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Christian Schools Face Unprecedented Challenges
The economy can severely affect enrollment, impact programs and sometimes even put into question the sustainability of a school. Schools are finding new ways to cope.

In the past year, the world's economic crisis has been a dominant theme in the news. While considerable emphasis has been placed the impact of the crisis on employment, there has also been much written about its effect on the arts community, the sporting world, and the sphere of media entertainment.

… the economic crisis has simply accentuated a longer term decline.

Perhaps one area that has been ignored in the many words written about the economic slowdown is the educational world. For those involved in Christian education in Canada the issue is particularly relevant. Because most Christian schools charge tuition, an economic crisis can severely affect enrollment, impacting programs and sometimes even putting into question the sustainability of a school. Across the country, many schools have struggled with this new reality — rethinking current programs, tightening purse strings and reenergizing recruitment and promotion.

The reality

The current financial crisis has affected various areas of the country differently. In resource-based communities like Terrace, British Columbia, the economic crisis has simply accentuated a longer term decline. According to Curt Tuininga, principal of Centennial Christian School in Terrace, "Our economic downturn has been happening for the past five years. The rest of the world is simply catching up." Tuininga adds that the school has gone through significant change in the last half decade, reducing staff by approximately 25 percent.

In other parts of the country, however, it's hard to ignore that enrollment at Christian schools is shrinking after a period of stability and even growth. Henry Content, the executive director of SCSBC (Society of Christian Schools of British Columbia), states that British Columbia Christian schools may experience enrollment declines of between two and five percent next year. Some schools in areas where parents are employed in the auto sector and other industries hit hard by the downturn are facing even steeper declines.

Some of this can be attributed to a remodeling of the demographic landscape — there are simply fewer children in Canada. In Ontario, the number of students enrolled in all schools has decreased over the past five years. Still, many administrators point to economic realities as being a large part of the problem. In some resource communities, for example, families are moving to other areas of the country to find employment.

A variety of responses

Christian schools across the country have responded to this challenging time in different ways. Schools with a long history have weathered financial storms before, particularly the recession that struck the country in the early 1980's.

Buoyed by high commodity prices, many schools in the west have just come through a financially robust period. But regardless of their financial history, Christian school administrators and boards have been forced to take action.

One point emphasized by several administrators is the need to work with individual families. For Jasper Hoogendam, principal of Immanuel Christian School in Oshawa, Ontario, the challenge is "to assure parents who are a bit nervous about what lies ahead."

He has been encouraged recently by a high number of enrollment inquiries despite the intensity of the economic uncertainty in his community.

Many schools are retooling their promotional efforts. For Tuininga this means, "Keeping our name in the forefront of people's minds" by getting school events in the community newspaper. It also means working with local church communities to make people aware of the programs of the school. Many schools have hired development directors to help in this regard. Often these positions also concentrate efforts on fundraising, seeking creative ways for schools to bolster their bottom line.

Expanding programs can also attract new students to a school. Many schools, including Maranatha Christian School in Windsor, Ontario, have started to recruit international students. These students bring a new source of income and can contribute to the ethnic diversity of a school. One school in British Columbia recently introduced a Distributed Learning program, offering online courses to home-educated students.

Some schools have also experimented with tuition rates, offering deep discounts or introductory rates to new parents. One school is even investigating the possibility of a pledge system for all parents, relying on fundraising alone to balance the budget. These approaches are coming to grips with a new generation of parents who find it difficult to find room in the family budget for Christian education. Many of these new parents are from church denominations where commitment to Christian education isn't an assumption.

The future

It's clear that the current economic climate requires a response from the Christian school community. Being unaware or simply reactive could lead to further declines and untenable situations. It's possible that in provinces like Ontario, future government funding of Christian Schools can relieve some of the pressure. But perhaps schools must concentrate on remaining vibrant despite smaller numbers.

“…In stepping out in faith we have experienced answers that remind us of God's faithfulness."

Many administrators, however, stress that adapting to these new situations requires more than that. John Reems from Nanaimo Christian School on Vancouver Island expresses this well: "We have seen the Lord bless our desires through a large building project last year and have realized that so-called `risks' is worldly terminology that deals with fear. In stepping out in faith we have experienced answers that remind us of God's faithfulness."

It is this attitude that must inform the response of Christian schools to our current financial troubles — trusting a God who provides for His people as well as a prayerful commitment to continuing the ministry of providing a Christ-centred education no matter the circumstance.

Chris Steenhof is a teacher and administrator who lives in Smithery, British Columbia.

Originally published in the Christian Courier, May 2009.

 

 
 
 
 

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