"I feel prettier at my new school.”
It was picture day at the public school where my wife, Lisa, attended fourth grade. She’d just transferred from an Adventist school, where she’d experienced bullying unaddressed by staff. She wouldn’t attend another Adventist school until college.
I attended Adventist schools from kindergarten through seminary. I had some outstanding teachers—and some whose legalism and hypocrisy actively harmed students. Having read my Bible and many of Ellen White’s writings, I couldn’t understand how people who so poorly represented our faith and values held on to their jobs, personifying Adventism for so many youth. And while the academics ranged from adequate to excellent, I was given no information about scholarships or other preparation for college.
Today my sixth and second graders both attend an Adventist school. They love it. We appreciate the teachers, the environment, and the personalized attention it allows, but it is a sacrifice in multiple ways. If we didn’t feel it was the best place for our kids, we wouldn’t drive more than an hour a day to take them there and back. After all, there are excellent public schools close enough to walk to.
Our own experiences—good and bad—with Adventist education inform the choices we make today. I hold Adventist schools to a higher standard. I wouldn’t be so concerned that a public school math teacher’s actions would affect my child’s view of God. At an Adventist school, I count on it—and it better be positive.
Everyone’s reasons for choosing whether to send their kids to an Adventist school are personal. Often it’s not even a realistic option, because of costs or location. And while there are many pros to Adventist education, there may be cons on the flip side.
Strength (and Weakness) in Numbers
Jason Mustard, an immigration lawyer in northern California, looks back fondly on his years of Adventist education. His elementary school had only two teachers, but, he says, “our church had an extremely strong community. We had lots of camping, waterskiing, weekly softball, and volleyball nights. Everyone in the church was extremely involved.”
That positive experience extended to academy and university and led to a decade as a recruiter for Monterey Bay Academy, a role that gave him a wide view of many Adventist schools.
“When Adventist education is good, it’s amazing,” Mustard says. “I don’t know if there’s anything better. What matters is the people.”
Jimi Ripley Black serves as vice chair of the Stonehill Christian Academy board in Pflugerville, Texas. Though she attended Adventist schools, her husband didn’t, so sending their son to SCA was a careful decision. They appreciate the extrapersonal attention the school’s small size allows, as well as that “Jesus is in everything.” Still, as with so many other small schools, providing adequate resources remains a challenge.
Today’s Adventist schools have taken advantage of online resources and other solutions, but they’re often simply not equipped to provide what public schools may be mandated to offer. Many parents find that if their kids are neurodivergent, have special needs, or otherwise “don’t fit the mold,” Adventist schools struggle to accommodate or relate to them.
At the same time, staff burnout is a major issue. Teachers tell of teaching nonstop without breaks or prep time and without the repetition of subjects for different classes they might have at a larger school. Such issues intensify the challenge of retaining quality staff, and sometimes the least effective teachers end up at the most struggling schools.
“We sometimes seem to have decided it’s unchristian or inappropriate to fire or hold people accountable,” Mustard observes. “So your product starts becoming terrible. Parents used to send their kids to a school just because it was Adventist. For many or most parents, that’s not enough anymore. For me, unless there’s a real problem like bullying, my kids will be in an Adventist school. I want to do everything I can for them to adopt the faith for themselves. But for most of my contemporaries, it’s not enough for the school to be Adventist.”
I want my kids connected to the broader community. While I treasure strong church and school ties, I also value the connections they make at local day camps and extracurricular programs, at the park, and elsewhere in our city.
Talking with parents and graduates of the Adventist school system, the concept of “the bubble” came up again and again. It’s another case of the flip side: A close-knit community, while preventing the social alienation that spurs the worst of modern education’s problems, can nonetheless isolate and disconnect students from the world they will soon need to engage.
While official studies have found strong connections between Adventist education and such behavior as witnessing and church attendance, they’ve also found a narrowing of vision. “One study found that students in Adventist schools scored lower on social concern than those in public schools, and one study found students with fewer years in an Adventist school scored higher on social concern than those with more years in an Adventist school.”*
For many decades it was well expected that if a family didn’t live close to an Adventist high school, the teen would attend a boarding academy. Today most parents can’t imagine sending their kids away during the critical adolescent years. And while most parents are quite open to Adventist education, if it’s not available near home many will just as readily send their offspring to another local Christian, magnet, or public school.
Jennifer Crouch Brown’s daughter has followed her brother’s lead in leaving home for academy, one close enough for quick meetups if she needs something. Brown would never have considered it as an option, though, if her Adventist employer didn’t offer a generous subsidy for the five-figure tuition. Her kids have thrived at Georgia-Cumberland Academy (GCA), and Brown says she “absolutely loves” the school. “I can’t think of anything negative about it. The teachers are amazing, and it helps that I knew quite a few of them personally before we had kids there. I love the family feel, and I genuinely believe the staff cares deeply.”
Certain teachers from her youth affected Brown’s view of Adventist education. One shared unfounded such Adventist folklore as “Nonvegetarians won’t live to see the Second Coming.” Another told her Bible class such things as “People over 40 don’t have sex.” “I feel as though I came out of the Adventist education system with a lot more guilt and anxiety than I needed to have,” Brown says. “It’s taken years to undo. After our experience with GCA I am more pro-Adventist education than I ever have been, but I would still say it’s very school and student dependent, and a privilege most cannot afford.”
“Ellen White’s book Education is extremely forward-thinking,” says Mustard. “She wrote that kids should be outside, engaging all the senses. It’s very anti-factory model education. She wanted our system to be different and dynamic. And if we’re doing it God’s way, it’s going to be incredible. If it’s not incredible, we should be asking ourselves a lot of hard questions.”
When Summer Wood started as principal of F. H. Jenkins Preparatory School in 2015, a historically Black school in Nashville, Tennessee, enrollment had dropped to 23 students. Today it’s 89.
“Our student body is almost 50/50 Adventist/non-Adventist,” says Wood. “Many families are not necessarily looking for an Adventist worldview. They’re looking for a school in which children can see themselves as successful African American people. A school in which kids feel safe to be who they are, and enjoy a rigorous academic program, and teachers who invest in students specifically. I think the kids really appreciate the excellence. Our Christmas program is not [just] going to be ringing some bells and singing some carols—it’s going to be excellence.”
“Our approach is very much that Christ is the foundation of what we do,” Wood says. “It is a priority. We want children to love Jesus and have a relationship. At the same time, we understand that our product is education. Our responsibility is to provide quality academic instruction and education rooted in Christ. I think that’s what led to our enrollment growth. I think parents see that and say, `Oh—you’re doing both. If I can have both, I’ll get both.’ ” *