Just an observation. An observation from 15+ years in Christian Education, leadership in many Christian Schools, chairmanship of an education trust for several Christian schools and both initial teacher training and postgraduate study through Christian Tertiary Colleges. My observation is that there are five 'types' of families who send their children to Christian schools.
Identifying the current make up of your school’s community within these five types is not an ego thing nor is it a ‘some are better than others’ sort of thing. It is important to know the make up of your school community in order to best meet the needs of your current community. Secondly, if your school does NOT attract any of these types of families it will be because of the perception your school holds in the wider community. Acknowledging that the perception may or may not be based on reality. Knowing which types do not attend will enable you to try and target the perceptions and move the school forward.
The five types are:
- Christian and committed no matter what
- Christian looking for the Christian School to 'sort-out' or nurture one child from the family
- Non-Christian looking for values
- Christian and looking for quality education
- Non-Christian looking for high-quality education
Obviously, within each of these ‘types’ of families, there are tolerances but in general, I believe every Christian School population will be made of each of these groups of students.
The reach a Christian school has into each family type has a sense of order to it. Christian schools first reach Type i and ii students, and as the school strengthens its reputation to a school that provides high-quality education, it attracts families from Type iii, iv and once the reputation is very strong, Type v families. Because of this sense of order shift from one Type to the next, I consider them stages. Each stage represents a different reach and influence that the Christian school has into their community.
A school that serves a community through providing education to stage i, ii, iii and iv families has a greater reach and influence than a school that only caters for a school that serves stage i and ii families. Whether this is a good or bad thing is purely up to the vision of the school.
Families from different stages should never be treated of higher or lesser values. They are all of value to your school. The intent of this reflection is not to differentiate value, rather it is to empower you to make good decisions in how you understand community perception and how to target growth opportunities for your school.
Stage 1 Families. Christians who are Committed to Christian Education and Happy to Compromise the Quality of Education.
I use the term compromise very loosely. These families place a much higher priority on the philosophy of the school than they do on the schools academic successes.
If a Christian School has any students (obviously they will have some students) they will have students from this stage. As the description suggests, families in this stage place a very high commitment to the Christian side of education.
When a Christian School is planted into a community these will inevitably be the pioneers of the school’s community. They are not looking for a proven record of achievement, they are looking at what is taught, not so much how it is taught.
There is less emphasis placed on the quality of education but parents are happy to compromise this quality for the inclusion of a strong Christian worldview in their child's educational context. Unfortunately for struggling Christian schools, this stage is a very small (and I believe decreasing) subset of the general population.
Any Christian school that only caters for this subset of the community will struggle from year to year to survive.
Stage 2. Christian looking for the Christian School to 'sort-out' or nurture one child from the family
There are several different reasons, all genuine, that students fit into this stage. Often they come from a larger family but only one child from the family attends the Christian school. The rest go to the 'local' school. Such families send their child to the Christian school because they do not want this child at the 'local' school for emotional/behavioural reasons (ie the child is getting bullied at the local school...either the instigator or victim) or developmental reasons. Such a student may also have a diagnosis such as autism or ADHD. Unfortunately, catering for this stage of student places a high demand on the Christian school. Parents usually have a heightened expectation of what the Christian school can provide for their child.
I have seen instances where a school has enrolled a large number of this stage of student at the expense of the stage i students, and certainly at the expense of being able to move into stage iii or iv families.
Families from stage i will usually, by definition tolerate a lower standard of education but will rarely tolerate their child becoming victims of excessive bullying from students who are from stage ii.
While many Christian schools openly welcome this stage of student it should always be done in a measured manner rather than looking for the increase it will bring to the overall roll number.
Stage 3. Non-Christian looking for values
Stage iii and iv students are attracted at about the same time. Stage iii students come from families which are not currently actively part of a church community.
Families in this stage were possibly once in the church and are looking for their children to be taught Christian values and possibly Christian 'lessons'. They could also overlap with students from stage ii, those looking for something that Christian schools offer for one of their children who is not 'fitting in' at the local school. However, families from this stage will not compromise a much lowered level of educational outcomes.
Stage 4. Christians and looking for quality education
If any of the stages are critical, this is it. Importantly, if the Christian School attracts this group of people it is a sure sign that the local community has a positive perception of the school's performance in education and its delivery from a biblical worldview. Stage iv students will not be present if either of these two staples (quality educational outcomes and biblical worldview) are vacant.
Also of importance, in attracting this stage of student the school taps into the largest group of students that are available for enrolment. Accessing this group of the community has been the tipping point for growth and sustainability for many Christian Schools.
I can not emphasise enough the importance of the word perception. Accessing Stage iv families is all about the community's perception of the school. The reality of the school's performance is essentially meaningless to the community. If a community’s perception of a school has been negative, keep in mind that perception is often formed through experienced reality, the school needs to be deliberate in addressing the perception.
Stage 5. Non-Christian looking for high-quality education.
If the community establishes a very strong perception of the school's educational outcomes it will become the school of choice for many families beyond the Christian community. There are many families who, just as stage i families placed less value on the educational outcomes of the school in order to get Christian Education, will do the opposite. They will look for the best opportunity for their children to succeed and will happily place less importance on the school’s philosophical basis.
Depending on the school’s vision and purpose this stage may or may not be important. If the school has a strong evangelistic vision then attracting stage v families is critical to fulfilling that vision. However, if the schools calling is more about discipleship then it will likely be of less importance. Neither is right nor wrong, so long as the school's vision is not compromised. A school that is looking to disciple but is filled with non-Christian families will find its operations and vision to be confused. Likewise, a school that exists to evangelise but only enrols Christian students will also struggle to have a vision that is matched in operations on a daily basis.
The Big deal about the stages
Reflecting on the stages is important. Just a last couple of thoughts.
- The stages are not necessarily linear.
My experience has shown that these stages are very linear, but there are always exceptions to the rule.
- Understanding the stage your school is in helps you understand how to promote your school.
Understanding what stages are NOT represented in your school is just as important as knowing which ARE.
We all know the stories of major Christian educational institutions which have ‘lost their first love’. At best they could be called christian Education, rather than Christian Education. In practise if your school identifies that families are leaving the school because it is not meeting their expectation of what Christian Education is then there is a need to stop and reflect.
Lastly, my observation is that most Christian schools are in the emerging stages of stage iv. From this, it would appear that the perception of Christian Education being successful in the delivery of quality educational outcomes is low within the community as a whole. It could be just a perception, however, what could you do in reality to change a community's perception of the quality of education that your school delivers? Furthermore, pushing that worldview of your school will not produce growth. If you are on the brink of moving into stage iv you need to focus on the perception of quality. Families who are just looking for Christian Education are already at your school.
If, as a Christian School you are wanting to strengthen your reach and influence into the wider community which you serve it is important to understand the Five Stages and how you are serving each of them.