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Alternative Christian school aims to teach Christian faith under public board umbrella

Written on June 11th, 2008

Critics say framework cannot maintain ‘coherent and consistent support for a Christian perspective’

For almost 20 years Eden High, formerly an independent Christian high school, has operated under the umbrella of the local public school board while offering a range of Christian activities and support, the bulk of these outside school hours.

The publicly funded school is described as an “alternative Christian high school” on its website.

According to principal Ruth Hernder, it has a waiting list of anywhere from 20 to 60 students per school year. It has an annual cap of 180 Grade 9 slots.

While provincial regulations prevent the school from providing instruction with an emphasis on a particular faith during school hours – it can teach “comparative religions” in that time frame – Eden High offers Christian instruction and activities outside those hours. It is also able to provide Christian mentoring and counseling to students who seek it within school hours.

The school has a Spiritual Life Department (SLD), which is funded through donations and managed by the Eden Advisory Board, a group of volunteers. In the past five years, the department has grown to include four and a half staff persons.

Craig Danielson, director of community and family relations, says about 80 per cent of the department’s focus is on coaching and mentoring students.

“They volunteer to come down and see us,” he says, noting the department aims to connect with each of the school’s 780 students at least four times before they graduate.

The SLD also oversees a number of other Christian activities, including organizing a daily chapel for students and a Bible class for Grade 9 students. While these are not mandatory, students are expected to attend and the majority does so.

The department also co-ordinates information sessions for parents of students, with the goal of keeping parents involved in the school as well as to help them “grow great families,” according to Danielson. In addition, the SLD oversees two major elective service projects for senior students.

All of these activities happen when school is not in session.

Danielson, who has worked at the school for three years, says the main benefit he’s seen to Eden’s Christian emphasis is that it “creates a safe environment where it’s OK to talk about God, to talk about spiritual things, to investigate things.”

From his perspective, the school and the SLD in particular “can actually support and encourage and really be a building block and a continued building block for Christian character, Christian thought and a Christian lifestyle.”

John Vriend, a former professor at Redeemer University College, has followed the Eden situation closely for more than 10 years and has written several articles on the alternative Christian school model in Ontario. Sturgeon Creek Annex is another Christian school which joined the public school system in 1979 in the hope that it would continue to achieve its objective as a Christian school.

Vriend’s view is that in Ontario there is “neither the legal framework nor the political will to provide for religious education in public school,” according his report “Public ‘Umbrellas’ for Independent Schools: Canadian Examples and Reflections,” published in the Private School Monitor in 1996.

“It is my view that the general provisions of the Education Act, and ultimately of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it is applied by the courts to public institutions, would block public schools from maintaining coherent and consistent support for a Christian perspective,” Vriend writes in a 2001 document “Eden Revisited: Is the Alternative Public School a Real Alternative for Ontario?”

“Under legislation and the Charter, no public school teacher can be held to a particular faith or lifestyle consistent with, for example, the Christian faith,” he continues.

“If one combines the provisions for open enrollment policies, the rights of individual students, the rights of parents, and the provisions of the Charter; no public school can teach one particular faith – other than a general humanism – to children and young people.”

John Vanasselt, director of communications for the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS), concurs that the alternative school model such as it is in Ontario is a tenuous one from the Christian perspective.

“When you give up the ability to integrate your faith and learning then I don’t see too many positives,” he says.