A top down look at a grassroots movement

In the early 1950s, my dad was asked to become a teacher at the brand-new Christian school in Strathroy Ontario. He’d spent a few years working in business after the war, but didn’t have much university training. He met with the board chair, who convinced him to take up a new career. At the first school society meeting, the Board Chair announced: “I’m very proud to introduce our new principal.” My dad looked around to see who they were talking about, until he realized everyone was looking at him. For him, that story really summed up the spirit of those early schools – which, while pioneering – were hardly professional.

In a new book, Inspired by Vision . . . Constrained by Vision: Conflict, Decline and Revival in Christian Schools in Ontario, lead author Adrian Guldemond looks at the historical legacy and ideals that motivated communities like Strathroy, examines the growth of the Christian school movement, and discusses the challenges that have faced their leadership in recent decades. 

The book begins by outlining the scope of its analysis and research methodology. Guldemond then traces the philosophical and historical roots of the schools back to 19th century Holland, and looks at the postwar boom in Christian education in Ontario. Then, he steps forward in time to analyze statistical trends in education over the past 60 years, then dives deeper into a few case studies. The book concludes with lessons learned and offers several chapters of insights into aspects of leadership and governance that need to change.

Throughout the book, there are revealing stories that capture the enthusiasm and pioneering spirit of the founders of Christian schools. We learn that schools like Strathroy were created out of cultural habit more than a deep philosophy of education. Early Dutch immigrants to Ontario created private Christian schools here because that was what they had been used to back in Holland. The inspiration behind the schools was based on the work of Abraham Kuyper, but it was some years before schools could really articulate their mandates and philosophies of education.

As well as the stories, Guldemond has uncovered some interesting data. For instance, until very recently schools usually had more Board members than staff. This suggests that the leadership of Christian schools is passing from the support community to paid professionals.

Despite some interesting insights, Inspired by Vision is a tough read. Because of its dense academic tone, it’s hard to imagine anyone but a board chair or a current principal wading their way through it. The structure of the book is also challenging. Guldemond lurches from history to philosophy, from hard data to general impressions, peppering the book with an overwhelming number of theories and models and labels. As well, the transitions between the sections written by the co-authors aren’t always clear – giving the impression of a book assembled by committee rather than a coherent editorial voice.

It’s also a top-down look at what has mostly been a grassroots movement. So by looking mainly at governance and leadership as reasons behind the success or failure of schools, the author misses the opportunity to examine other factors. For example, has anyone asked parents if Christian schools still provide a quality, relevant classroom experience in these hyper-competitive times? Has anyone asked the many talented teachers who have left the system why they left? And if the job of Christian schools is to prepare kids educationally and spiritually for life in the 21st century, shouldn’t an analysis of the system include some discussion of curriculum, teaching methods and the quality of programs being offered? Questions like these are outside the scope of this study. That’s an odd choice. 

The book also doesn’t ask tough questions about the political leadership of the schools. Guldemond touches on the fact that enrollment began to stagnate after the Harris Tories lost power in 2003 and provincial tax credits were rolled back by the McGuinty Liberals. In election after election since then, the leadership of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools has supported the Progressive Conservatives. Yet today the Tories won’t touch the issue of public funding for private religious schools because lobbying to have it included in the 2007 PC campaign made the issue politically radioactive. Situating some of the current challenges in a broader context like this, for example, would have made the book stronger.  
Still, Guldemond and his team have assembled a vast amount of data and anecdotal evidence that suggests some important new ways schools might reinvent themselves. The King’s Christian Collegiate case study in particular is a fascinating read – and shows how one visionary principal (in this case the very bright and talented Jim Vanderkooy) can still make all the difference in a school’s success. For those leading Christian Schools – or aspiring to – Guldemond has sketched out an informative look at their past, and an important map for the future.

Author

  • Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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