I got a call from a dad and mom who had come to Christ very recently. They were requesting an appointment to talk about their teenage son and the potential for him to transfer to a Christian academy for high school. As we were touring the facility, discussing courses and extracurricular opportunities, the father stopped walking, looked at me earnestly and asked the question: “Why Christian school?” I had one sentence to respond to a question I have devoted myself to for more than 30 years. Could I possibly distill such a significant and complex answer into one simple thought? With hardly any response time, I heard myself say, “Because you only have one chance to lay the right foundation, only one time to raise your child.”
Christian education in the New York Metro area includes a legacy of school-church partnerships for families extending back to the original settlers. In response to the jolting cultural shifts resulting from a departure from Christian values and practices, such as removing prayer in schools, a new set of Christian schools began opening their doors in the mid to late 1900s. This bevy of new schools, standing alongside the “old guard” of established Christian schools, enjoyed the support of Christians and churches of various denominations who felt both relief and appreciation for those institutions and educators. It required a combination of resources and resolve to establish academies that sought to partner with parents to educate and help raise their children in the face of changing social values and a declining moral climate. Christian schools were not only focused on strong academics, but, at their core, provided both strong educational standards and the formation of a biblical worldview to fully prepare their sons and daughters for a successful life. Success was defined as being educated and discipled for Christ.
Strong schools teach kids what they need to be able to live their lives well. Today, a good education is often characterized by career prospects alone. In truth, Christian schools pursue something, that while difficult to articulate, is obvious when seen. It’s called the expected student outcome—the life-long ability for students to make sound decisions and live in a manner consistent with the application of godly principles as expressed throughout the Scriptures.
Although knowledge of the Scriptures is the starting point, application is the ultimate goal. Christian schools are where kids start learning what that looks like, where the process of mentoring a child through a decision begins, where a community of learners does life together. It is demanding, but rewarding work, and I have devoted myself fully to it. My now grown children had the benefit of a childhood where home, church, and school partnered together to lay the right foundation. They did not go to Christian school to be isolated from the big, evil, scary world. It was a decision made, a sacrifice of finance and time, to give them something more than an excellent academic foundation.
One of my international students recently told me that her immersion into our Christian school has forced her to think, speak, and write in English. She explained that her parents believe she needs a foundation of English to be successful in life, so they chose to sacrifice and send her to school in America at great cost and separation. I can’t help but think that during their formative years our children need an immersive Christian education to lay a foundation that includes excellent instruction and so much more.
I joined Christian education at a time when we were being cheered on, lauded by our congregations and pastors. But 30 years has brought an extreme shift from full support to full questioning. While all ministries ebb and flow, is it possible that during a time of increasingly secular thinking, when families are struggling and biblical values are less and less prominent, we are also seeing a declining support for Christian schools?
First generation Christian parents say, “I went to public school and I turned out okay.” Faithful, loving Christians say, “Why Christian School. My child already goes to church?” I find Christian education is a ministry that has lost its way in the hearts of those who once demanded it but now question its relevance. I find my role has shifted from Christian educator to ministry advocate, a spokesperson promoter for schools who are doing an incredible job in a season of waning understanding and support.
Hundreds of Christian schools in this region have closed in the past decade and it is possibly, perhaps even probable that more will. Christian education is at a crossroads in the northeast despite an incredible legacy. We will see a decline in our region without a new generation who understands the gravity. Without exaggeration, I present the case for Christian education every day, but in my heart I wonder what the future looks like.
I made the decision to send my own children to Christian school 25 years ago. The Christian community has seen a shift in style and priorities we could have never anticipated then. Today, I observe a population of Christians who are not experiencing that same determination and instead of judging, I find myself asking: Do Christians believe Christian education is still relevant today? Do parents believe that a secular day is a neutral day? Will Christian schools in the Northeast continue to struggle with declining support? With Christian school leaders having to spend more time and energy explaining the importance, do we need more Christian school advocates? These are questions I invite you to consider as we all work to envision the future for our children and our children’s children.
Suzanne Bruno, M.Ed. is a graduate of Rutgers University and Indiana Wesleyan University. She has served as a Christian school educator in the northeast region for more than 30 years, including as a Regional Accreditation Commissioner for the Association of Christian Schools, International.