As novice parents in our mid-twenties, my husband, Scott, and I initially spent a significant amount of time thinking, researching and praying over the educational options available to us as our firstborn, Ethan, approached his elementary years in the late 1990’s. I recall with stunning clarity the sense of gravity I felt over this decision, as if one instructional choice prior to kindergarten would forever alter the person he would become.
While wrestling with the school possibilities—private, home, public—we were simultaneously being drawn toward adoption as a means of enlarging our family. The pursuit of two international adoptions within four years of Ethan starting elementary school required much financial wisdom and creativity on our part. It was through this commingling of substantial family decisions that we felt assured in our choice to place Ethan, and subsequently our daughters, in the public education system—embracing this direction as an intentional family affair, not simply a default option.
In 2013, Ethan graduated from our local public high school, and his sisters are now attending the affiliated middle school. In the years since our children became a part of this school system, we have undoubtedly been blessed by a quality school district which is comprised of committed, caring educators who value parental involvement and input. We have likewise learned several noteworthy lessons about navigating our way as a Christian family through the environment of today’s public education.
1. Do Your Homework
Research your child’s school district. Effectively navigating public education requires an awareness and understanding of the realities and traits unique to your particular school system and its governing leadership. Start by reading about the school online. Talk with other parents in your community to learn about their experiences within your particular district. Most schools will also offer some variation of school tours or open houses for new or transfer students. It is important to remember that what is true for a school in one community may not be so in a neighboring town. Similarly, use caution when making generalizations about public education based upon a media report focused on an isolated incident or a school not your own.
Some helpful questions to consider as you explore your local public school include the following:
Who are the school board members and the superintendent?
Does the school have an educational philosophy or mission?
What curriculum is being used for your child’s grade level?
For middle and high school, is the health curriculum abstinence based or comprehensive sex education (and if the latter, will the school allow parental opt-out for controversial topics)?
Is parent involvement welcomed or discouraged?
In addition to academic, athletic and social opportunities, do the students have access to extra-curricular faith-based initiatives such as FCA, Campus Life, Young Life or student-led bible studies?
What are some of the school’s strengths, and what are the most significant challenges the school faces?
2. Build Bridges, Not Walls
Communicate well and respectfully with the adults who will be a regular part of your child’s day. Learn the names of office staff, teachers’ assistants, bus drivers, librarians and cafeteria workers, and express appreciation as often and creatively as possible: send notes, bake cookies, leave small packages of candy in their in-boxes, or organize a staff appreciation luncheon with other parents. Be proactive in connecting with your child’s teacher(s) early in the year to learn how you can support him or her in the classroom and to share any specifics about your child you feel the teacher should know. When you observe a teacher or staff member going the extra mile, you go the extra mile as well; send an email of commendation to the individual with a carbon copy to the appropriate supervisor. Encouraging, friendly interactions will build a foundation of trust so that if you do have a legitimate concern to share, it will likely be heard with more receptivity.
3. Get Involved
When the school asks for help, JUMP IN if you’re able! Whether you coordinate a class party, chaperone a field trip, volunteer at a fall festival, work a shift for the band concert, attend a PTO meeting, plan games for track and field day, or bake goodies for the golf team, you will be making a purposeful effort to connect, building meaningful relationships. Meaningful relationships can lead to gospel opportunities.
4. Train Your Children Well At Home
Regardless of educational choice, all Christian parents are called to homeschool (Deut. 6:7). Scripture is clear that parents are to be the primary disciple-makers in the lives of their children. This means instructing children from their earliest days about our sin nature, as well as the nature and character of God and what He has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We must deliberately cultivate a Christian worldview and equip our children to identify, filter and respond to lessons that are contrary to our biblical convictions as we guide them toward maturity.
5. Advocate Directly and Respectfully
When a difficult situation arises, begin with your child’s teacher. Sometimes a quick email to ask a clarifying question is helpful, but be prepared to make an appointment. While email is fast and easy, face-to-face communication allows more personal interaction with less opportunity for misunderstanding. Be polite and tactful. Document everything: what has occurred to cause concern and any further actions, meetings, or contact about the matter. If a suitable solution cannot be reached with your child’s teacher, request to meet with the guidance counselor or the principal.
Throughout the years, God has continually reminded us of both His sovereignty and His purposes for our family to remain in public school. Countless stories have been shared around the dinner table about the blessings, friendships, Divine appointments, and how the Lord is working through challenges in the hallways of a public school. The same God who “gave Daniel favor and compassion” (Dan. 1:9) in Babylon, a culture set against the precepts of God, is just as able to guard today our children whom we entrust to Him amidst a rapidly shifting culture.