Sanctified Schooling: Working out Salvation Within Education
The Orthodox Christian faith is growing on our continent and, with it, awareness of the challenge of raising and educating our children in a way that is shaped by that faith. On many occasions I have been asked my opinion, as both a hierarch and as an educator, as to my preferred educational option, whether parents ought to favor public schools, private schools, homeschooling or some other approach.
It has become clear to me, though, that there can be no "one size fits all" approach; each circumstance requires careful and prayerful consideration and exploration of options. Parents must decide based on their particular situation what will be the best preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven for their children, how their children's schooling can be not only educational, but sanctifying. "Sanctified Schooling," as I've come to call it, means finding the best educational fit for students and their families to grow in sanctity as they grow physically, intellectually and emotionally. Whichever educational option that parents select, they need to be diligent in attending closely to their children's development and ensuring that it is shaping them into servants of God. Below, I will discuss different potential models for "Sanctified Schooling." Because it is perhaps the least well known model, I'll give particular attention to homeschooling in order to highlight some excellent developments and to dispel some popular illusions. As we proceed to explore these options, please keep in mind that, as St. John Chrysostom wisely remarked so long ago, the education of children is the holiest of tasks.
It is one of the great blessings of our country to have a developed and well funded public school system. As political entities, however, our public schools vary greatly (in intent, focus, ideology, and depth of secularization) from place to place. Many cities and states are so secular that parents are harassed and threatened about missing schooling for religious purposes. (We even had one priest who was threatened with jail time for asking for his children to be excused to attend festal church services.) In other parts of the country, however, school boards are so supportive of Christianity that they forbid assigning homework on Wednesday nights since the majority of local children attend Bible studies that night.
If public schooling is selected as the best option for a family, it is important that the parents work hard to keep communication open with their children, especially, but also with teachers, administration and the school board, and that they analyze what is being taught to their children, what the learning environment is like, and whether these things are conducive to their children's salvation. We cannot simply hand our children over to public schools, even in the best and most Christ-honoring communities in our country.
In cases where public schooling is deemed detrimental to the spiritual development of the child, perhaps a private school might be the best option. This, again, must be evaluated on a case by case basis. Some private schools may be too expensive, too socially elite, or even more secular than the public schools. While an excellent education in terms of academic preparation will open many vocational doors, we must be careful that our children's hearts aren't shut to the Gospel. Again, even the best situation needs the constant attention of a God-loving parent.
Parish schools can be an ideal option for many families. I am thankful that there are about 80 Orthodox parish schools in our country at this point in time. Despite this growth, however, most parishes do not have a school and this option is unavailable to most Orthodox Christian faithful on our continent. Of those parishes that have schools, however, some of them have little more than an institutional association with the parish, but no real commitment to fostering Orthodox Christian identity in the students. Wearing an "Orthodox" label does not mean that the school is actually helping the students work out their salvation. Catholic and Protestant schools, perhaps attached to churches of those confessions, have been beneficial to many Orthodox families; while we share much in common with them, again we must be monitoring the education carefully and be in constant discussion with our children.
Homeschooling is an option that more families are turning to—it is estimated that roughly 4% of all children in America are being homeschooled, more than 2 million students. This choice is often due to financial and geographical constraints but also because it allows families to shape the education of their children. While this has been criticized in the past as stifling social development, that isolation is largely a thing of the past as homeschooling has blossomed to a prominent educational option. Far from isolating children or stifling their social development or education, it is actually known that homeschooled children are more likely than others to be involved in community service (71% vs. 37%), more likely to continue on to college (74% vs. 49%), more likely to understand government and politics (96% vs. 65%) and more likely to have read a book in the last six months (99% vs. 69%) (view this report). There may be some families who are isolating their children by homeschooling them, but that is by no means the norm. (View the results of His Grace's recent Homeschooling Survey.)
Because of its rapid growth, homeschooling has been noticed and supported in our society, even in government. Thirty-two US states and the District of Columbia sponsor a "cyber" charter school to assist homeschooling families. This relieves the parents of the burden of selecting and purchasing materials. In one state in which I traveled recently, I noticed many advertisements for these cyber schools.
There are excellent online schools and educational facilities that are available for parents to use. One of these is the Classical Learning Resource Center, which is run by an Orthodox Christian and has been offering courses according to classical methods for about a decade with excellent reviews.
Another of these, explicitly Orthodox, is the newly launched St. Raphael Orthodox Online Homeschool. Under the guidance of a priest in the diocese I serve, Dr. James Taylor has employed his great love of the Orthodox Church with his technical expertise, as well as a life time of education, to create a rewarding, affordable, and challenging option for stepping up the academics of the homeschooling family. If you are comfortable with the Internet and serious about the development of your child's reading, writing, and discussion skills, I recommend you look into this new online school. This program could actually be useful as a supplement to any family, even non-homeschooling families.
Another example of the flowering of homeschooling is the emergence of co-operative educational groups ("co-ops"). Most homeschooling families are involved in at least one co-op, many of which operate in a classroom setting weekly or monthly. One homeschooling family in my diocese is involved in a co-op that provides a one day per week traditional school setting with a focus on history, the Bible, and public speaking according to a well-formulated national standard. This has been a good option for them in keeping educational autonomy but also exposing their children to multiple social settings.
Another of these co-ops is sponsored by one of the parishes in my diocese, St. Philip Church in Souderton, Pennsylvania. St. Justin Academy, the parish co-op, has been successfully functioning for about five years now. Each year has seen a different focus—service projects, art and science, catechesis, field trips, etc.—but it has always succeeded in keeping homeschooling families connected to the life of the Church. This has been an evangelical tool, as well, as some non-Orthodox Christians have been favorably introduced to the parish through association with the co-op.
Another parish in my diocese is exploring using their church Sunday School rooms as a center for homeschool-style education. Parents will bring their children to the church for an educational regime that they have prepared themselves. Some may use cyber-school materials, privately purchased curricula, or an eclectic gathering of resources, but they will come together to learn alongside each other. This parish is considering employing a "music studio" style of directly hiring tutors. This is appealing to the parish community that wants to be a hub for homeschooling because there is less administrative and financial overhead than would be required for a conventional parochial school.
To me, an ideal situation might be somewhat like that one, in which schooling is centered in the church building, with daily church services, common meals, and a flexible educational model that may have some things in common with homeschooling and perhaps some in common with a classroom-style approach. The essential ingredient is that educational life be centered in the life of the Church.
Finally, it should be known homeschooling has grown beyond the stereotype of isolation that many have in mind, even specifically among Orthodox families. (As an example, of the 27 children who went to Antiochian Village this past summer from one parish in my diocese, nearly one third of those children are homeschooled.) To that end, we recently conducted a survey of Orthodox Christian homeschooling families, measuring how they participated in church life. (Read the survey results.)
As you will see, the results of this survey very strongly indicate that homeschoolers aren't isolated but, rather, are engaged in our camping programs, parish-based co-ops, community-based co-ops, and social, athletic, and service activities. I'd like to bring to everyone's attention a few of the most encouraging data points: Of the 249 families that responded to the survey, 90% have their children engaged in "the life of the church" (in addition to attending church services) and 66% send their children to camp or plan to do so when they are old enough. There is also a very impressive list of activities that homeschooled children are involved in outside of the home.
I've discussed homeschooling here at more depth not because I think it is the best fit for every family, but because I wanted to dispel some old caricatures and prejudices that are no longer a reality and celebrate the fact that these children are active in the church and community, and by many indications, they are more active than many of their peers.
Whether we are educating our children ourselves, sending them to public or private or parochial schools, or fashioning a hybrid of these, let us keep foremost in our mind that we must take seriously this most holy task of preparing our children for life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever your circumstances demand, I strongly encourage you to make the schooling of our children not just academic but primarily sanctified.
This article was written with contributions from the Rev. Fr. Noah F. Bushelli and the Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.