Friday, August 10, 2012

Christians in the public education system: the lonely road

Today I noticed via Facebook that another family from our church is shifting one of their kids from a public school to one of the local Christian schools.

There used to be a few other families that I knew of in our church whose kids went to public schools but this year they've been steadily exiting the public system to head into the Christian school system. For us, with kids attending their local public school down the road from our house, the public system feels like an increasingly isolated place to be as Christians.

Our minister strongly encourages families in our church to consider Christian schooling for their children. His arguments for considering it are good ones. The idea of having your children taught by Christian teachers and taught a Christian worldview are on one level very appealing.

We considered those arguments, but have chosen a different path, and in the process have discovered it's a bit of a lonely path to be on in a church like ours where the vibe is strongly in the direction of Christian schooling being the best (and dare I say, possibly even the only) way to go. It means our kids don't see their church friends when they go to school so they essentially have two quite separate groups of friends at church and school, although one of our boys has developed a really strong friendship with a boy whose parents are also Christians, but go to a different church to us.

But along the way, we've received some great blessings. The principal of our school is a Christian, who is very supportive of Scripture and other evangelical activities in the school. He arrived at the school at the beginning of our second year there, just when we were beginning to wonder whether we had made the right decision to go public. We know that he has the kids' Christian development as a priority, as well as their academic skills. The school this year received funding to appoint a chaplain, which is also an encouraging development. We regularly see groups like Quiz Worx coming into the school to do their puppet shows and to engage with the children (they're coming to do a show for the whole school during Scripture time in a few weeks). Last term the Salvation Army (our principal's church) ran an evangelical afternoon for the kids after school with free activities, a sausage sizzle and a Christian talk.

It hasn't always been easy. Our school is located in a low socio-economic area so there are a lot of disadvantaged kids there. And a lot of families who struggle as well. It can be very difficult to connect with other parents there. There are probably only a handful of parents that I know well enough to have a conversation with, and this is our fifth year at the school (although I suspect that's my introverted personality coming out....). And I do question at times whether we've made the correct decision, especially when we see more of our friends at church abandoning the public system.

A book that I read recently that helped me enormously in thinking through the issues about Christian kids going to public schools was Going Public by David and Kelli Pritchard. They are American so their book is obviously slanted towards the schooling system in the USA. But it has heaps of relevant advice on engaging with public school communities (well, any school community really). It also highlights one of our big convictions in our choice of school. We believe it's our responsibility as parents first and foremost to bring our children up as Christians, and one of our concerns with Christian schooling was that it might cause us to abrogate this responsibility to the school more than we should. We need to show our kids what it's like to live as Christians by the way we live our lives each day, and show them what praying and reading the Bible looks like in practice. The Pritchard family are pretty full on in this regard, I have to say. They have eight kids (and I noticed on their blog not long ago that they've added three adopted kids from Ethiopia to the family) and still manage to read through five Psalms and a chapter from Proverbs every morning in their family devotional time. Impressive.

Their key argument is not that Christians should send their kids into the public school system to be little missionaries like "salt and light" proclaiming the gospel to all their friends. Far from it. They should send them to public schools to live as Christians.

This is one of the best quotes from their book: "The main job for a Christian child or teenager in public school is simply to be a good student, a good citizen and a servant-leader - to model what Christianity actually is." And by extension, their parents are to model Christianity in the school too. This book highlights many ways that parents can support this process, not just in a public school, but in any school. And at home as well. So it's a very worthwhile read even for people whose kids aren't in the public school system.

I still find it hard to escape the feeling that this is an isolating path to be on for Christians in today's society. Back when my husband and I were kids (both public schooled) the main choice parents faced about schooling was public versus the Catholic system. And then a few kids from my public school went off to private schools when high school started. The Christian school system then was pretty much non-existent. Times have definitely changed.

But our responsibility as Christian parents hasn't changed. It is our job to raise our children as Christians. At some point they are going to encounter world views that are different to our own. What better time to do this than in these primary school years when we can discuss these with them while they are (hopefully) still paying some attention?


Petrina said...

We're not there yet, but planning to follow your path. Thanks for the helpful post, I'll keep the book in mind.

Jenny said...

Yes it is lonely (even worse in high school), but PERSEVERE! I found this book so encouraging and helped me feel excited about the impact that our little family can have in the world. I think more Christians would keep their children in public schools if they didn't feel like they were on their own. And frankly the more families, the more of an impact that those families could have on that little school community.

Pamela said...

I'd love to read this book. My parents sent me to a private school, I sent mine (their daddy was the principal for 19 years) and now my daughter has hers in a private school. I have lovely friends who chose public with some great results. My youngest is at a (Christian) university and her goal is to teach in the public system. I believe whether we choose public or private, the involvement of parents is key.

Karen said...

Hi Pamela, thanks for stopping in. I checked out your blog too, it's lovely :)
Totally agree with you that parent involvement is so important in engaging with school (in whichever system you choose to use). That's why I think a book like this is helpful for all parents to read. Hope you can get hold of a copy yourself.

One for a wish.. said...

If I had of read this 6 months ago I would have said that having my kids in a public school was no big deal..they seemed to fit in ok and I actually liked that they had two groups of friends (church and school) as it made their social circle wider.
However in the last couple of month my 9 year old has been having quite a hard time at school. it was only at a parent teacher interview that I found out that he had been really upset on a school excursion....and after lots of questioning..I discovered he had been ridiculed on our Christian faith. Now I kind of wonder if having him at a Christian school, where what is said at school backs up what we believe at home, might have been a better option.
But i do believe it prepares them for the real world, being in the public system!