Building Better Schools Together

Story by Daniel Granderson / Images by iStock

Jesus came not just to preach, but also to teach. Is it any wonder then that He was referred to by His followers as rabbi (teacher)? He held class on the mount and in fishing boats. Wherever there were ears to hear, He saw opportunities to educate.

Today there are more than 1.8 million pairs of ears still receiving the teachings of Christ through the schools, colleges and universities the Seventh-day Adventist Church operates worldwide. These modern teachers develop not only the intellect, but also the spirit, allowing the ministry to live on beyond the pulpit. In these schools, there is no ministry without education. The two are twin branches growing together on the same gospel tree.

“If Adventist education remains Christ-centered, and our own church members recognize the competitiveness of our education, the schools will flourish. Continue to point students to Jesus, and our schools cannot fail,” notes Vilas Urtekar, board chairman at the Lake Nelson Seventh-day Adventist School in Piscataway, N.J.

It Takes a Village

Just as modern ministries supplement traditional church outreach with technological advances and leverage the nigh infinite reach of social media, so too does Adventist education continue to grow through support  and shared ideas. Schools are increasingly incorporating programs such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) into their curriculums and expanding beyond K-8 levels. They are dedicated to exploring learning opportunities beyond core class subjects, while also re-emphasizing the importance of whole body health and wellness.

However, the adaptive programming and ever-improving curriculums of our schools are made possible through a collaborative effort that extends beyond principals and teachers to include school board members, parents and students. Some might even say the success of Adventist education depends on the collection of each voice, each goal—a true “village” of like-minded believers.

School Board Members: United They Plan

As guardians of the Adventist educational system, these men and women effectively shape the experience students  have through the programs they implement. Here are ideas they helped implement, or would like to:

Joyce Hahn and familyJoyce Hahn, co-chair of the Home & School Association, Spring Valley Academy in  Centerville, Ohio: The mission of the Home & School Association, a parent volunteer group, is to bring the staff, student body and parents together [to plan] fundraising, educational, social and spiritual activities.

Three years ago, I [proposed] starting a health program for our students and staff. Our school already serves vegetarian food and, rather than focusing on what not to eat, we wanted to encourage eating more unprocessed whole foods, getting regular exercise, drinking [mostly] water and limiting TV, video games and recreational computer time. The results were mixed. During the last three years, we noticed the lower-grade students, with parental help, responded the best.

This year we decided to try a health fair in the gym for the middle and high school students, [which] was more successful. In the future, we plan to continue our focus on health—not just for the physical, but also for the mental and spiritual benefits.

[We also hope] to bring more spiritual emphasis to our activities. We sometimes get distracted by “competing” with local public schools on academic performance or in sports, and we lose sight of the fact that we are to be different.

We also decided to start this school year off with a spiritual convocation to dedicate our school, staff and families to our mission to serve Christ. Our hope is that this will bring to focus the importance of placing Christ at the center of educating our children.

Vilas UrtekarVilas Urtekar, board chair, Lake Nelson Seventh-Day School in Piscataway, N.J:  Some parents do not want to send their children to non-Adventist schools after eighth-grade graduation. During the 2013-14 school year, we piloted a program to start a ninth grade. [Those] three students were housed in the same classroom as the eighth-graders. The following year, we created a stand-alone high school classroom and finished the year with 10 students: eight freshmen and two sophomores.  Currently (2015-16) we have 30 high school students up to 11th grade.

Even our K-8 program has seen increases of more than 15 percent this year. The differentiation between the high school and elementary programs was a great success, which also helped us further departmentalize our course offerings. With teachers focusing on their areas of expertise, our school has been maximizing the quality of education.

We also started expanding our school building. With help from the New Jersey Conference Department of Education, an application for senior academy status is in progress. (Read more on page 24.) We plan to continue working on our senior academy status with a full-fledged science program and a state-of-the-art science laboratory. We also plan to continue strengthening our language and math programs to build a solid foundation for high school, college and beyond.

Parents: Family Ties Meet School Pride

They fill our schools with agape love and care for students, and offer suggestions and feedback on programs that better guarantee a school’s success:

Jewel Walwyn, George E. Peters Adventist School in Hyattsville, Md.: My kids have been involved in four or five different events since enrolling this school year: Christmas programs and spelling bees, STEM competitions and foreign language classes. The school also offers opportunities for kids to participate in non-core classroom activities. My oldest daughter is learning to sew.

This is an educational environment that extends beyond the spiritual benefits. That’s important because our children should be able to compete in the real world. Kindergartners at most schools are just learning to identify shapes and colors, but my kindergartener is reading and identifying words she’s never seen before.

I know that my children aren’t just being taught, they are being cared for. This sets aside any barriers they have from learning. It begins with how accessible the principal is to the kids, and trickles down to the teachers who know they have support from parents.

C’celia Vernon, Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Va.: The students are not only being taught about Jesus Christ and His life, but … my son comes home and tells me what they learned and what it means to them as youth growing up in the knowledge of Christ. These lessons are not only applied in the classroom but also to the sports programs, which is important to me as a parent of an active child. He learns how to be a gracious winner and loser. He learns to respect teammates and opponents alike.

I also appreciate that my son’s classroom is split so that he’s in the same class as fifth-graders. [This] helps reinforce what he learned the previous year and helps build his self-esteem. There’s true quality in the classroom.

I trust the staff with my son’s well-being. They are almost like a surrogate parental support system, going above and beyond to make sure the children have what they need. That kind of care keeps me confident that when the school finds out about new programs that could benefit the students, they will consider implementing them.

Alicia Curry, Dupont Park Adventist School in Washington, D.C.: I like that Dupont holds guilds (clubs) for the students, which may [focus on] life skills such as cooking and etiquette, or learning about science and public speaking. It … introduces them to subjects they may not otherwise be exposed to.

My daughter was in a cooking guild for a semester. She wasn’t interested in cooking before, but … now she attempts to prepare meals. She was also in a science guild, which was good for her because she already liked science. She was able to explore more in a field she already enjoyed.

I would like to see bussing or some kind of carpool service added to the school. I live pretty far away and, while  the sacrifice is worth it, the commute can be rather arduous. When my child was younger, I chose convenience …  but I realized it wasn’t the best choice for her.

Michele Blair, Desmond T. Doss Christian Academy: Adventist schools tend to be smaller than most other private schools, allowing a more comfortable and relaxed atmosphere. The teachers have  genuine concern and love for the children.

I relocated from New England so that my daughter could attend Desmond T. Doss through 12th grade.  It’s what appealed to me the most since a lot of Adventist schools stop at grade 8. I hope to see more  Adventist schools expand to the 12th grade.

I also hope to see an expanded cafeteria for Adventist schools so that healthy lunches can be provided. Several children who attend are not from the Adventist faith and the health message would go a long way to help them in life too.

Students: Tomorrow’s Voices That Resonate Today

Effective schools offer students the chance to discover new talents and build confidence. More importantly, Adventist pupils play a critical role in helping leaders improve the educational model:

Taylor Roper (’16), Pine Forge Academy in Pine Forge, Pa.: Pine Forge encourages students to participate and support our sports teams. If one of our teams makes it to the championship, the students are able to travel with the team to support them at the game.

We also have spirit week, [which] creates a spirit of ... camaraderie and togetherness, especially within [each grade]. We also build school spirit while worshipping together. Some of my strongest and favorite memories are of the student body singing praises to God.

From our illustrious choir to our inspirational creative arts ministry, this school offers many activities for students during or after school. However, I would like to see more extracurricular activities. … Individuality is something I believe is really important, because if a person knows who “he” is, why “he” is here and what “he” has the power to do, there is nothing that can stand in “his” way.

Alexa Corley, (’19), Highland View Academy in Hagerstown, Md.: I like that we have the  ability to pray and worship at school. I also like our service activities and the many hikes and other things we do in nature that let us see God’s work in person. Those all help me feel like I’m part of things and proud of my school.

I just want to see us praying even more. I also wish we could plan some special mini-field trips especially for those who get good grades.

William Mercado, (’19), Blue Mountain Academy in Hamburg, Pa.: I’m a freshman, and  I’ve made a lot of friends being in Aerial Aires (the gymnastics team). Whether it’s practicing for a  performance or just fooling around on the mats, those memories will never leave me.