In certain areas of the country, Adventist elementary education is being threatened in a way that jeopardizes its short and long term survival. There has been a trend over the last 40 years from making the attendance at an Adventist school an act of unquestioning commitment regardless of the sacrifices, to one now that is now seen by many as an option. While Adventist communities that support an elementary school vary greatly in size, neither small nor large communities are immune from this trend. Adventist elementary education is being affected across the spectrum of socio-economic levels – from newly arrived immigrants to the financially well off.
There are several important factors that are worth considering when looking at Adventist elementary education, and several specific groups that are playing a role in the changing landscape.
While the Adventist church has documented growth in North America at a time when other denominations are struggling with membership numbers, its most significant growth has been among Adventists who have recently immigrated to the United States, with many coming from Mexico and Latin America. In numerous Adventist communities in the southwest, newer Hispanic churches are larger than the established churches that have been around for decades. I noticed this several years ago in Austin, Texas. Many of these parents might want to send their children to the local Adventist school but financially it is too large of a sacrifice. Some established churches do subsidize tuition for children attending the Adventist school, but this can become a financial burden on the local church as upwards of 50% of the church budget may go to supporting a struggling school. Free public schools have become the most practical option for many immigrants and their children.
Even large Adventist communities are not immune from this trend. If you were to drive onto the campus of Andrews University in the early morning, you could watch the public school buses pick up the children in front of university housing. Andrews has one of the most diverse international campuses in the United States and many of the foreign students attending there with their families may only have financial support for themselves and possibly their spouses; they are not able to pay for their children to attend the Adventist elementary schools in the area. A rationale often stated is that the teachers in the public schools are graduates of an Adventist University, and hence they are getting almost the same quality of education.
The most interesting group that has had a noticeable impact on the church school is the homeschoolers. Simply stated, homeschooling is becoming a major factor in the decline of attendance at Adventist elementary schools.
A telling example is an Adventist elementary school in a semi-rural area of Colorado with a population of about 120,000 and a three-church constituency of about 300 members. An analysis showed that the number of church members who homeschool is significant when compared with those who send their children to the church school. If all the homeschoolers attended the church school, they would increase the size of the school around 75%.
The socio-economic status of the homeschooling families was also revealing. In almost all cases these children were being homeschooled for reasons other than financial ones. On the contrary, these children had parents who were physicians, dentists, veterinarians, physical therapists, stay-at-home moms, and even a public school teacher, as well as others. WhenI asked one homeschool parent why his child was not sent to the local Adventist school, his response was that they felt at present they could “do a better job.” Not surprisingly, all these families were also very involved with their church and support it strongly with their tithes and offerings, even supporting youth activities and Pathfinders.
One church studied in the Michigan Conference dismissed the traditional model of “every church should have a school,” because almost all the children in this church were being homeschooled. If you attended that church, they would give you a tuition stipend if you sent your child to any Adventist school regardless of financial need. Many members were employed by Andrews University and would receive tuition subsidy for their child to attend an Adventist school – but most still chose to homeschool.
Quality of education
A conference educational secretary recently told me that many church families with elementary school age children and the financial means to afford the church school do not see Adventist education as a better alternative to certain public schools. Children with special needs, as well as gifted children, often have more resources at their disposal at a public school. Materialism is often cited as an excuse, but an eight grade school with a few dozen students would be pressed for resources readily available in many public schools.
There are creative solutions – and some are being tried. One Adventist elementary school in the Mid-America Union, in order to attract students, has started a day-care facility close to the school. The church school then offers kindergarten as an upgrade from the day-care facility. As of this writing, none of the “graduates” of the day-care facility have been Adventist. The day-care facility board members see this as an outreach for the school and the church and believe in time it will help increase attendance.
One school board member has suggested that his board market its school as a Christian school with the subtitle of Adventist, so as to appeal to the community more broadly. This board member cited another Adventist school in southwest Colorado that did this and now has a waiting list of students. If something isn’t done soon to turn their school around, the school board member stated, they fear the school may close due to lack of students. Worse yet, parents are concerned they may need to pull their children out of school because of the declining quality and lack of educational resources.
The traditional role of Adventist elementary education is facing tremendous pressures in our rapidly changing culture. Not all Adventist elementary schools are facing these problems, of course. But where the problems exist, we need to ask ourselves what is the perceived value we offer as an educational institution to our Adventist constituents, as well as to non-Adventists who may want to attend our schools?
There are many difficult issues Adventist elementary education faces in the years ahead. We need wise counsel from those with a vision for the future. With changing church demographics, homeschooling, and shifting priorities about the importance as well as the affordability of an Adventist education, the church will have to decide if and how it is to adapt to keep its elementary schools viable.
Succinctly stated, there seems to be a very obvious, though painful, message coming from Adventist families from all along the socio-economic spectrum: Adventist elementary education is not the priority it once was.
Don Barton is a Laboratory Informaticist at Delta County Memorial Hospital, in Delta, Colorado.
Read another article on Adventist education, by Gary Walter, published on the Spectrum blog last December.