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Changes afoot for Ontario’s Christian ed organizations

OACS, OCSAA and Edifide members vote to be 'better together'

Changes afoot for Ontario’s Christian ed organizations

Christian school leaders conference in April 2017.

Members of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS), the Ontario Christian School Administrators Association (OCSAA) and Edifide Christian Educators Association voted in favour to consolidate and create a new organization to lead Christian education.

The voting period concluded June 9. Each organization invited its members to vote online. Both OCSAA and OACS received a 95 percent approval rating for the consolidation, and Edifide received a 91 percent approval rate from those who voted. Participation in the voting process was high for OACS, with nearly every member voting. OCSAA, on the other hand, had only 51 percent of its members vote; within Edifide, 43 percent of the 700 teachers in Ontario voted.  

The idea around consolidating the organizations has been explored over the past eight years, and more seriously since the fall of 2015. There were some silos and overlaps occurring with the work, which led to the desire to be more nimble, responsive and streamlined. The proposed changes and rationale are outlined in a document entitled “Better Together,” which was circulated to members of the three organizations.

“We were finding that the separation [between the three organization] wasn’t helpful anymore – it would be more helpful to be talking about these things together, as stakeholders in Christian education,” says Diane Stronks, Edifide executive director.

Discussion formally started last October and the decision to have a vote was made early to ensure the team was on the right track, says Gabriella Hoogstra, OACS board chair and member of the core team, which included representation from each organization and is now forming the transitional board.

“There were no secrets around that we were having discussions – it was very important that all our memberships knew that,” Hoogstra says.

Currently, the transitional team is facilitating an Executive Director search and creating a constitution.

Without a formal name yet, “NewCo” is the nickname used for the new organization. Its five areas of focus will be leadership, learning, governance, provincial voice and advocacy, as well as financial stability.

As members of the transitional leadership team, Ren Siebenga, Justin Cook and Ray Hendriks will work in the interim (2017/18) and the first year of the new organization (2018/19). After that, the new executive director will review their work with possible permanent placements available.

Michigan-based Christian education leader Dan Beerens served as facilitator on the core team board and says the changes will allow Christian schools to better serve their student needs through collaboration and less duplication of services.

“The new organization will be more agile and adaptable, and well equipped to serve a wide variety of Christian schools and educators throughout the province,” he says.

“I was pleased by the way leaders of each organization were able to put aside organizational self interests and develop a common vision for the future. To make change is to risk, but it is also a risk to remain with the status quo. Members of each organization ultimately trusted their leaders as shown by the final vote totals – demonstrating their belief that Christian education in Ontario can best move forward through being better together.”

OACS: Strengths and services
With 70 member schools across Ontario, the OACS has been serving Christian schools for 65 years. Executive director Ray Hendriks says the OACS was “instrumental in a number of ways in ensuring [that] a Reformed world and life view permeated our schools.”

“In terms of program delivery, classroom instruction, curricular outcomes, even the discipline methods we use were constantly reflected back to the schools in what we would call a Christian world and life view,” Hendriks tells Christian Courier.

The OACS has also fostered a high level of professionalism through creating professional degrees for Ontario Christian school teachers and principals, supporting a professional teacher salary grid, structuring governance and outlining how Christian schools treat financial matters and communication.

In addition, the OACS has given a sense of community and collective movement for Christian education in the province, including the role of advocacy.

 
  Ray Hendriks

When asked how the services and resources the OACS offer may differ with the new organization, Hendriks says that is part of a discussion that will be happening over the next year.

“The needs of our schools in terms of the OACS services have changed dramatically,” he says.

“Depending on the strength of the administrative structure in individual schools there is a changing need to access the services provided by the OACS.”

The leaders will consider which services are necessary for the new organization, what can be divided out as a fee for service, and which are no longer needed. The OACS’ curriculum is another area to be examined, looking at what kind of access schools need to existing resources and how the resources fit into 21st century learning styles.

“We simply don’t know how that resource will look in two years, for instance, and that’s part of the work of the new org over the next year,” Hendriks says.

Hendriks became OACS executive director in May, and is now on the transitional leadership team for the new organization. “I have loved the OACS and continue to love what the OACS has done,” he says, noting he is honoured to be given this role to reflect on the OACS and reimagine a new organization.

OACS will continue to run as usual over the 2017-18 school year, until July 2018.

“What we heard was truly overwhelming support for the direction,” Hoogstra says. She fielded questions from the OACS community and says they included logistics of the board model and fee structure. There were also questions about how the change will impact smaller, struggling schools.

“As part of this whole effort we are working on developing a fund to financially support smaller struggling schools to access the service they need,” Hoogstra says.

Ginette Mack is the principal at Northumberland Christian School in Cobourg, an OACS member school with about 60 students. As a small school, Mack says they probably depend more on the organizations than larger schools, noting the OACS is utilized by Northumberland a lot.

Mack sees the upcoming changes as positive. “I feel like it simplifies the organization and makes things a little more streamlined, certainly, and as we are all looking at budget concerns and things like that our hope is that also means there is only one set of dues to pay.”

Edifide: More employee support
Edifide has served two roles for teachers – professional development and employment services. Though it is not a union, Edifide is often referred to as being a union-like resource for teachers who choose to pay the annual membership fee.

    

Edifide plans to form a separate association that will continue to offer healthy workplaces services, and will open that membership to everyone who works in a Christian school, not just teachers. In other words, secretarial staff, administration, educational assistants and others can now join. The professional development side will be under the new organization’s mandate.

While previous membership fees were more than $400, the proposed new fee for the workplace association is $240. Edifide will not dissolve – it will keep its constitution and recreate bylaws and rename itself. With only 296 Edifide member votes, many members did not vote in the June 9 process.

Maureen Jarvis, Edifide board chair and a member of the core team, says teachers have been the quietest group during the spring discussions and voting period.

“We are the largest association of 700 members, and the main questions they kept asking about is ‘Will we still be protected?’” she says.

Jarvis says when she first joined the board she expressed that she was confused about Edifide’s role and what her membership fee went towards. The new Employee Association will now be centrally focused on developing and creating healthy workplaces for all employees rather than the previous combination of professional development and teacher employment services. This will help to eliminate the confusion about what services the fees are for. When employees are in a healthy workplace, it may be hard to recognize the need to support others who run into employee situations that require support.

“It’s not always about immediate need; it’s about looking at the greater good and if we come together we have stronger voice; we have stronger advocacy so that we can support those that are in need,” Jarvis says.

When conflict occurs, there is a spirit of trying to work together and toward the same goal of Christian education for the students, Stronks adds.

“It had been a dream of mine to get everyone around the same table talking about learning,” says Stronks, who is retiring from Edifide at the end of this month. “It’s been a very satisfying way to leave – to say we’ve got to this point and now there is a ton of creativity that needs to happen as the employee association emerges and as the umbrella organization emerges.”

Developing leaders: OCSAA
OCSAA’s vision is to cultivate leaders across the province, and in the last number of years its membership has grown outside of OACS members to include Canadian Reformed schools and Association of Christian Schools International member schools.

The association runs a mentoring program for new leaders, has brought in HR courses and divided the province into seven cohorts that meet four or five times a year for workshops or other discussions. Executive director Ren Siebenga says he hopes to hire people to mentor and coach the leaders in those cohorts.

 
  Ren Siebenga, his wife Barb and sons Julius and Nathan, both principals at Christian schools.

“I hope and pray when we get the new organization going, we can add energy to that and resources to that so we can move our leaders to even higher levels of effectiveness,” he says.

OCSAA has also been organizing trips for its leaders to see different school models and ideas, Siebenga notes. For example, 34 leaders will be visiting Finland this September to witness schools there. Previous trips have been to High Tech High in San Diego.

Within two years OCSAA will be dissolved as the “NewCo” comes together.

“I would hope that our schools are the very best educational institutions in the province, no matter what stripe, so we get rid of our differences and ban together to be a witness, and I see that happening,” Siebenga says.

Responding to bigger changes
Christian education in Ontario is changing and growing, with many families from a diversity of church denominations and backgrounds now included. As schools look to serve the communities they are in, there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Another question the OACS heard from its community is around who will define a Christian worldview for schools moving forward. “I was very pleased that that question arose in our culture today,” Hendriks says, noting his answer is that the people currently concerned about this are the same ones engaged in new discussions about the new organization.

“There are constantly challenges to the worldview so simply recognizing that is a concern and then secondly knowing that we have good people that come out of that worldview still sitting around the table for me should be reassuring to our schools,” he says.

Ken VanMinnen, OCSAA board chair and principal at Strathroy Community Christian School, says as communities become more diverse and not all from the Christian Reformed Church there is a question of how to serve that call and be faithful to God’s calling. He notes that as schools look to serve those who had a different narrative growing up, organizations should “lead into that” in a proactive way.

“All three of these organizations have done great things – that’s not the question – it’s can we do it better, together?” VanMinnen notes there is a need to move on – past the “mom and pop Christian education” (meant in a positive way) to raise the standard.

In addition to more diverse communities, VanMinnen says the covenant idea of being a part of Christian education forever – perhaps even before having children – has eroded. Some school parents don’t complain, and instead “vote with their feet” by not coming back.

He encourages people who care about Christian education to pray “that God will make it clear what should happen in the future, that strong Christian schools are growing and keeping its word and kids’ lives and family lives are being changed because we are going to impact our culture.”

“I think that’s a different skill set than we are used to talking about with our community,” VanMinnen adds.

As Stronks reflects on her 39 years in education, she has seen great changes and says this is an exciting time. “I am really proud of where the dialogue has gone about learning and the ability for Christian educators across this country to be part and parcel of the educational scene,” Stronks says. “I think we are no longer a school system that began out of a particular immigrant community worried about our place in Canadian society; we are growing in our own voice and how our faith and best educational practice can enhance learning for our students.”


What do you think? 
Send CC your thoughts on this shift in the landscape of Christian education, or on any topic in our pages, to Angela Reitsma Bick: editor@christiancourier.ca

About the Author
Changes afoot for Ontario’s Christian ed organizations

Jennifer Neutel, Development Manager/Social Media Editor

Jennifer Neutel discovered Christian Courier in her in-laws’ home. In 2015, through a friend’s suggestion, she submitted her first CC freelance article. She joined the CC team as Development Manager and Social Media Editor in 2016 – roles that align with her passion to see independent, faith-based media thrive. Part of her work is building CC's revenue streams: advertising, donations and subscriptions. With seven years experience working for a corporate news company, Jennifer was excited to help launch CC's Sponsored Content product as a way for faith-based organizations to share their stories. Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and is a certified social media strategist. She lives in Cobourg, Ontario, with her husband and two young boys.

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