Establishing an Orthodox Christian School
By Nichola T. Krause
A network of Orthodox Christian parochial schools has been successfully established in northeast Ohio as a multi-city, cross-jurisdictional ministry. A brief history of Orthodox Christian Schools of Northeast Ohio, Inc., is related, along with “voice of experience” advice for other Orthodox Christian communities seeking to begin a day-school education ministry.
“A Mission to Educate
Orthodox Christian Schools of Northeast Ohio, Inc., opened the doors of its first elementary-school campus, St. Nicholas Orthodox School, in August 2000. For the 2002-2003 academic year, OCS-NEO will administer three campuses: Akron, Canton, and Cleveland, and begin marketing its Faith-based classical curriculum materials for use by other Orthodox Christian parochial schools and homeschools.
St. Nicholas Orthodox School
St. Nicholas Orthodox School started as a ministry of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. The 85-year-old parish is located in Mogadore/Suffield, Ohio, and is under the authority of the Right Reverend JOB, Bishop of Chicago and the Midwest/Orthodox Church in America (OCA).
The greater Akron community is home to over a dozen Orthodox Christian parishes of various jurisdictions, and these parishes often work together on service, mission, and adult education projects. In short, the community is vibrant and firmly based. The need for a parochial elementary school was identified in pan-Orthodox committees and by several parish councils: there were nearly 300 school-age students in the Akron parishes alone in 1995, according to an interest survey taken by the Akron Orthodox Clergy Association. Historically, however, the Orthodox Church has not offered Faith-based elementary and high school options—common in the Jewish community and Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Evangelical denominations—to its families. The cooperative greater Akron area seemed to be a promising environment for both the development of a model and establishment of an Orthodox Christian parochial school.
Exploration into the feasibility of opening a parochial elementary school at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Mogadore, was started in early 1994, during the development of a parish mission statement and the revision of the parish’s Long Range Plan. The final forms of those documents were published in January 1997, and called for increased efforts in both community outreach and youth education, including the establishment of a Faith-based elementary school offering a high-quality academic program within five years.
When representatives of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church Long Range Planning Committee’s school sub-committee first approached the Right Reverend JOB, Bishop of Chicago and the Midwest (OCA), for his blessing to actively pursue the development of a parish-based parochial school, His Grace was completely supportive (August 1999). During a pastoral visit in April 2000, His Grace outlined his specific goals for the project at the diocesan level:
St. Nicholas Orthodox School should:
- Provide a high-quality academic education to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox students in the Akron-Canton area, using the Classical model, modified to an Orthodox Christian worldview, which is Faith- and Salvation-history based.
- Galvanize the cooperative efforts of the OCA parishes in the Cleveland Deanery, and the numerous non-OCA Orthodox parishes in the Akron-Canton area.
- Pprovide a model and serve as a resource for other groups, throughout Orthodox America and in the OCA Diocese of the Midwest in particular, to establish their own Orthodox Christian parochial schools.
- Drawing on parish resources with significant experience in publications, produce curricula and professional-grade classroom materials on a continuing basis to support Orthodox Christian classical education.”
The overall mission of St. Nicholas Orthodox School was outlined for the parish assembly in January 2000, and now serves as the mission for Orthodox Christian Schools of Northeast Ohio, Inc., and all its campuses:
OCS-NEO Mission Statement
The mission of OCS-NEO, as an extension and fulfillment of the primary parental responsibility for the education of their children, is to provide an education that…
- Guides the spiritual and social development of the students by their participation in the Orthodox Christian community and liturgical cycle;
- Reinforces Orthodox Christian character;
- Is academically strong.
A school committee, consisting of the parish priest, deacon, and six interested parents (two of whom were university-trained teachers), began meeting bimonthly in August 1999 with the approval of the diocesan bishop. After representatives from this group attended two Charter School Start-Up workshops sponsored by the Ohio Department of Education in Columbus, the committee decided the project was quite feasible, considering the facilities available at the parish complex already and the pool of potential students and skilled volunteers available in the Akron-Canton area. The committee approached the parish assembly at the end of January 2000 for permission to officially begin the project, which was granted, and set a “Year 1” goal of five students and one paid teacher. That committee agreed to become the core of the first School Board.
Development of a Faith- and Salvation history-based, integrated curriculum stressing language and analytical-tool development according to the Classical model; recruitment of instructors and students; and fundraising efforts began immediately. Two teachers were hired in late spring: a university-trained kindergarten teacher with a decade of classroom experience, and an upper-grade instructor with a M.Div. degree and extensive mixed-classroom teaching experience. Both instructors understood the new “Orthodox Christian classical education” model immediately, and contributed immeasurably to its development and success.
St. Nicholas Orthodox School opened its doors with 10 students: 4 kindergarteners and 6 in grades 1-5. A fifth kindergartener enrolled four weeks into the school year, and settled right in to the school’s routine. The student body represented four Akron-Canton area parishes—the host, St. Nicholas; Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church; Holy Assumption Orthodox Church (OCA); and St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church—and one non-parish-affiliated student.
The school immediately started the process of being recognized and chartered by the Ohio Department of Education Office of School Options as a Non-public Charter Elementary School. Following successful completion of five steps (adoption and advertisement of a racial non-discrimination policy; review of all school safety inspection records, administrative and disciplinary policies, and curriculum; numerous on-site visits of the school facilities and classroom observation; solicitation of complaints regarding admission policies; and completion of an annual report of enrollment statistics), the school’s charter was awarded 31 January 2001.
The school’s first year was incredible: The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), administered in mid-May 2001, showed that our students were excelling academically with the “new” curriculum, placing in the top 10% of students nationwide. More importantly, students were growing in the Faith: “They became an extended family, prayed together daily, learned to chant most of the Third and Ninth Hours by heart, and turn to God in time of crisis,” according to Archpriest Stephen Kopestonsky, principal and spiritual advisor.
Word of mouth and a steady stream of school newsletters were all it took: for its second academic year (2001-2002), St. Nicholas Orthodox School served 24 students, who again prayed and grew in Faith together. Community service projects were added to daily prayer, Faith lessons, and the academic routine. ITBS scores confirmed improvement in the developing Orthodox classical curriculum and student academic performance, too: our students scored in the top 8% nationwide.
Enrollment at St. Nicholas Orthodox School for the 2002-2003 academic year has topped 40 students as of this writing, requiring a change in both venue and name. The school will re-locate (and re-charter, as required by the state of Ohio) as St. Nicholas Orthodox School of Akron.
Priests, Orthodox Christian educators, and parents from the greater-Cleveland and Canton areas took notice of St. Nicholas Orthodox School during its first year, and began calling and observing classes. Soon, members of St. Nicholas’ school board were meeting with local school committees in both geographic areas, and repeating the steps of interest survey, assessment, and facility availability with them. The response was phenomenal.
The St. Nicholas Orthodox School board returned to the Right Reverend JOB, and outlined the need: other parishes wanted to start schools, just as he’d hoped. His Grace gave a blessing for Orthodox Christian Schools of Northeast Ohio to be established under his omophorion; St. Nicholas Orthodox School would become the “Akron Campus” of the school network, and additional campuses would be established as quickly as possible to serve interested families.
OCS-NEO was legally incorporated, and secured its own 501(c)3 designation (as a non-profit/tax exempt organization). Negotiations with host parishes and fundraising efforts for the new campuses started in earnest. Five additional instructors were recruited and hired in March 2002, and began training with the Orthodox Christian classical curriculum under guidance of the St. Nicholas Orthodox School faculty.
In 2002-2003, Christ the Teacher Orthodox School will open in the greater-Cleveland area, and the Orthodox Christian Academy at St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church will open in Canton. OCS-NEO has started working with interested people in the Youngstown/Warren area toward establishing an Orthodox Christian school on the eastern side of Ohio.
Advice: The Voice of Experience
If an Orthodox Christian school is truly “right” for your parish or pan-Orthodox community, you will know: your efforts will truly be guided by and provided for by the Holy Spirit. If you are reading this article, then chances are that you are part of a group of interested parents and/or educators that has already gathered to discuss the idea of establishing a school. Where do you start?
1. Approach the local Orthodox clergy association, if there is one, and ask for their permission to distribute an interest survey to parents in their parishes regarding the establishment of a school in the area. If there is no association, approach each priest individually to present the idea and ask permission to contact his parishioners. Emphasize that this is a first step only, “testing the waters.” Do not proceed without a blessing.
2. Survey prospective parents. Mail a survey to all the families on the church school rosters and to those with younger children, for all the parishes you have permission to contact. (This is also the time to collect names and addresses from parish secretaries, and begin a mailing-list database.)
3. Analyze the results realistically. The actual number of first-year students will be lower than the “yes” checkmarks on a survey, for a variety of reasons. Many interested parents will “wait and see” if the school is successful/effective before making the decision to enroll their children. Indicating interest on a survey is not the same as driving your children 45 miles each way every day for school, either, and can be a huge factor.
4. Approach your bishop(s) with the survey findings, ask permission to proceed, and ask for a written blessing/authorization. You will need an ecclesiastical endorsement to do anything more than talk. Without it you have absolutely no credibility in the Church, or in the outside world, to raise funds, secure facilities, begin to assemble curriculum and identify instructors, recruit, etc.
5. Document the school’s mission, in the form of a mission statement. This will likely be suggested to you by your bishop(s), when he/they give a blessing to the project. (The OCS-NEO mission was drafted in corporate-mission style in the abstract long before the bishop was approached, but given real meaning only with his guidance.)
6. Start praying for His guidance for all involved in establishing the school, as a group and privately, and keep at it.
7. Assemble a team of professionals to act as the establishing board. This group may consist of some of the initial interested parents and educators, but must be expanded and fine-tuned as quickly as possible to include the people with the necessary training and talent to get the job done. This is a working board - a group of people who will spend at least a year immersed in the project. This board is hard to assemble since it is volunteer, but absolutely necessary.
You will need to include, either as board members or deeply-involved advisors:
a. an experienced, organized project manager, to chair or coordinate the whole school project. (The ministry will be a “full-time” commitment for this person, without a doubt.)
b. an experienced educator or school administrator, to coordinate the selection/development of curriculum with other experienced educators and subject specialists, guide the selection of paid instructors, and spearhead efforts to charter/accredit the school.
c. an influential businessman with great people skills, to credibly encourage support of the school at any and all Orthodox community events, and introduce fundraising committee members to potential donors.
d. an events organizer, to coordinate fundraising events, including sponsorship dinners, pancake breakfasts, and parish-wide sales (e.g., candy, spring flowers, hams at Pascha, etc.).
e. an accountant or professional bookkeeper, to set up accounts and manage the finances for the project in an organized way. This includes helping to establish a realistic budget and purchase order system; overseeing the recording of donations, grants, and tuition payments; completing payroll for teachers; paying facilities rent and utilities, insurance premiums, and professional dues/fees; and paying vendors for office supplies, marketing, and curriculum and classroom materials.
f. a lawyer, to draft and/or review contracts and letters of agreement with instructors, host facilities, etc., and to guide the processes of incorporation and securing non-profit status.
g. an insurance specialist, to organize liability coverage for the school, Directors’ and Officers’ coverage for the board, and life/health coverage for all paid staff. This is an operational necessity for a school and can be a major budget expense; insurance must be handled carefully, by a professional.
h. a facilities expert, to deal with the Emergency Protection Agency, county health department, local building inspectors, and state department of education regarding the physical requirements for the school facilities. (OCS-NEO was guided through this maze by a parishioner who dealt with the facilities inspections every day in his profession, and could easily read and digest the various codes. He even coordinated required follow-up work, like upgrading the emergency lighting system in the classroom areas and fencing in the outside air-conditioning unit.)
i. a spiritual advisor, to keep the entire group focused on the ministry in a God-like way, and keep the emphasis ultimately on nurturing children toward Salvation.
j. a computer-savvy secretary, to route and file the mountains of paperwork required for every single step of the establishment, especially chartering.
k. a publicist or other person skilled in both writing and graphics/layout, to spread the word about the school, in support of recruitment and fundraising efforts.
l. a lead fundraiser/grant-writer, to make face-to-face requests for financial support of large private donors, and pen applications and explanatory text to request foundation monies. (These “ask” skills may be learned from specialized mentoring organizations like Stewardship Advocates, or local non-profit organizations’ workshops in fundraising.)
All of the people on the establishing board must be willing to commit their time and talents, and the commitment is considerable. Try to find one person per position to avoid an overwhelming workload and “volunteer burnout”.
These people must also lead the way as financial contributors: the start-up funds and the initial operating funds, quite frankly, come from the selfless giving of the board. They also “provide a benchmark” for other donors, e.g., if the board did not believe in the success of the project, they would not be significant donors themselves.
A Cloud of Witnesses
From the very second the idea of establishing a school is first discussed, “the school” will become the topic of conversation at every parish council meeting, coffee hour, pan-Orthodox event, and baklava/peroghi workshop. You ? as individuals and a group ? will be watched constantly for reassurance that the school will succeed, or clues that it will fail miserably. Here are some lessons we’ve learned at OCS-NEO over the past three years/schools:
1. Communicate. Make this the primary responsibility for one “in-the-know” person, to make sure that all area priests, parish councils, and parishes (e.g., through their Sunday bulletins) are kept up-to-date on all progress in establishing the school. The “public” will know the effort is real if they see regular, honest progress reports. Any major steps should be announced and explained by your group, with sufficient detail to avoid misunderstandings and prevent rumors.
Use a variety of communications methods (bulletin inserts, mailings, pulpit announcements, radio interviews, posters, information sessions, etc.), and keep repeating: the Orthodox community is large, and it’s very hard to get the word out to everyone.
2. Expect opposition. You will receive verbal criticism and “obstructive action”, from varied and unexpected sources. Do not let this dissuade you from establishing the ministry; just know that it will happen, try to understand why, and deal with it immediately and professionally.
Some of the sources of criticism we have encountered include:
a. those who oppose the establishment of any non-public schools, in the interest of maintaining a “melting pot” model of leveling education for all American students;
b. Those who oppose the use of non-standard curriculum (e.g., anything that differs from the “separate subjects” model, or with a religious/non-secular emphasis);
c. Those who oppose the use of instructors who do not hold university degrees in education, despite their teaching experience, depth of subject knowledge, workshop training in classroom management and educational theory, or natural ability;
d. Those who doubt the ability of the individuals on the establishing board to establish a professional, effective school;
e. Those who doubt that the parish or local Orthodox community can sustain a school ministry in the long term, either financially or in student numbers;
f. Those who fear that the school ministry will harm the host parish in its own fundraising (e.g., those who give to the school will decrease their donations to the parish), or adversely effect the parish facilities (e.g., making them unavailable for other uses, causing excessive janitorial responsibility or physical damage, etc.);
g. Those who don’t see the need for a parochial school, because they have no school-age children or grandchildren of their own; and
h. Those who believe that if they are not personally involved, or do not endorse the project for any reason, the project will fail.
Meet each opposition with prayer and the clear message that an Orthodox Christian school is a ministry offered as an option to interested parents, who want the God-and-Faith-centered lifestyle they are modeling and living at home to be reinforced in their children’s academic environment. And cover your backside: establish policies and procedures that ingrain professionalism in the school from the very beginning.
3. Maintain Administrative Professionalism. As soon as you have a blessing to begin a school ministry, document, document, document! Take careful minutes of each and every meeting, and file them. Establish policies immediately for school board operations (including bylaws and organizational structure); office operations (including admissions, parent notification protocols, etc.); faculty relations (including weekly staff meetings, orientation and review, payroll delivery, etc.); and student life (including attendance, dress code, discipline, etc.). Draft job descriptions for each board and administrative position, as well as for each teaching position, and abide by them.
This is a difficult task for a start-up school, because one person may wear many hats, or even share hats ? it’s easy to muddy the waters between board responsibilities, principal’s responsibilities, faculty duties, and the ever-present fundraising, especially if the work is getting done by “word of mouth”. If necessary, refer to people by position rather than name: “For admissions information, you should contact the school secretary, Ann, at the office on Friday. She can provide you with a complete packet.” or “Our chairman and one of our classroom teachers, would be pleased to present the school to your parish council.” (rather than “Jane and Fr. Jonathan”).
4. Maintain Spiritual Professionalism. The identity and integrity of the school relies on its ecclesiastical sponsor, the orthopraxis modeled by those core people involved in the school ministry project ? board members, principal, teachers, volunteers, and students; and on the spiritual emphasis of the curriculum:
a. Get a blessing. As stated before, an Orthodox Christian parochial school has absolutely no credibility in the Church without an ecclesiastical sponsor, and thus a place in the hierarchy. Potential donors in the community, foundations who offer educational grant monies, the IRS, and the state Department of Education all look for this official endorsement as well, as an external indication that the project is supported by an established, responsible party.
b. Board & staff qualifications. All board members, paid instructors, and volunteers should come highly recommended by their spiritual fathers/confessors as vibrant Orthodox Christians, actively involved in
c. Growing in faith. These people serve as role models for the students, and are ambassadors for the project. Both potential supporters and critics will notice those people involved in the project who do not attend Church services or are “sloppy” with their faith and behavior toward others.
d. Prayer, Church community, and Christian service. The focus of the school’s existence must be the theosis (journey to Salvation) of its students, before academics, extra-curriculars, or recess! Begin and end the day with prayer (i.e., Third and Ninth Hours); put lessons in the Faith, Holy Scripture and Tradition first in the daily schedule; and include faith-building service projects in the school’s activities: serving at soup kitchens, hospital visits (with musical programs, etc.), regularly writing to parish shut-ins, etc.
5. Maintain Academic Professionalism. The secular world will judge the success of your school solely by the credentials of your instructors and the academic performance of the students. Many Orthodox Christian parents will use “test scores” as the deciding factor in determining whether or not to enroll their children: if they won’t “learn” at least as much as they would in their local public school, the additional spiritual benefits aren’t important.
a. Hire only highly-qualified staff, whether they are university-trained teachers or not. Teachers in an Orthodox Christian school must have theological training (some type of “live” coursework, supervised and administered by clergy), and thorough knowledge of history in addition to subject knowledge and classroom experience. Remember, too, that classroom management techniques can be taught; natural rapport can’t. (At OCS-NEO, all instructor candidates that are considered, based on application, essay, recommendations, and transcripts, are required to teach a lesson of their choice at multiple grade levels to students in the school, with an evaluating committee observing.)
b. Adopt the view that all academic skills are potential tools for God’s work and understanding His commandments to mankind, and present them accordingly. Language arts, mathematics, natural science, music, art, and even physical education take on a far greater importance to students when they are presented in the context of Christian service and stewardship. This view also provides a framework for further integration of all subjects.
c. Use high-quality curriculum and classroom materials. Choose from reputable, proven educational publishers under the guidance of an experienced educator/curriculum committee, and beware of generic “Christian” curricula and materials. These materials, especially at higher
d. Grade levels, are absolutely non-Orthodox in their presentation of God, Church, and man’s salvation.
e. Make sure that the school’s academic program meets and exceeds objective standards from a recognized and respected educational oversight body. In Ohio, the granting of “charter” status by the Department of Education both requires and guarantees certain levels of instruction time per subject and in total, subject coverage and materials, etc. Accreditation with an outside agency (like the North Central Association or Association of Christian Schools) is another route to an objective “seal of approval” on an academic program. Plan from the beginning to do one or both: chartering with your state and/or accreditation with a regional agency.
f. Use standardized tests to assess students’ academic performance, including both nationally-known and respected tests like ITBS and your own state’s proficiency tests. Testing allows you to fine-tune subject coverage and emphasis within your curriculum, and provides one more objective testament to the strength of your school’s academic program. They add credibility: if you test, you are concerned with quality academics and continuous improvement of your program. (Tests are expensive, however, and must be planned for well in advance of administering; make sure tests are on the schedule and in the budget from day one.)
A complete “step-by-step” checklist for planting new schools has been developed and is used by OCS-NEO. It is available upon request to interested local groups.
The OCS-NEO administration and faculty are also pleased to talk to and work with interested local groups toward the establishment of Orthodox Christian schools, whether they re-create the school model of its own network as far as policy and curriculum, or start “from scratch”.
Additional information on the Orthodox Christian classical curriculum model, OCS-NEO curriculum materials, our schools’ policies and procedures, and campus activities is available on the OCS-NEO web site: http://www.ocs-neo.org.
For more information on OCS-NEO curriculum and curriculum materials, contact:
755 S. Cleveland Ave.
Mogadore, OH 44260
For more information on establishing a school, contact:
Orthodox Christian Schools of Northeast Ohio, Inc.
755 S. Cleveland Ave.
Mogadore, OH 44260
ATTN: Development Committee
Additional, up-to-date contact information is available on www.ocs-neo.org.
Submitted 20 May 2002 on behalf of the OCS-NEO governing board—Jane Beese, president; Priest Timothy Sawchak, vice president; James Chuma, treasurer; and Melissa Trace, secretary.