This summer the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) as an organization will be consolidating and a new organization forming, making this the final OACS News article and an apt time to reflect and look forward.
Since 2007, the OACS News Service has written frequent online stories featuring member schools across Eastern Canada. Hundreds of stories on a variety of topics have been shared.
“The OACS News Service has been a heartbeat for the Christian school movement for the last decade,” says Chris van Donkelaar, the OACS Director of Communications. The stories have been a regular, beating reminder to the whole body about what the diversity of Christian education looks like in action, he notes.
“It has personally been a joy to be part of that and have had the opportunity to reflect back to schools how the good work they’ve done locally is part of something larger and then see it celebrated and inspire others,” he says. “The impact of sharing these stories has gone far beyond the OACS in Eastern Canada. As the many heartfelt notes of thanks have demonstrated over the years, these stories have been an inspiration and a blessing across Canada and even internationally.”
Principals and teachers have expressed that the stories have been a valuable resource, as they hear what’s working at other schools and glean how they could apply the idea to their own community.
Teachers have been experimenting and creating learning opportunities for their students in unique and impactful ways, while also looking at bigger questions such as discipline and care for all students while remaining true to their Christian worldview.
For this final story, the OACS News reconnected with some familiar voices from the past couple of years to hear updates since their story and find out what’s on the horizon in the months ahead. The updates from each person have been wonderful to hear and in true news form are succinctly shared in this article, though the responses were so rich each could have been a story on its own.
Earlier this year, OACS News shared about a unique “month with tech” experiment in teacher Barbara Ubbens’ Grade 7/8 class at Timothy Christian School in Etobicoke. Students were given freedom to use gaming devices, cell phones or music players in class as part of a Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit that explored how to wisely manage the use of technology. [Class takes deep dive into tech]
“The technology PBL we created together was purposeful and the kids were committed to their end goal,” Mrs. Ubbens says. “They still remember and value what we did together and where the learning took us.”
When students experience authentic learning opportunities in school they willingly commit to self-made decisions, she says. “School can be a place where kids value what they are learning during the process because it makes sense to them, where they have a voice in the direction and purpose of class decisions, where responsibility is real, and outcome is authentic, and finally where finishing well brings satisfaction,” she says.
Mrs. Ubbens has noticed how social media exasperates the struggle children have with self-identity, and how some prefer spending time chatting on social media than in-person. Where social media and technology is headed for children and their parents is a “huge question,” she says.
Looking ahead, Mrs. Ubbens hopes to see projects tailored to the Christian faith and helping children learn “a walk with God that brings glory to God and serves others.”
Another story that inspired interest from other teachers and schools came from the Grade 6 homeroom at Chatham Christian School, where teacher Marianne Visser transformed her classroom design with a variety of comfortable learning spaces including yoga balls, couches and coffee tables. The goal was to provide conducive learning spaces for different learners and create a positive culture of community. [Building a Better Classroom Culture]
Now finishing her second year in the newly designed space, Ms. Visser says her new students loved coming into the classroom. “They tell me they feel community when they come through the doors,” Ms. Visser says. “The space has a calming effect on students and they love finding creative places to sit or nestle into.”
One of the ways the room fosters a community culture is by ensuring food is available. In the mornings, students have freedom to make themselves oatmeal or tea and popcorn is available in the afternoon. Students have taken ownership of decorating the classroom door and a bulletin board, and their suggestions to improve the space through adding living plants was also implemented.
[caption id=”attachment_17137” align=”aligncenter” width=”640”] Ms. Visser’s classroom space features a variety of seating choices.[/caption]
Ms. Visser is passionate about the opportunities flexible seating brings for teachers to develop relationships with their students. “Curriculum, technology and new facilities are temporal and change with time but investing in students’ lives and forming relationships will stand the test of time. Students remember how you made them feel while in your class,” she says.
Another story about a school that had some new learning spaces is St. Thomas Community Christian School (STCCS), which opened its new addition in January. OACS News spoke with principal Jason Schouten last fall about the school’s growth and intentional focus on its mission. [Christian school grows because of new mission]
Mr. Schouten says since the addition has been opened, God has used the work to bless the school and local community. Some areas of growth at the school include enrolment, finances, community engagement and finding high-quality board members. But he notes the areas they have been most blessed are more difficult to see but have an impact on school culture, such as a bolder collective prayer life amongst staff and board members.
“Our staff and board have become closer and we have a palpable excitement for our work and are overwhelmed as we watch STCCS flourishing. Ultimately, we have seen the places where we have fallen short and God has pulled us through; that has given us a humble confidence to move forward in the Kingdom work that we are undertaking,” he says. “Initially, we believed that the addition would simply change the physical space of our school; but, amazingly, God used it to transform our hearts and refocus our eyes on what He can do.”
When looking at possibilities within individual schools and the broader Christian education movement there is a desire to continue striving for excellence. “The status quo isn’t good enough,” Mr. Schouten says. “We need an education model that creates inspired students who are ready to move out into every sphere of our world, powerfully sharing the gospel message with meaning and conviction.”
Mr. Schouten also sees a need to prioritize uniqueness. “Our Christian schools should hold fast to what makes them unique in the way they teach students, engage communities and share the gospel. I believe that it is when we step out in faith and find our uniqueness that we will also find our God-given strength.”
At Guelph Community Christian School (GCCS) vice-principal Tanya Pennings says what most stands out about their continuing work with their local community is the link between service and learning. There is a focus on how students can exchange their learning with the world around them. She also notes the need to foster a greater awareness of where people are coming from.
This focus ties into two events GCCS runs annually that have been covered by the OACS News—its Digital Citizenship program, which sees all kindergarten to Grade 8 students learn age-appropriate lessons about using technology, as well as its Mental Health Workshop that brings in guest speakers. Both events have received interest from other schools and continue to be expanded each year. [Teaching Digital Citizenship at GCCS! and Cultivating mental health conversations in Guelph]
Looking at the next couple of years in the Christian school education movement Ms. Pennings hopes to see a focus on creative learning and helping students see the control they have in their learning.
She also sees the need for a greater sense of inclusivity in understanding children who have different struggles. “Inclusivity in my mind represents a broad term in education, and I think that unless we make it something that we are extremely intentional with we will easily just continue to be comfortable,” she says.
Going beyond the amazing ways that Christian education engages with its local community, a recent OACS News story about the Bluewater Christian Science Challenge saw seven Christian schools convene for a fluid power challenge. Keith Cameron is principal at Immanuel Christian School in Aylmer and was on the challenge’s organizing team. The connections made as a wider family of schools has been exciting, he says. [Science challenge brings schools together]
In addition to this collaboration in the Bluewater District, Mr. Cameron sees connections globally and is soon heading to Hillcrest School in Jos, Nigeria, where he will serve as elementary school principal for two years. Mr. Cameron discovered the job posting through Christian Schools International and has since found there are many people across the OACS who have taught at Hillcrest. “Realizing you are part of this bigger, wider network is really quite encouraging,” he says.
[caption id=”attachment_17138” align=”aligncenter” width=”563”] Keith Cameron visited Hillcrest School in Nigeria, where he will be working, during March break.[/caption]
Immanuel recently completed its second iteration of the OACS SQAP (the School Quality Assurance Program) and is pleased at the review’s outcome. Mr. Cameron says it was “exceptionally affirming” to know the school is at a good transition point.
From the perspective of the Aylmer school, Mr. Cameron has seen the benefit of focusing on excellence and specialized instruction. While in the past the school focused on a desire to grow, they shifted the conversation to be the best school possible. The school ended up seeing a 50 per cent growth in enrolment.
Mr. Cameron hopes to see schools continue to grow together during this time when demographics are shifting to be more favourable for many Christian schools. “Our success locally has been on a strong local community here of support, but our success academically is largely linked to our connections as a family of schools,” he says, noting that family is across the province, country and beyond.
He hopes there continues to be unification. “It is not time to be complacent as a family of schools, the demand is higher than ever for us to show our value—that we can be good and that we can be growing Godly character in our schools which will benefit all of our society,” he says. “We have to be showing that, but it is exciting times.”
Ray Hendriks, OACS Executive Director, says the OACS News stories have added a depth to the narrative and deeper meaning to the Christian education movement.
“In our desire to share stories across our organization including as many schools as possible, engaging teachers and students alike, the news service has given us a real picture of a journey of Christian education that is vibrant, that is alive, is excellent in quality and understands education today and for tomorrow.”
As the OACS News signs off for the final time, there are a few notes of gratitude to share. The OACS is grateful to the community of member schools, where the staff and families have been open in sharing their stories. Thank you to writers Jennifer Neutel, Carla Alblas, Laura Konyndyk, and Michelle Strutzenberger for their professionalism, creativity and hard work. And thank you to OACS staff John Vanasselt, Ray Hendriks, and Chris van Donkelaar for their leadership.