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This spring I received an invitation in the mail which read “you have been selected to join a private gathering of community leaders, thinkers and doers who desire to protect the legacy of Adventist Education.” Wow, I was being asked to be a part of a select group! According to the invitation, this gathering promised engaging discussion, innovative solutions and insights essential to the revitalization of Adventists schools. How could I refuse?
As a product of Adventist education, kindergarten through graduate school, and having had both my parents, my grandparents and now my children and grandchildren educated in the Adventist educational system, I could be a poster child for its support and continued viability. I looked forward with anticipation to this opportunistic event.
Even before attending this meeting sponsored by the Alumni Awards foundation, I was well aware of the grim statistics. In l976 K-12 enrollments peaked at 76,342 and by the 2008-09 school year, attendance figures hit a low point of 54,074, a 29% decrease. In the last ten years, 177 K-12 schools have been closed. (1) Since elementary and secondary schools provide the conduit that feeds Adventist colleges and universities, the very viability of our higher educational system seems at risk.
At the turn of the 20th century, our grandparents could hire a young women with little more than a high school education, and for room, board and a small pittance, she would provide a Christian educational experience for their children. One-room school houses were the norm in most of rural America at that time. When Adventist children reached high school age, they were sent away to live at boarding academies where they could work to help pay their tuition and living expenses.
This model worked well for over a 100 years.
In 1993, a curriculum initiative of the Potomac Conference, driven by the question “How can we prepare our students for the 21st century in a uniquely Seventh-day Adventist setting?” resulted in the formation of a “Futures Commission” and then the issuing of a document known as FACT21. One positive outgrowth of these two initiatives was the development of “AE21 Distributed Education.” The initial intent of this program was to enrich the curriculum and provide additional instructional support for the small one-and-two teacher Adventist schools around the country. This approach, developed and operated by the North American Division, combined the latest advances in technology with an updated curriculum that met all accreditation standards across the county.
Innovative technology was the KEY for its implementation.
I first became aware of AE21 when my grandson became an on-line student in 2006. At 8:00 AM, he would have to be fully dressed for school and sitting in front of a video camera for roll call. The teacher was able to see each student, and students could see and communicate with each other. Often the first issue of the day was to share local weather reports. One of my grandson’s classmates was a girl who was running her dogs in the Alaskan Iditarod.
On camera, the teacher would lecture and question students as in a regular classroom and completed assignments were transmitted electronically. Students also communicated electronically with each other both in class and out of class. Friendships and social interactions were formed on-line and cemented when the students met twice a year in person. The program provides for a one week experience of mission related activities in the fall and a one week of a tour of cultural sites each spring. Both weeks are designed to include a time of strong spiritual emphasis for the students.
I learned that this program employs outstanding teachers from around the country who teach from their home location. These teachers are both well qualified in their perspective fields and have the expertise to interact positively with young people in a technological setting. The secondary curriculum is fully accredited, and the high school diploma is accepted by colleges and universities.
In 2000, the Florida Conference was given authority to operate the AC21 program and in 2004 it was voted to make AE21 a distance learning division of Forest Lake Academy. (2) Currently there are approximately 100 students enrolled in the FLDL program in homes and classrooms around the country.
All of this for 1/4th of the cost of a boarding school experience! What’s not to love?
One would think such cutting-edge innovation with its reasonable price tag would be universally applauded and accepted. Not so – as I was soon to learn. At the Alumni Awards convocation when I suggested the AE21 program be considered as one possible answer to the problems facing the Adventist Educational system, I was taken back and surprised by the resistance to even discussing the program. It appeared to be dismissed right out the door. It was not even an option anyone wished to consider.
Locally, even our own Florida and Southeastern conferences have failed to see the potential of this program. Yes, the initial investment in computer equipment can be expensive – but it is a one- time expense. While parents can buy the equipment and have their students study at home, even small churches have been able to share the initial set-up expense and provide a class room for group study. By doing so the young people from these churches have been able to live at home, work locally and go to the church facility daily for their classes thus keeping them “connected” to their home church. The distance learning program only requires a committed adult be present in the classroom, not an accredited teacher, and the program provides instruction and training for that resident individual.
Forest Lake Academy, my alma mater, continues to fund and staff expensive dormitories even though the numbers of boarding students steadily drops. Recruiting top-quality boarding school teachers who will commit to working 24/7 is a constant battle. People who become teachers are just as dedicated as in the past, but today’s young professionals have lives beyond their workplace. Forest Lake Academy should have become a fully functional day school years ago.
Finally, I discovered the real reason AE21 is not recognized and promoted. Two words: “turf wars”. It cannot be publicized because unions and conferences do not want their constituents to hear about this program. The very thought of constituent parents paying another conference for the education of their children is anathema. Educational monies must stay within the conference and union geographic boundaries even if that means sending students to the local public high school. Conferences and unions will even invest money to develop their own brand of distance learning if necessary, but heaven forbid they partner and share expenses with another conference.
AE21 is not THE answer to Adventist Education but it is one answer. And it is one of the best kept secrets in our church.
(1) Statistics taken from a written address by Richard Osborn which was delivered at the Alumni Awards meeting February 27, 2010 in Orlando, Florida.
(2) For more information on the AE21 program visit: www.fldla.org