Finding a Way Forward

I have been thinking about what an amazing, tumultuous time the last few weeks have been.  I have never in my career as a head of school seen such an explosion of creativity, innovation, and productivity among my staff as I have in the conversion from “brick and mortar” to virtual school in a matter of a week to ten days.

I was joking with a couple of head of school friends of mine, who had seen similar quantum leaps with their staffs, that if we had attempted this much change with our people in “peacetime,” it would have taken three years, $150,000 in consulting fees, and cost us half our faculty. Necessity is the mother of invention, as Plato said, and a crisis breeds clarity.  I am so very proud of our people, and stunned by what God has done through them. They are serving and loving well.

This is a rapidly-changing situation, life in “Coronaland”, the epitome of VUCA­–volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity–an environment which was already the water in which heads of school swim. It’s just that the fish tank has now become a jacuzzi. As leaders, we now have to chart a path forward.  We have to do so humbly and prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit’s wisdom–He who promises to freely give when we ask should pour it upon us when we beg for it with tears, as I know we’ve all found ourselves doing lately.

I read an excellent article the other day, called Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization is Now a Startup.  In the article, Andy Crouch and others noted that, for non-profits (and, presumably, for-profit businesses, too) COVID-19 is not just a “blizzard”- a small storm to hunker down and get through, only to climb out and get back to business as usual.  Instead, the precipitous fall of the economy and uncertain future of the virus has created a 12 to 18 month “mini ice age,” which will fundamentally change how non-profits do business.

Crouch, et al says we should grieve and lament what we’ve lost, but be prepared to rewrite our current playbook, one that honors our mission and the communities we serve, and makes the most of the organization’s people and capital to adjust to the new reality, leaning on the relationships and trust we’ve engendered over the years.

I hope they’re wrong. I’d prefer to just have all this blow over in a few weeks, for life to return to “normal,” whatever that was before the world turned upside down. Unfortunately, I think this is going to last a while, perhaps to the end of the school year, perhaps beyond. I don’t think it’s likely to blow over, however, as even now I receive calls from families who are laid off and unemployed, sick and scared on the one hand, and using their own creativity to develop the paradigms for doing business and life that will carry us through the next decade or more. This is a culture-changing event, globally, nationally, and locally, like 9/11 and 2008, but on a broader scale.

So, I’ve been thinking and praying over the past several days about how we who love Christian education and believe it to be the hope for the Body of Christ in the future might view what’s happening around us, and might chart a course forward.

Education has changed forever

First, education has changed forever, and I don’t think it’s going back. Much of it will look the same, but much of it won’t. Every Christian school in the U.S. that sees remaining in business as part of its future has converted, or is converting, to some form of virtual schooling. There are no experts in this field; even if a school had an online education platform before, this is something very different: a long-term, sustained, interactive, relationship with teachers, in which the near-full experience of the “brick and mortar” school has been lifted from its moorings and placed in families’ living rooms.

Once we’ve learned how to do that, once we’ve perfected it, once all our teachers have learned how to curate their curriculum for what is truly important, and become fluent in online learning platforms and delivery, and learn how to, as nearly as possible, replicate the incarnational necessity of the life-on-life, “brick and mortar” experience in a virtual capacity, that will change everything. Teachers will learn that they are able to do so much more with their students, and that they can be much more efficient with the amount of work they assign. The capacity to create and use online platforms in the future in each Christian school rises significantly. Because teachers have to assign students projects requiring them to get out of the house and into the field, and because, in a Christian school, we want to tie those projects, if possible, to loving and serving others, the development and practice of service learning becomes expedited.  By God’s grace, responding to the virus and creating a virtual learning environment has been a quantum leap for many of us in these areas.

There will be lots of new problems along the way.  Kids’ attention spans for the “brick and mortar” school day may get even shorter once we return. Technology addiction is not likely to decrease during this season. Mental and emotional fallout in the wake of the crisis may rise, and with it self-medicating with substances and pornography. Some parents may feel they no longer need us, because now they believe we’ve taught them to “homeschool.”  But, I believe the gains in quality and capacities of our teachers and our schools will outweigh what is lost.

There Will Be an Economic Impact

Second, and in considering what is lost, schools will be probably be temporarily impacted economically by the coronavirus era. Parents have and will continue to lose work, and people will lose their ability to afford our schools unassisted. It is possible enrollment will drop, possibly precipitously. Schools could see a 30 percent drop in enrollment by the fall, perhaps even more if, for whatever reason, we find ourselves still in virtual school. I believe whatever loss we do have will be a short-term challenge for the reasons below (maybe a couple of years; in 2008, for example, we had a drop in enrollment, and by 2010 we had our highest enrollment ever). We will have to contingency plan for new, streamlined schools to meet those challenges, develop flexibility to work with families and their unique financial challenges, appeal to donors who have capacity, and use government programs generated in the wake of the virus to provide financial aid and support for these families.

I’ve been sitting in meetings with local public-school superintendents over the past several weeks, and it occurred to me how, through mostly no fault of their own, on the whole public schools are largely currently unequipped to deal with the challenges presented by the coronavirus era.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “At Schools Closed for Coronavirus, Online Work Won’t Count” further enlightened me on the disparity in resources available to public and private schools, on the whole, to meet this need.

In order to conduct virtual schooling in a shelter in place or lockdown situation, every student in the school needs digital equipment, Internet access, and parents who have some level of engagement in their student’s learning. Despite having access to significantly more financial resources than our private schools, public schools lack a student body who universally share those three resources. It’s not even close. Public schools are further hampered by constitutional equal protection and equity issues, meaning that they can’t do for some what they can’t do for all, for the most part.  It is a serious problem for many schools simply to ensure that their students who receive government-supplemented food programs continue to be fed. Now that most states have removed their state assessment requirements for the years, there is very little incentive to do more than maintain the status quo, to keep kids fed, and to ride out the storm.

This means that what is happening in public schools, for the most part, is enrichment for those who will participate. That is not to denigrate public schools; I know leaders who are trying and doing great things, and I admire them for it. It’s just that the deck is stacked against them for a crisis like this one. “Enrichment” means taking home packets, doing work like reading and math in order to keep skills honed, like summer enrichment work. No assessment, which means no accountability for any work done (which, especially for teenagers, means very little work done). This is very, very different from actual day-to-day classroom instruction following a prescribed curriculum, working towards assessment and ensuring learning, as is happening in private schools, and, specifically, Christian schools.

The practical effect of this disparity is that, should this crisis endure to the end of school, private school students, generally, and Christian school students, specifically, will gain a three to seven-month leap over their public-school counterparts. Because, in the public schools, the first part of next academic year will be devoted to gaining ground lost this year, while private schools will be moving forward, and so on, this means that this gap may not likely be regained throughout the entire career of a K-12 public school student. It is an unfair advantage, not one anyone asked for, but a huge one. I have told several people that, frankly, this year would be a very, very bad year to transfer from our school to any local public school for these reasons.

A Way Forward

The Lord is doing many things through all of this. It’s quite possible that we have more of an opportunity than ever before, with the gap described above, for graduates of Christian schools to influence the world for Christ, to be what James Davison Hunter calls a “faithful presence” in the world around us.  Could God, in part, be using Christian schools to produce children who will be even more likely than before to influence their communities, this nation, and this world for the gospel? And, how can we leverage these opportunities?

In the short term, it’s possible we may have to make some hard choices and redesign our school-but, by God’s grace, we’ve already demonstrated the ability to do that in remarkable time. The change wrought in several weeks’ time is remarkable, and will someday be seen as one of the great moments in Christian school history. With God’s help, nothing is impossible.

It seems to me, among other things, we should:

  1. In the short term, continue to be loving and serving our families well, and maximize learning. We all know this, but we have an opportunity like none other to love and serve our families well, as an act of worship of our Lord, as a reflection of Christian community, and as an opportunity to heighten our value proposition. For our teacher and coaches to reach out to kids and parents in this season is paramount. Ideas like repurposing some of our hourly staff, including our administrative assistants, into what are essentially virtual family community group leaders, reaching into families’ lives, praying for them, routing concerns, and helping to meet needs, allow us to use extra bandwidth of some of our staff members to love our families in their time of need in extraordinary ways. Using webinar functions to create conversations around mental health and strategies for working through financial issues, as well as prayer services, are all ways to love families well and help them through the immediate pain of the rest of the academic year.

In addition, we should be working to provide the best academic product we can-not just “under the circumstances,” but transcending them. We’re in the process of innovation now, we should “make hay while the sun shines” with our faculty, encouraging them to continue innovating and creating. Our teachers have had the benefit of 7 to 8 months of face-to-face relationship-building with their students, and we can leverage that, coupled with the things I’ve mentioned that teachers are learning through this process, to provide an excellent Christian education. Students are tender to words of truth and comfort right now, and the potential for planting seeds of gospel truth in their lives that will ripen to robust fruit has never been greater than in this moment.

  1. Continue to move forward with our current budget and plans, but be building contingency plans to scale down significantly next year, and to offer deferred tuition increases, increased financial aid and raising emergency aid for our families at the end of the year, as well as looking into leveraging government loans and programs to help families where possible.

Schools should envision what their “brick and mortar” school should look like with at least 30 percent fewer resident students next year, with whatever reductions that involves.  We should also make plans to extend and perfect virtual school intermittently or more often for next year, should the residual effects of the virus require additional physical distancing.  These will probably be short-term setbacks, however, because innovation and ground gained on other forms of schooling in the meantime should enhance our value proposition, as well as our local geographic reach.

  1. We should be thinking about how to use our new online capacity to push their scope of influence beyond our geographic reach, but to where our brand is still strong. While we probably aren’t all going to recreate a SevenStar or ETHOS-type product, we have gained broad-based faculty knowledge in using online platforms. We can leverage this new knowledge to expand our reach as schools. We should all be asking ourselves, “Where are the areas around our communities beyond the geographic reach for families to drive into our schools every day, but where our schools’ brand and reputation is strong?” In those areas, can our school make online education offerings available to parents in those areas, who might be interested in providing a Christian education to their children, but who would like our assistance to do it?

It is possible that we’ll lose primarily three types of students: those who can no longer afford to be here; those who aren’t at our schools for Christian education, but for sports or some programmatic reason, and who lose faith in our temporary advantage to provide these things; and, those who have now had a virtual experience and want to try to homeschool their children.

We should work hard, using the strategies in number 2 above, to make sure we lose as few of those families who want a Christian education for their kids for financial reasons as possible. As to the second group, we certainly should be trying to hang onto these families, but it could also be true that God is using this season to sift those families who truly desire Christian education from those who don’t. As to the third group, creating online platforms for our schools could allow us to continue to minister to these families in meaningful ways, and maintain a connection with them, even if they are not using our “brick and mortar” school.

  1. Not lose ground gained on diversity initiatives. Finally, we shouldn’t lose ground gained over the past few years on academic, cultural, and economic diversity, for several reasons. First, we are Christian schools, and Christian schools should be serving as broad a cross-section of the Body of Christ as possible. Second, if God is using this moment in history to equip his young Church to influence and impact the world, both now and in the future, in order for that impact to be cross-cultural it is necessary that we continue to serve a broad constituency of families now. Finally, if we remain mission true to this value when times are difficult and challenging, it will serve as a powerful witness to our local communities and to the world of Christian schools, not as for the “haves,” but for all.

As we know, nothing about what has happened in the past 45 days has caught God reeling, and none of it has or should change the mission and vision He’s given us. On the contrary, it should help perfect it.

I was reading Ezekiel 21 the other day, in which God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Israel that He is drawing His sword from its sheath to cut off both the righteous and the wicked. God’s judgment against His people, whenever it comes, is always intended to chasten and discipline, and to lead them to reconciliation and restoration with the Lord.

Christ declares us righteous, and gives us a mission and a calling as His disciples and as individual schools. In this season, we should both count on God’s protection as His beloved children, and be led into a state of individual and organizational repentance for those things we’ve done, or left undone, that have not been worthy of the gospel. To whom have we denied access to our schools in pursuit of more “attractive” families? What curricular, instructional, and organizational practices have we engaged in that were formed by either pursuing success metrics unbecoming of the gospel, or that may have even been “best practices” from a worldly perspective, but were antinormative to who our teachers and students are as Christ’s image-bearers, and were more American-minded than Kingdom-minded? What does true Christian education look like, and do we have the faith and moral courage to actually pursue it?

While the Lord has hit the “pause” button on our lives, we have the opportunity to reflect, repent, and prayerfully dream about how to take advantage of the unique position in which I believe He’s placed us. I believe He’s giving us a tremendous opportunity. Once all this is over, will we forget the face of our Father, or will this be a new awakening in Christian education?  These precipitous times create tremendous opportunities that God lays before us, and it’s up to us to prayerfully consider how He might be calling us to use them.


 

Jay Ferguson, J.D., PhD is the Head of School of Grace Community School in Tyler, Texas. Jay is in his 16th year as head of Grace. Since that time, Jay has worked to build a flourishing culture at Grace, a vibrant educational community that has been awarded Blue Ribbon Exemplary status by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 and 2017. He is an adjunct professor at Covenant College, Gordon College, and Dallas Baptist University, and recently served on the adjunct faculties of the Van Lunen Center at Calvin College and at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. Jay is past President of the Board of the Texas Private School Association, former Chair of the Board of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability. Jay and his wife, Ashley, have three daughters: Emma, Annie, and Ellen. He has taught them to love Jesus and football, in that order, which he considers his gift to future sons-in-law, Lord willing.

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