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Schools explore options for drawing new families in light of shrinking demographics

Written on May 23rd, 2008

Some consider relocating, amalgamating, broadening appeal in community 

A number of independent Christian schools across the province are exploring new ways of thinking and acting as they grapple with the reality of shrinking demographics.

Several schools that are members of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) report a downturn in student numbers in the past several years.

Reports show schools in the public and Catholic education system are facing a similar dilemma in many regions, resulting in staff layoffs, classrooms standing empty, and school closures. As an example, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board announced in April it was issuing layoff notices for close to 50 teachers as a result of 1,000 less students in the system for next year.

The decline in student numbers is often attributed to a decrease in the size of the average family in recent years. It’s more common for families today to have one to two children while 40 years ago the average family was much larger.

The OACS school principals cite the change in family size as well as various other factors, including tuition costs, as likely reasons for the dip in student numbers at their schools; some say they continue to deal with the perception that they are primarily for families from Christian Reformed churches. Others face unique challenges like competition from Christian brothers and sisters who offer Christian education at a much lower rate.

Each of the leaders says a change in thinking and activity is occurring or needs to occur at their school to ensure as many families as possible in their area benefit from Christian education.

Wellandport Christian School is researching the possibility of relocating the school to a more urban area. Currently in a rural setting, the school is within about 30 km of two other Christian schools.

“It’s like the market’s flooded in a very sparsely populated area,” says principal Lisa VandenHaak.

A research team is investigating the possibility of moving into an area in the Niagara region which does not have a Christian school. The school membership will likely vote on a decision in the fall.

Wellandport is also looking into amalgamating with other Christian schools in the area.

Renfrew and District Christian School is discussing the development of an international student program as well as a pre-school option, according to principal Sabrina Vandersleen.

Jarvis District Christian School is taking a more personal approach with some of its recruitment activities this year. The school now sends a personalized welcome gift to infants born in supporting churches. It also invited families to its kindergarten discovery day this year by sending a letter and small gift to potential students along with an invitation for their parents.

“We’re hoping that more of a personal touch is going to help,” says principal Joel Slofstra.

Several principals mentioned the need for their schools to broaden their appeal in the community; to engage a wider range of church denominations as well as raise the school’s profile in the general community.

“I’ve been told this school is the community’s best-kept secret,” says Robert Hielkema, who is a new principal to Clinton and District Christian School as of the current school year. He concurs the quality of education at Clinton is excellent. But if the school is going to survive and thrive, it needs to spread the word that it is interdenominational as well as build solid, working relationships with people beyond the current school community, according to Hielkema. Some steps are now being taken in that direction.

Other schools already draw families from a range of denominations but are working towards becoming more of a presence in these churches and garnering greater support.

Chatham Christians Schools is reaching into a wider range of church denominations through current families, according to Linda Wolting, business administrator for the schools. A group of current parents headed up a dinner for families with young children at one of the churches recently. The evening included a brief presentation about the school. Out of that one family has enrolled in the school and it looks like several others may do so as well. Plans are underway for similar activities in several other churches, says Wolting.

Immanuel Christian School in Aylmer has also taken steps to become more visible in the community. A promotions director was hired this year to co-ordinate various community relations activities and is doing an excellent job, according to principal Jeremy Vanduyvendyk. The principal describes Immanuel as “quite forward-looking, quite involved.”

Margareth Lise, principal of Timothy Christian School, says the Etobicoke school is also moving towards becoming more visible and well-known in the community. “We’re really pushing our promotions committee to get out there, as well as myself, so that we’re more of a figure in the community,” she says.