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Why Adventist K-12 Education Struggles

I am about to make some critical observations about the state of Adventist K-12 education. So before you hand your coats to Saul and gather stones, some explanations.

First, I’m a product of Adventist education, and I owe it a great deal. Adventist education gave me a bigger world than the neighbor friends I grew up with.

Second, I want it to succeed. I am a pastor of a church with a lovely new church school building, and I want to see it bursting with children.

Third, it is not for want of the best efforts of our teachers and administrators that it is faltering. I know many of the education leaders of our division and unions, and scores of teachers. They are capable and dedicated.

There’s a foundational problem for Adventist K-12 education in the North American Division church that goes far deeper than our educational leaders’ skills.1

Recently, after I’d put a link about CognitiveGenesis in my church blog, someone added this anonymous comment:

The study was a nice gesture (and my children participated); however it does not provide a clear picture of SDA schools. My two oldest children fall within the “gifted” range and their church school instructors—for whatever reason—did not provide work for them on their level. Hence, my children were removed from church school and put in public school where they have the academic programs to meet their needs and they are excelling. Would I like to have my children in a Christian environment? Sure, but I am not willing to sacrifice their education to do so.…P.S. I am a product of Adventist education (K through college) and sadly, I did not receive the stellar education that is implied by this study.

I haven’t any idea who wrote this, but I can describe her. She and her husband are professional people; probably both work full time. They’re most likely white. They live in an upscale suburb with a marvelous school district, and drive a top-of-the-line minivan. Their relationship to the church is not a fundamentalist one like their parents’ and grandparents’ was—for I’m quite certain they’re at least third-generation Seventh-day Adventists. Whereas her parents would have said it is important she marry a Seventh-day Adventist and stay in the church, she and her husband would be evasive if asked if that is important for their children.

They’ve already taken some liberties their parents wouldn’t have, such as letting the children play Saturday Little League, because “I didn’t get to when I was a child.” The children’s grandparents pray every night that their grandchildren would be in church school, and are little comforted by the assurance that their grandchildren are gifted. One grandma and grandpa have even offered to pay for it—an unnecessary offer, for it isn’t about the money. (Not to mention counter-effective since the children consider it unwelcome parental interference.)

I’d be willing to bet I’m pretty close.

I’m not making fun of them. The situation is what it is. I regard this person’s comment as, ironically, a testimony that Adventist education has been so good. We educated them so well that we’re not good enough for them anymore.

A few years ago, I started a Hispanic congregation across the street from my church, which has grown tremendously. Many in that congregation would like their children in church school. For most, it is impossible. The whole family works, sometimes multiple jobs, for minimum wage or pennies above it. They send money back to Mexico or El Salvador. There’s no extra for private school.

And here’s the irony: should these Hispanic folks manage to send them, their children will do so much better than their parents, and their children better than their parents, that two generations from now the grandchildren could be writing that same complaint!

Adventist K-12 education struggles because it can’t meet the academic expectations of the educated middle-class membership it continues to create, while those who still value it just because it is Seventh-day Adventist can’t afford it. For my parents, being Adventist was enough. Not for this generation. Now they demand so much more, that could we provide it, few could afford it.

And if we met their expectations, we don’t know if even then they’d want it. Because I suspect there may be other factors playing into this: hang-ups about family, church, even the faith itself, that I’m not identifying.

(This doesn’t even take into account those we’ve always had in the church who, whether or not they can afford it, just don’t care that much about either the quality or spiritual tone of education. I’ve noticed a trend toward letting the children decide where they want to go to school. That says volumes, right there.)

Fortunately, there are still a few somewhere in the middle who have money and the desire to educate their children as Seventh-day Adventists. Just not enough to make Adventist education a growth business. So most schools struggle along, heavily subsidized, from year to year.

In Tamil Nadu, India, I visited an Adventist school of three thousand students. Only about one hundred were Adventists. There was a long waiting list to get in. They hadn’t enough Adventist teachers, so Hindu teachers taught the nonreligious subjects. The school was the local conference’s chief source of income.

I was astonished to see it, after the struggles we have here at home with far more resources to work with. Here, we’re ecstatic when we get a few more students than we had last year.

In my city, a few Christian K-8 and K-12 schools are thriving—even attracting our children—though our schools’ tuition is substantially below that of most Catholic or evangelical schools. Even with our lower tuition, the wealthier among us help those who want Adventist education to get it, even if we don’t use it ourselves. My congregation subsidizes many of our Hispanic students.

But I fear it is an elderly, diminishing generation that still shells out for other children’s schooling.

We can hope that those outside the church will discover our schools, and send their children. Though I wonder what they’ll think when they see that our most able families don’t think Adventist schools good enough to send their own.

This isn’t just a looming crisis. In many places, it is unfolding right now. We are watching the crash in excruciating slow motion, a frame revealed at each conference K-12 board meeting: budget shortfalls, fewer students, higher subsidies, and more schools (particularly senior boarding academies) on the rocks.

When a school closes, we hear loud wails of anger from some, as though we have poked them in the eyes with our red pencils. But no real solutions from those folks, either.

Until we figure out who we are, and who we want to be, we’ll probably continue floundering. The answer, if there is one, hasn’t yet been articulated in my hearing.

Which leaves our schools here in the North American Division a lovely solution in search of a problem.

Notes and References

1. My analysis may not apply to those privileged K-12 schools supported by the presence of a major Adventist institution. I actually don’t know if it does or not. But it will apply across the spectrum of ordinary Adventist communities.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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