, "Do Christian schools make a difference?" 

The answer is yes, they do. 

Since the growth of the Christian school movement began in the 1970's, an increasing number of church leadership has come from them.  Some groups, like the Independent Baptists and the Reformed churches in the upper Midwest have always relied on their day schools to generate the mission service and vocational ministry volunteers, including pastors and church staff members, that they need but in recent years, an increasing percentage of pastors and missionaries have come from Christian school alumni.  Check MCA's alumni list and you'll find a large number of them who are active in their local church, engaged in ministry or leadership and many who have gone on to serve as missionaries and pastors. 

Among the scattered surveys and research is data which shows that most students who have attended a Christian school for a portion of their education are far more likely to remain regular in their church attendance and confident to understand a call to serve, whether in lay leadership or in vocational ministry.  The exposure to a systematic set of objectives related to the study of scripture also has an impact on churches as Christian school alumni bring a rich, deep knowledge of Biblical truths to bear in their local church. 

What is unfortunate is that the local church has failed to recognize the impact Christian schools have had on their congregation, whether it sponsors a school or not.  The decline in membership and attendance that Evangelical American Christianity has been experiencing since the 1990's directly corresponds with the drop in enrollment in Christian schools.  Tax dollars are being put out to fund programs that provide tuition-free alternatives to public education, so enrollments in Christian schools has declined.  The drop in enrollment has caused a drop in available, qualified leaders in the church and so Evangelicals are experiencing declines in membership and attendance on a growing scale. 

How important is it to your family to raise children who have a chance to become mature believers and church leaders?  If that's your priority, then MCA is where they need to be and it is worth the sacrifice.