by Raj Attiken, March 4, 2015:      There have been a growing number of voices in recent months calling for an overhaul of the Adventist secondary education system in North America. Efforts to find good solutions to the challenges faced in this arena seem to have intensified.

Several suggestions have been made on how we might reposition the Adventist educational system for the future, at least with regards to boarding academies. These include: 1. Consolidate boarding academies and operate a few strategically placed institutions (perhaps sponsored by Union Conferences rather than by Conferences); 2. Increase funding to academies to revitalize and sustain operations: find new revenue streams; 3. Incentivize students to attend our academies. 4. Outsource the management and/or operations of academies; 5. Replace the constituency-based governance system with a different governance model; 6. Utilize on-line learning/teaching modalities. We could wish that one, or a combination of several, of these approaches will yield the desired outcomes. Some of these options have been tried at different times in different places.[i]

In the context of the present challenges, considerable attention has been drawn to the approximately two-thirds of students in Adventist homes who do not attend an Adventist school (a percentage that has reportedly remained somewhat constant for decades). Perhaps in some tangential way, this interest in students who do not attend our academies also opens to us an important window of opportunity. Instead of leading us to view these students merely as potential recruits for an academy and intensifying our recruiting efforts towards them, it should prod us to explore how we can serve and support them better in their spiritual and moral development while remaining with their families. Such an approach would respect a parent’s decision to parent their child within the family system, at home. This approach will also honor the simple and venerable notion that parents have primary responsibility to ensure that their children are nurtured in their moral, spiritual, intellectual, and physical development, particularly in the childhood and adolescent years.

Undoubtedly, academies will – and must – continue their efforts to get more of the “unaffiliated two-thirds” enrolled in school. But if the current buzz about Adventist education is really because the Church feels a certain responsibility for the nurture of all of its children (and not merely to rescue and bolster up a declining institutionalized system), the Church must find ways to also support parents in their efforts to facilitate the development of the mental, physical, and spiritual attributes of their children who attend public or private schools or are home-schooled.

There already are many Adventist parents who create a healthy, nurturing, supportive, and stimulating environment within their family relationships that aids the spiritual formation of their children. There are other families, however, who would welcome some assistance in this regard, beyond what is offered in Sabbath Schools, Pathfinders, Youth and other ministries of the church. An intentional, structured, and covenanted relationship with these parents and students could go a long way in supporting the spiritual development of these children and in providing a context in which they could explore Christian perspectives on faith, science, origins, service, etc.[ii]

The institutional approach to meeting the current challenge regarding Adventist schools will inevitably look for solutions within the institutional paradigm. However, if we change the question from “What will it take to add your child to our school’s roster?” to “How can we best support your efforts to educate your child?” the paradigm within which we look for answers also changes. If our real interest is in seeing all our children develop strong Christian values and a wholesome Christian worldview, the questions must of necessity change. We must not perpetuate the notion that unless a student attends an Adventist school, he or she will not achieve the goals of “true education – the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers.”[iii]

By all means, let us look within our institutional paradigm for ways to sustain the traditional Adventist educational system. But let us also be open to looking beyond this paradigm to benefit people who are now “nonconsumers” of traditional Adventist education. It may be that two-thirds of our efforts and educational funds should be directed at fresh and innovative approaches to serve the two-thirds of our students who do not attend our schools.

What is the likelihood that the Church will seriously explore any new paradigms in education? It is very slim unless we resist the forces that exist in the Church — as they do in every other organization – that attempt to shape and morph every new innovative proposal so that it fits the structures, values, and economic models of the church’s existing operational paradigm for education. It will take creative and courageous leadership to resist these forces and establish new paradigms.

We’ve had over a century to develop and refine our current educational system. It is time to invest in developing other paradigms so that we serve all our students – those who attend our schools and those who don’t. That’s my take!

[i] The record of past school consolidations in North America does not commend consolidation of academies as a promising option.

With regards to revitalizing of our academies, the fairly recent experience at Mount Vernon Academy may be instructive. Within the past decade, a massive revitalization process was launched which included new leadership and expanded staffing, approximately $3 million (from generous donors) spent on remodeling the dormitories, administration building and other facilities; a one-time investment of close to $1 million by the Ohio Conference for academic and program enhancement; a significant increase in the annual operating subsidies from the Conference; the growth of the educational endowment at the Conference for the academy to over $2 million, and more. Although enrollment doubled within about two years, the increase of Ohio Conference students was minimal. The expectation that if we operated a school with excellent facilities, a strong spiritual and academic program (including dual-credit classes for college credit), best-in-class extra-curricular programs, etc., we would attract students from families who are able to pay all or most of their tuition costs, did not materialize. Instead, the increased enrollment required increased tuition subsidies and scholarships. As funds declined for these scholarships, so did enrollment.

One feature of the Mount Vernon Academy revitalization plan was that an offer was made that any student – regardless of his or her ability to pay – would be welcome to attend. Despite this financial incentive, most Ohio Conference academy-age students did not enroll at Mount Vernon Academy.

[ii] The use of life coaches, spiritual mentors, customized annual Spiritual Development Plans for children, are just a few of a plethora of possibilities that could be considered.

[iii] Ellen G. White, Education, p. 13.