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Published in Print: March 27, 2002, as Aid Plan Launched for Urban Christian Schools

Aid Plan Launched for Urban Christian Schools

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A group representing Christian schools is launching a program to help such schools thrive in urban communities.

Organizers of urban Christian schools, coordinators of the effort say, face the financial reality of operating schools in poor neighborhoods where parents can afford to pay little tuition or none at all. Without stable revenue, many of these schools must close their doors soon after they open.

Christian Schools International hopes that by developing a model to guide the creation of self- sustaining schools in urban centers, newly founded Christian schools can remain open. The blueprint will cover issues ranging from curriculum to finances.

Once the model is completed by year's end, CSI plans to accept applications from existing urban Christian schools along with parents or organizations that want to create new schools. The nonprofit Grand Rapids, Mich.-based organization, which serves more than 475 evangelical Christian schools nationwide, last month got a three-year, $200,000 grant from the Richard D. VanLunen Charitable Foundation in Washington to develop the program.

"We're trying to develop schools that aren't tuition-dependent," said Dan Vander Ark, the executive director of CSI.

Mr. Vander Ark said the program would provide urban Christian schools with a free safety net of consultants and professional-development opportunities for educators. Program participants would receive legal advice, fund-raising tips, and assistance in applying for grants.

CSI would help groups conduct feasibility studies and draft business plans well before classes were offered, Mr. Vander Ark said.

This initiative complements the work CSI plans to do to improve academic achievement in 14 Chicago schools and three Native American schools in New Mexico with a $4.4 million grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ("Gates Foundation Gives $4.4 Million to Religious Schools," Oct. 17, 2001.)

Christian schools make up an increasingly large proportion of private schools in America, with 15 percent of the overall private school enrollment in 1999, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Enrollment in Christian schools in 1999 was 773,000, up 46 percent from 1989. While Roman Catholic schools enroll more students, with 2.5 million, their share of total private school enrollment dropped from 54 percent in 1989 to 48 percent in 1999.

'A Dream and Faith'

Over the past two decades, Mr. Vander Ark said, parents have been bearing more of the cost of Christian education as churches have backed away from supporting schools financially. That means Christian schools are getting out of reach for poor parents.

But with many parents clamoring for educational alternatives, especially in impoverished cities, he said, such schools must find other means of financial support.

Mr. Vander Ark said Christian schools are turning to foundations and businesses for support. Most new Christian schools, though, fail to implement sound fiscal strategies and end up faltering, he said.

"It's our feeling that those schools could have been more careful in long-range thinking," Mr. Vander Ark said of the failed ventures. CSI plans to work with urban Christian schools in Grand Rapids, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, and St. Louis, which have established a solid revenue base, to help forge its school prototype.

"I think almost everybody starts [a Christian school] with a dream and faith," said John D. Booy, the superintendent of the Potter's House, a Christian school in Grand Rapids. "Then, in a few months, they find themselves very desperate."

Avoiding Costly Errors

The school must raise $1.8 million annually to stay afloat, Mr. Booy said. In addition to seeking individual donors, the school hosts an annual fund-raising banquet and meets with local businesses. Mr. Booy also noted that the school applies for foundation grants and asks local residents to help pay for students' tuition.

The CSI model could spare new schools from the "pain and suffering" of taking wrong turns, Mr. Booy said.

Because many people who attempt to open Christian schools are not educators, the CSI model could help schools avoid costly curriculum errors as well, said Seth R. Cohen, the head of Spruce Hill Christian School in southwest Philadelphia. Investing in the wrong curriculum could cause a decade of problems for a school, he said.

Spruce Hill Christian enrolls 160 students in grades K-8, with about 20 percent of its budget coming from grants, foundations, and individual donors. Many such schools, though, are "just hanging on with their fingernails," Mr. Cohen said.

Tuition at Spruce Hill is $4,100 a year, which is deemed an affordable cost in Philadelphia. But Mr. Cohen said he wants to make his school more financially accessible to lower-income parents.

While the 25-year-old school continues to strengthen its outreach to the community for financial support, Mr. Cohen said, "we do trust that God is going to sustain us."

Vol. 21, Issue 28, Page 5

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