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Christian school grows because of new mission

Written on October 23rd, 2017

When principal Jason Schouten answered the phone one day, the person on the line said, “I’m calling because I hear you are a school that cares about students.” This is one example of how St. Thomas Community Christian School’s (STCCS) new mission statement and strategic plan is rippling into the broader community.

The new mission statement is: “To know and serve every student, encouraging them to reach their God-given potential.” The previous mission statement could have been applied to any Christian school, says Mr. Schouten, and there was a desire to better capture the school’s intent.

This mission is now part of conversations at the elementary school as people look at what it means to know each student, to know their strengths and challenges and to understand how they learn. “We strive to know our students, and with that knowledge, we work hard to serve them with education,” Mr. Schouten says, noting that students are the No. 1 priority.

The mission statement has changed the way staff work with the students. For example, a community member was surprised when a Grade 8 student asked his mother at a concert to borrow her phone to videotape it for his teacher. When teachers really “know and serve” their students, that is reciprocated, Mr. Schouten says, and as students and parents share about their experiences with the broader community it sparks interest in what’s happening at STCCS.

While the school is now in a time of growth, nine years ago there were challenges. The board was having serious discussions about the school’s viability, as enrolment was declining and finances were struggling. And, the building was aging.

Enrolment has since risen from 67 students to 132. As part of its strategic plan the school is building an addition to meet the needs of its growing population. The framing for the new walls are now complete bringing a visual change to the school’s effort to serve student needs while promoting community, education and safety.

The addition—slated for completion in January 2018—adds two classrooms, a community space, a new office area, a welcoming front entrance and safe parking lot as well as a newly renovated Arrowsmith/Student Services room and a Kindergarten wing. The existing school also underwent renovations during the summer by volunteers to restructure areas, freshen the rooms with new paint and create new learning spaces for students with the aim to make classrooms more uniquely designed to meet the needs of students. Some classrooms now have stadium seating for the teacher-led portions of the day with other spaces available for activities around the room.

“What we’ve done is created the sense that the entire place is new and refreshed and that’s exciting,” Mr. Schouten says.

Tim Van Meppelen is the board chair and building committee chair at STCCS and has been actively involved in the school over the last nine years. He says while the addition project is exciting, it is part of the bigger culture shift movement as people are getting engaged in what’s going on.

Van Meppelen also points to the mission statement as translating into actions and decisions at the school. He recalls the building committee standing in front of the school looking at a slope between the entrance way and parking lot discussing whether to raise the parking lot to make the front entrance accessible or run a ramp to a side door. Someone quoted the school’s new mission statement, reinforcing the decision to ensure all students could access the main entry.

“This is the first time I can remember where we are using some of those [mission] statements” in conversations, Van Meppelen says.

When the strategic plan was first discussed about three years ago, the board recommended forming a smaller committee to refine it. The principal, vice-principal, and two board members worked on the plan that initially focused on the vision and mission statement. Other stages of the plan included reframing volunteerism from committees to task-specific work groups, rethinking student needs through the Arrowsmith Program and rebuilding for growth with the addition.

The school’s strategic plan also embraces a sense of appreciation for the grandparents and great-grandparents in the community who built the school and churches. “We wanted to talk about how we want to add to that legacy—their legacy is they started [our school], we want our legacy to be that we helped it flourish,” Mr. Schouten says.

The building project raised over $600,000. In the fundraising stage, Mr. Schouten estimates having close to 80 meetings with businesses and donors in the community, sharing about the vision for the school and what they are doing to build for the future. He continues to share with supporters what’s happening and how the funds are being spent.

“We want to share with our community that this is a place that tries to glorify God and it’s a place that tries to love and care for our students, it’s a place that’s thriving,” Mr. Schouten says. “We’ve made some pretty dramatic changes that has led to an excitement around what we are doing.”

The school community has been praying about the strategic plan and enrolment. Mr. Schouten says they have seen God answering prayer. “I really feel like as Christian leaders we need to pray and plan, we have spent a lot of time in prayer and we have worked really hard to plan. When you do that the places where you fail, God fills in.”

With its mission to know and serve every student, the staff will continue to look at what it means to know students—including those who may have behavioural issues or a disability—and serve them with Christian education.

“Although [our mission] seems simple, it is actually incredibly complicated. We have a lot of work still to do to serve every student in our school,” Mr. Schouten says. “I don’t believe Jesus turned people away if they didn’t fit a certain category. It’s difficult in education, but I would love to see our school [provide] Christian education that can serve all the needs that are in our society. Done right, that’s a really big task.”

The decision to offer the Arrowsmith Program came from asking if the school was helping every student flourish. Some students who have learning disabilities had needs that were not being met within the school or broader community. This program offers cognitive exercise methodology that deals with the underlying causes of learning disabilities based on the principle of neuroplasticity.

The Arrowsmith program has 11 students enrolled with just over half of those coming from the school community. The program is therefore addressing a need within the school and wider St. Thomas community. There is a need to reach out to students who are marginalised, Mr. Schouten says, and the Arrowsmith Program gives hope to work through a learning disability.

“It’s our job to find answers and solutions for parents,” he says. “It’s our calling because of our mission statement.”

As the school community moves forward with the four areas its strategic plan addresses, there isn’t a sense that the work is done. The new mission statement means continuously serving students, and there is a need “not to limit what God has planned,” Mr. Schouten says.

“Ultimately, I just want our school to be a place in our community that is a light on the hill,” he says, “a place where people say, ‘What are those Christians doing over there?’ Because it’s not happening everywhere else.”

The incoming calls about how the school cares for its students demonstrate how efforts to offer student-focused opportunities and programs are transforming the way people view STCCS. In years past, three main churches supported the school in terms of finances and enrolment. Now, there are 11 churches represented.

Having a mission that works for the community and is executed well is going to bring growth, says Mr. Schouten. Rooted as it is in a mission lived by the members of the STCCS community and informing how teachers know their students makes that growth about much more than numbers. It is the blessing of building on the community’s legacy, the action of being a faithful presence in Christian education, and the flourishing of their whole community in serving as Christ to everyone.