Visioning / Planning
For Healthy Christian Schools (719) 278-9600

Frequently Asked Questions About School Start-Ups

1. What is the first step in starting a Christian school? The first step is clearly hearing from God — what He wants to do. What is God calling you to do? What will be unique about your Christian school? Your uniqueness is bigger than a curriculum, although a curriculum is a part. Ultimately it has to do with (1) the type of children and families you are trying to reach, (2) the transformation of these children and families you desire and (3) the means you use to go from (1) to (2). In understanding God's vision, do not confuse ends and means. A Beka curriculum is a means. A classical education is a means. Delivering principled, high integrity, young men or women with a Biblical worldview is a end. There are many possible ends, because God is constantly making all things new (Rev. 22:9). Here are a few possible end goals — or ultimate visions — for your Christian school: A. World-changing Christian leaders, B. High integrity, high competence Christian professionals, C. Productive members of society, D. Graduates who often choose full-time church ministry, E. Skilled Christians who will make a strong contribution in science or technology, F. Talented Christians who will be salt in the fine arts and/or G. Thoughtful leaders who actively work to redeem local communities. The end vision of your school — the type of person your school will produce — is a different decision than the type of person or family your school seeks to serve. It could be stated as simply as "We target families who simply agree with the vision of our school, regardless of the other circumstances in their life." We recommend this. That is, we attract families who want their children to be world changers. Or, we want families who hope their children will be highly competent Christian professionals, etc. As long as the family is motivated to help their children accomplish this vision, we don't care particularly if they are rich or poor, intact families or divorced families, their race or ethnicity, etc. GraceWorks believes that ultimately this is the best way to position your school, or "segment your market" in marketing parlance. You attract people by your end goal, your vision. However, some schools will target their school to a type of family or child ... ... A denominational affiliation (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist), ... A life circumstance (at risk, difficult family circumstance), ... A socio-economic standing (well-to-do, middle class, lower income) or ... A faith status (seekers, solid Christian families, lost). In theory, if you target a certain type of family, "we will all be on the same page." In practice, often this type of targeting will limit you. Consider, for example, the noble ideal that "Our Christian school seeks to serve those who cannot afford a Christian education anywhere else in town." That's not really a vision. At best, it is an ill-advised statement of market segmentation. Both in our Marketing Christian Schools guide, and in the Financial FAQ's we discuss the real problems of trying to target by income. In short, there are plenty of high-income parents who would like their children to respect and learn to work with children from a variety of economic statuses — and races. Why exclude them?   The reason why many denominational schools are struggling today is because they targeted their school to families of a particular faith, without discovering their larger vision. Most of these, to survive, will have to discover that larger vision. What is holding them back is their own history, their DNA ... lots of leaders and supporters who think the existing vision is just fine. That is one example of why beginnings are so important, and why we think you should get school start-up coaching through the Great Beginnings Program. Beginnings set in place the DNA that will profoundly impact your school's health and future. It is so easy to innocently make decisions that will doom your school in the long-run ... or later force you into an arduous change process in order to survive. Satan will use our high ideals against us if we are not careful. (That's why renewing of our minds is so very important — Romans 12:2). In the case of GraceWorks Ministries, our end is to produce world-changing Christian leaders like Daniel, Moses and Paul, who can conquer problems similar to what they faced. The best way we know to accomplish that end is to empower Christian schools, and that is our means. If God reveals a better way to accomplish our vision, we will embrace it. The same should be true of you. Determine the end goal, and then means become much more clear for you.

2.

Be practical. What do we really need to start a Christian school?

The essentials you need are vision, leaders, followers, students, money and longitudinal time. Vision. If you study the history of vision in the Bible, most of the time God reveals His big picture vision to a single leader, such as when Moses received the vision to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Imagine how long that would have taken if God had decided to do it by committee! Jerusalem was rebuilt because God gave specific visions to Ezra and Nehemiah. Christians today do not have to become Jews first because God gave Peter a vision. To whom God chooses to reveal His vision is not necessarily positional. It is, rather, relational, based on who is seeking God with all their heart. So, to discover God's vision for your school, pray and fast. Seek God! It ultimately doesn't matter what your leadership position is with the school ... what matters is your relational position with the Lord. Leaders. You need leaders and followers because there is no possible way you will accomplish everything God has called you to do if you have to pay for it. If the vision for your school is crystal clear, then leadership recruitment is easy. Strong leaders will either jump on board enthusiastically — because they know exactly where this is all going. Or they will demur, because your vision does not match up with their own. With a clear vision, what you avoid is the leadership debate about what your vision should be. Certainly you will debate the particulars, but the big picture stays constant. Obviously, you will need a team.  Not just visionary leaders, but strong team members who have skills, organizational abilities, and the willingness to accomplish the steps necessary to open your school.  John Kenneth Galbraith once said, "The best men [or women] can be had for nothing." If your vision is of God, and clear (Hab. 2:2), this will be true of your Christian school as well. We know of a school in Colorado Springs that had a volunteer, full-time principal. A former professor of education, he had an earned doctorate in education. Rather than playing golf in his retirement, he decided to continue serving God by leading a small Lutheran school. What kind of leadership will God provide for you? Followers. Starting a Christian school is a lot like conducting a symphony ... except you often must teach the musicians how to play their instrument as well! The conductor's goal is beautiful music. Imagine if the conductor gets impatient to accomplish the goal, and to get some sort of music, picks up an instrument ... or even two, and starts playing. He even instructs the assistant to do the same. Through extraordinary multi-tasking, we now have music. Four instruments to be exact. It doesn't sound much like much of an orchestra, but we have music. What the conductor should have done is obvious — recruit musicians. Recruit people to train the musicians. Teach the musicians to work together and to play well together. What's not so obvious is that Christian schools make this same exact mistake, over and over again. If you are the conductor, you can go to a workshop or pick up a book on all the mechanics to start a Christian school ... and wrongly assume you are the one who has to get it all done. It's the same question: Who are the followers that God is going to provide to help you accomplish His vision?  Do you have to determine the curriculum, for example? In one of our School Start-up Studies we ran into a lady with a Ph. D. in curriculum design who freely offered to help a high school start-up with curriculum design. The principal was an experienced man, and refused her offer, preferring to choose the curriculum himself. How would have you responded, dear reader? If the vision for your Christian school is clear, why not utilize the curriculum expert? Once the boundaries are well defined, the curriculum expert very likely will come up with a better solution than the principal. (Again, ask yourself, is an A Beka curriculum, or a Concordia curriculum, an end ... or a means to end?) It is only because we don't really know what type of beautiful music we want in the end, that we quit being the conductor and become musicians. By yourself, you cannot possibly play all the instruments in the orchestra. There are all kinds of examples like this one. For example, who sets up the homework policy or the discipline policy for your school. Should you give up that control? Ironically, the for-profit Edison Schools reform project does precisely that. Local parent committees, in conjunction with local staff, determine the appropriate levels of homework for their schools as well as appropriate discipline policies. In the example above, the high school opened with all of ten students. By himself, the experienced administrator had developed great policies, a solid handbook, and hired good teachers. However, other key areas had been badly neglected, including marketing, fundraising and visioning. Sadly, many had offered to help, but the principal choose to be a musician, not a conductor. As a key leader in your Christian school start-up, you will make the same choice, consciously or not. Your choice will directly impact the quality of music of your new school plays. To be clear, God may very well provide people who will help you with a business plan, budgets, or even help you hire great teachers. But the vision part is up to you. GraceWorks can help you determine God's vision for your school. Students. Not having a history is a great gift that a school start-up receives only once. Use this gift well!  We discuss how to use it in our resource: Ten Common Mistakes in School Start-Ups.  If your vision is reasonable, parents will tend to believe it. Leaders, followers and staff will strive for it. Once your school opens and begins to create a history, parents will see the inevitable disconnects between your vision and the reality. If the disconnects are large, student recruitment gets hard. So use the newness and excitement of your school start, and a clear outcome-based vision, to generate positive word of mouth referrals. GraceWorks' Great Beginnings Program will help you identify potential students. Money. Many leaders in school start-ups idealistically assume that local or national foundations will be available to fund their school start-up. This is unlikely for three reasons: A. Most foundations want to support established concerns, not new entities. B. Most local foundations will not fund a local school because "if we fund one, we have to fund them all." C. Many foundations will simply not fund any Christian cause, simply because it's Christian. This is particularly true of large corporations that have non-Christian employees who would be sensitive to gifts to Christian causes. Instead, the money you need for start-up will come largely from individuals who are close to your Christian school, and involved with it. Remember: money follows the heart. That is why GraceWorks advocates a volunteer - intensive approach to school start-ups ... all of those volunteers are potential donors.  Our Great Beginnings program helps you locate those who can fund your new school.   In fact, one of the best ways to cultivate people who give sacrificial gifts is to involve them in the life of your school. If you try to do all the work yourself, you lose that opportunity. Longitudinal Time. To be practical, plan on at least a year of advance time to start your school. In our Christian School Marketing Seminars, we explain how the marketing calendar for a Christian school starts in November or December. If you are reading this in the spring, and want to open in the fall, consider the reality that most parents have already decided what they are going with their child next fall. You will be asking them to re-decide to enroll in your school – a school with no track record.  And that's just one example. How will you recruit quality teachers? Most teachers commit to the following year before March of the previous year.  Likewise, how will you fundraise?  Fundraising happens over time as well. Major donors need time to make sacrificial gifts. And keep in mind, as you get into the process, it will become much, much more complicated as you realize fully everything that is involved to start well. You will be glad for a plan that allowed you more time to get it right. Conclusion. Keep the big picture in sight at all times. It is very easy to get bogged down in the details ... and neglect essential areas. Continually ask: What is God providing to accomplish this part of His vision.

3.

GraceWorks advocates starting as large as possible, rather than starting small.

What's wrong with the small approach, starting with a few early grades, and

adding one grade per year?

The small approach can make sense if your Christian school will be largely self-contained, and does not need much community support. Lots of church-based denominational schools are successfully started this way. The ultimate question is to what extent your school needs the support of the community to be successful. A bigger initial vision will attract more support: leaders, followers, students and money. It is harder to attract high caliber leaders, or special talent followers, or students, if you are a Kindergarten and 1st grade only, and it will be 7 years before you have a "regular" Christian school. The same is true when it comes to major gifts – a bigger vision nets bigger contributions. Will yours ultimately be a large school? How you start will determine your growth rate ... it is all part of your school's DNA. Starting small may very well mean that you remain small, with the general lack of resources and programs such a school features. Because parents have such high expectations for the school quality, GraceWorks believes the ultimate problem to be solved is maximizing support for your Christian school start-up.  That is also the philosophy behind GraceWorksGreat Beginnings program.    Most school start-ups simply cannot afford to provide everything parents expect from a school, Christian or not. You will need help, either volunteers or money, to get it all done. We've also seen the situation where one school starts small, a grade at a time, and across town, a competing school opens a couple of years later with all eight grades. It's hard to position a K - 3 to compete effectively against a K - 8 school. Many parents will simply pull their children to the larger school, for the convenience of it. The practical concern many parents have is the need to put all their children in one school. To work, the one-grade-at- a-time plan largely attracts new, young families. Nothing wrong with that per se, except that the marketing is harder and school growth is slower.  Keep in mind that the decisions made early on will set a course for the history of your school. You can change course later, but as your school develops a history, changes are harder to make. Right now, these are just decisions. Later on, they will be difficult change processes.   GraceWorks can help your Christian school start well and healthy. Call (719) 278-9600 extension 400 to get expert help determining and implementing God's vision for your school start-up.  Order 10 School Start-up Mistakes and GreaceWorks’ Support for School Start-ups — FREE resources — through the form in the left panel of this page..
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