Thursday, May 1, 2008

The fall (and rise?) of the Grand Rapids Christian School system

Today's Grand Rapids Press reported that nearly thirty five years after the Grand Rapids Christian Schools attempted to shut down Oakdale Christian School, the Board of Trustees is trying again. In an effort to cut down costs while facing the reality of declining enrollment, the Board of Trustees is closing the three remaining elementary schools (Millbrook, Creston, and Oakdale) and consolidating these into one elementary school. This is on top of the closing of Seymour and Sylvan elementary schools in 2003/4. The citywide Christian School system has declined drastically since I graduated from Christian High School in 1998; system wide enrollment that year was around 3,300; this year it barely holds over 2,500.

Many parents from Oakdale are getting together to prevent the closing the school. One parent (and a Professor at Grand Valley State University) took the time to do an analysis of the enrollment decline in the Grand Rapids Christian Schools since 1969. This excellent report argues that massive tuition increases, along with the CRC's decline in the central city explains much of the decline.

When I think of my own experience in the Grand Rapids Christian School system, I have mixed feelings. I greatly enjoyed attending my local christian school (Seymour), and found my time at Grand Rapids Christian High School rewarding. However, the staggering tuition costs (which I know that my parents struggled to pay on one income with four children to pay for) certainly limited the students who attended high school with me. I then, and still do, associate the rising tuition with a decline in racial and socio-economic diversity within the school system. Who wants to shell out $7,000 a year to attend a very good school with a nearly all white population with incomes well in the upper middle class? Grand Rapids Christian High is on the road to becoming another Detroit Country Day, or at least another American Pie High School-with Jesus on the side.

I sometimes get mail from my alma mater. The request is inevitability for 1) helping build the new football/basketball stadium, 2) funding the new arts theatre, or 3) or to update my alumni profile. Never have I gotten a request for funds to help reduce the cost of tuition to make this school system available for hundreds of students whose parents may be sincerely interested in a christian education, but cannot afford it. I honestly feel that these tuition problems could be eliminated if the well off donors supporting building projects for the system would create an endowment to cut tuition down $2,000 a year for nearly all students. Sure the cost would be significant, requiring an endowment of over $100 million. However, the cost of doing otherwise is simply: the christian school system in Grand Rapids that educated 2 generations in my family (and employed another) is doomed to extinction.


Beth said...

Amen, and amen.

While I didn't attend GRCS elementary/middle schools, I feel very strongly that the system plays an important role in the Grand Rapids educational scene. And my time at Christian High was a great way for me to learn to flourish in a big school - big for me at that time, anyway. I would not have wanted to attend any other high school, and I'm proud to be an alumnus.

But like you, I've been concerned with the sporadic information I've heard since graduating, and the mailings I've received in the past few years. It feels as though their priorities have shifted, for whatever reason, and that they're operating on the whims of big-name donors instead of the goal of quality, affordable, Christian education.

My cousins attended Oakdale, and I know my aunt and uncle strongly believe in the school, and its mission of being a more "inner-city" Christian school. Why is it that GRCS would suddenly abandon that stronghold in that neighborhood? Like you, I'm pretty saddened that the school system is becoming a place for only white, upper-class families. What a disappointment. I doubt this was the intent of the people who first established GRCS.

Jon Vander Plas said...

I know Kalamazoo Christian is struggling quite a bit too, but out here, Timothy Christian is doing quite well. Timothy gets excellent support from our church (Elmhurst CRC), in fact the children of all members of the church can attend regardless of their ability to pay.

My impression is that this generation doesn't have the same commitment to Christian education as their parents did. They'd rather go on a nice vacation or drive a new car. My grandfather put up plaster for a living and he put 9 kids through Valley Christian in Bellflower CA. They scrimped, saved and crammed into a one story, 3 bedroom home.

While not every CRC has the means to follow Elmhurst's example, surely more can be done by local churches to encourage Christian education and make it more affordable. School vouchers would help too...

thehbs said...

Not to be a negative nellie (and I can not even begin to claim that I can understand the CRC cultural value of private Christian education because I was never a part of it), but I'm going to have to disagree with Beth about the original intentions of the GRCS school system. From my understanding and study while at Calvin College, this school system was created to preserve the integrity of the CRC doctrinal and cultural standards, which historically are racially "white", ethnically Dutch, and theologically reformed. It seems to me that it is a fairly recent development that small but vocal group of GR Dutch Reformed Christians are taking a renewed interest in urban renewal.

Like Peter, I suspect that the root of decline in enrollment is both the burdensome tuition rates and the decline in the ethnically Dutch's loyalty to the CRC and a reformed Christian education.

Thanks in advance for letting this German but Dutch wannabe comment ;-) -Jess HB

enigmaingr said...

I just pulled out my copy of the 1985-1986 Oakdale Christian yearbook. I was in first grade and was one of those inner-city kids that received a Christian education thanks to Oakdale.

Looking at the faces in that yearbook, it was significantly diverse. It's sad to see no such place in Grand Rapids' Christian education.

I'm grown now and long ago left the CRC but I still live in Grand Rapids. I do agree with this blog's author that GRCS, and the CRC in general, have taken steps to further marginalize minorities and lower income folks. You can see that with a lack of churches within city neighborhoods, and where they remain, you see very little interaction with the surrounding neighborhood.