Of Haystacks, Rook, and Potlucks: Study Links School Choice, Adventist Culture

RIVERSIDE, California — Engagement watches, Saturday night Rook games, vegetarian potlucks, debates on proper construction of the “haystack” — for many Seventh-day Adventists these things are instantly familiar. But do anecdotal experiences constitute a denominational culture, and are cultural practices linked to Adventist K-12 school enrollment in America?

A doctoral study by La Sierra University Assistant Professor of Education Dr. Aimee Leukert recently produced intriguing answers to these questions through a mixed-methods approach. Initial research conducted for her dissertation at Claremont Graduate University indicates the presence of a unique Adventist culture existing across subcultural boundaries in America and further analysis based on that research shows that lifelong Seventh-day Adventists who attended Adventist K-12 schools themselves and who are middle-of-the-road traditionalists in their views of diet, dress, Sabbath preparation, and other Adventist activities are often the most willing to invest in Adventist education for their own children.

Conversely those who scored low for Adventist cultural practices and norms were more likely to send their children to public or non-Adventist schools, and those who tested for a high degree of traditional Adventist cultural practices were more likely to homeschool their children.

“It is a very interesting U-shaped curve,” Leukert said. “I think that the population in the middle is getting smaller,” a phenomenon that may be connected to the enrollment drop many academies have experienced over the past 20 years.

Leukert graduated in May from Claremont Graduate University with a Ph.D. She plans to share more detailed analyses and findings of her study in the future.

Leukert also serves as associate director of La Sierra’s Center for Research on Adventist K-12 Education and has worked with the North American Division’s Education Taskforce. Prior to arriving at La Sierra University, she taught at multiple levels within the Adventist K-12 system and served as administrator of a K-8 school.

As school leader she often faced frustrating questions about whether schools were doing enough to stem the ongoing enrollment fallout. The experience influenced the formation of her dissertation topic.

“My context was that we have this decline in enrollment that people have been talking about for at least two decades and I felt that as a school teacher and as a principal often the finger was pointed at the school — ‘what are you guys doing wrong?’ It was a burden on us as principals,” Leukert said. She hypothesized that since the quality and content of Adventist education has remained relatively consistent over the years, something in the Adventist culture may be at the root of parents’ decisions of whether or not to enroll their children in Adventist K-12 schools. She decided to put her theories to the test through her doctoral dissertation. “I wanted to ask them whether or not they swim on Sabbath and where they enroll their kids in school,” she said.

Cultural ties

The first step was to determine the existence of a nation-wide, cohesive Adventist culture. She began in March and May 2018 with two sample surveys of a total 124 active church members within the eight denominational unions around the country. The first survey involved personal interviews with 61 people and after consolidation to mitigate redundancy produced 27 core statements on Adventist-centric cultural practices and beliefs such as attendance at church potlucks and game nights; avoidance of harmful drink and food; consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet; engagement of children in Pathfinders or Adventurers; belief in Ellen White as a prophetess; and the preparation for and celebration of the 24-hour Sabbath.

“Regardless of where they lived or were raised or became a baptized member of the Adventist church, the data was overwhelmingly similar,” Leukert said in an article about her research. “…there was a core set of responses that were almost identical from person to person, and to me as a person born and raised in the Adventist church, deeply, deeply familiar.”

The second survey asked another 63 people to rank-order the 27 core statements from most to least important from the perspective of their Adventist community. Leukert noted that each of the 63 participants reacted humorously to the unintended irony that the list of Adventist cultural statements totaled 27 which is the number of publicly-stated fundamental beliefs posited for many years by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. A 28th belief was added in 2015, a fact also noted by most survey participants. “Seeing the humor in 27 items and 27 fundamental beliefs was not confined to a certain state or gender or age,” wrote Leukert.

A factor analysis of the results produced a ratio of 3.28 indicating a shared set of cultural knowledge within the U.S. population of Seventh-day Adventist church members. “With this magical number in hand, the validation of a cultural domain was confirmed,” Leukert noted in an article about her research.

During the summer of 2018 she continued the study by distributing a three-part survey through various channels around the United States and received more than 1,000 responses from participants who have children in grades K-12. The questionnaire addressed Adventist doctrine, general religiosity, and Adventist culture. The culture portion consisted of the top 14 traits or characteristics of an Adventist as determined by the second survey and turned them into questions. The final results produced the U-shaped results pertaining to school selection and cultural practices.

Adventist K-12 school enrollment figures for the eight American unions were included in the research results. The North Pacific Union Conference ranked the highest for SDA enrollment at 68.2% with 17.2% in homeschool, and 14.6% in non-Adventist schools, and the Atlantic Union Conference scored the lowest at 50% enrolled with an equal split between respondents who homeschool their children and those who send them to non-Adventist schools.

Research results also showed the significance of community — parents whose friends were largely Adventist were twice as likely to send their child to an Adventist K-12 school (64.6%) than to a non-Adventist school (33.1%).

Insights on tradition

Donna Baerg Entze a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist and vice principal for academic affairs at Monterey Bay Academy participated in the first survey. Growing up in the Monterey Bay area she recalled how her family engaged in Sabbath preparation activities each Friday afternoon by ensuring cooking and baths were done before sundown. Currently her traditional activities involve connecting with her mother and sister via Skype on Friday evening or Sabbath afternoon, and participating each Sabbath in meaningful worship with her Sabbath School class and church. A vegetarian, Entze says she has created a no-pasta zucchini ravioli that is popular at potlucks and is always down for a good Special-K loaf.

She agrees that those who attend SDA schools throughout their education are more likely to send their kids to Adventist academies. “They see that the students are able to get more than just an education,” she said, and if young people observe their parents sacrificing to provide that holistic educational experience, they will do the same with their own children. As an example, she said she is now seeing the children of former MBA students enrolling at the academy, some from Arizona.

In her observation, other factors also may have contributed to declining enrollment at boarding academies which lost students when junior day academies expanded to full high school programs, and as families became more mobile and moved around the country.

She wasn’t entirely surprised by the study outcome confirming the existence of an Adventist culture given her own experiences with Adventists in other areas of the country. “When I encountered other Adventists I just knew there were some similarities,” she said.

Leukert believes her research provides valuable insight into the changing culture of the Adventist church in the North American Division and the implications it may have on Adventist K-12 schools. “For instance, based on this data,” she says, “a better understanding and knowledge of the Adventist community surrounding each school may allow school administrators to develop a more effective marketing strategy.”

This article was written by Darla Martin Tucker and originally published by La Sierra University.

Main photo: Dr. Aimee Leukert holds one of Adventisms' best known iconic meals, the haystack. Around her are Loma Linda Academy students (left to right, front to back) Kolton Ice, Micah Mendez, Liana Leukert, Kayleigh Leukert, and Makena Wacker. (Photo by Natan Vigna, courtesy of LSU.)

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9932
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Interesting info…wonder what other factors play into this however

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Adventist education is interesting, and good. I am myself a product of it since my first 16 years in school were spent at the same Adventist school. Good memories, it was a great school. There was a strong emphasis on religion, yes, but the other disciplines were not neglected, they were actually tough at all levels.

Then when we had our kids we lived in different places, where the Adventist school did not offer as good an education as other schools did, and we opted to offer them the best education available, which did not necessarily need to be labeled Adventist.

So, in my opinion, Adventist education is good for as long as it’s focusing on the quality of the education provided and not on being a mere evangelistic agent.

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Here’s a good marketing strategy - hire teachers qualified to teach what they are hired for.

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I just watched the reprimand of six union presidents and it seems somewhat unimportant at this moment to examine this topic. However, the SDA educational system is currently the most effective method for ensuring continued membership of the children of the NAD and it appears to be broken, so it seems to me that it is worth addressing before the 7 day deadline.

Because of her previous experience I can understand why Ms. Leukert felt a need to learn more about the drop in SDA school enrollment in the past 25 years. I’ve observed the unfair pressure placed on Adventist schools and their principals to attract more students in my time on elementary and academy boards. I’ve heard older members ask the conference president to make pastors preach more often about Adventist education on several occasions. These fellow church members do not seem to understand that the schools themselves can do little in the face of larger cultural trends. So, while I find it interesting to read the results of this study, I am not convinced that an analysis of the data has led to much in the way of practical information. If the focus is going to be on moderate Adventists and their practices I think she is missing the most important finding of her study. I guess I’d like to read the full dissertation.

This study does provide evidence of what I’ve anecdotally observed in my children’s experience in the Adventist educational system in the last 15 years. It would be useful to know who uses the system and why members do or do not use it. Asking those who do not use the system or who have left the system why they made their decision seems to me to be a critical part of understanding the whole story–trying to guess their motives is unnecessary. What finally needs to be decided is whether an educational system admittedly used by only 50% of most unions’ children is really the best way to serve the denomination’s children. Is it time to find more effective ways to minister to SDA kids?

My husband and I fell into the “moderate beliefs and practices” category when our children began school in the early 2000s. We immediately saw that their experience was going to be very different from our own in the 70s and 80s. We certainly knew that many conservative SDA families were now absent, having chosen homeschooling. (Our SDA school had enrollment in the 90s, while the local homeschool group had over 200 children.) Whatever the causes for the changes that had occurred, our observation was ultimately that there was little left of value in Adventist education for our children. The only reason that we could imagine staying would be to remain within the “friendship circle” of those in the church. But as there was also a distinct absence of members from our generation in the churches we attended, this was not much of an issue. Additionally, there were little to no other children from similarly practicing Adventist families with whom our children could form relationships–the kind of relationships we formed as children and which we have maintained to this time.

The idea put forward in this article that the quality of Adventist education has remained consistent seems tone deaf to me. What we have seen is that public schools and other private schools have advanced while the Adventist schools stayed the same—in essence regressing. Our children entered another private school system after 5th and 8th grade and I have been constantly amazed at the rigor of their program. When my daughter graduated from her private faith-based high school she was nearly as well-educated as I had been when I finished my liberal arts education and pre-medical courses at PUC (I believe I received an excellent education). Having served for two terms on the conference academy board I can say with surety that she received a superior education to that available within the SDA system. (I wish I had a copy of my kid’s SDA middle school science books as evidence of some of the incredibly poor education they experienced. I found it upsetting that my children were exposed to such low level education. I’ve been told they finally created and printed new SDA-made science books, but have not seen them. I’m sorry to say I’m not confident that the GC /NAD could produce adequate science books.)

What surprised us and continues do so is that educated, socioeconomically advantaged parents in our local church still choose to use the SDA schools. Do they also fit the study’s description of moderate SDAs who themselves attended SDA schools? Yes. I would add that they tend to be multi-generational Adventists. We believe that they choose this route to maintain the happiness of their own parents and because they have friends who also have children in the school, as was noted in the study. It is a comfortable and familiar situation.

The large subsidy paid to our local SDA school by our church benefits less than half of the congregation’s children. In fact, it benefits much less than half. Older members are the most vocal in complaints about this expenditure—they think the school should fix its own problems and that more sermons on SDA education are needed. Just the kind of criticism the article refers to. The situation is complicated by the fact that most of the local church leadership are homeschooling families (pastor, head elder, associate treasurer, church secretary–most of the rest are older members whose children are not school age). It’s hard to preach the wonders of Adventist education to new families when they can plainly see that church leaders do not use it.

Another question that could be asked is what percentage of pastors’ school age children across the US are homeschooling. (Also of interest, although it could not be officially noted, is how many grandchildren of conference and union leadership are being homeschooled? They tend to be older individuals whose own children are adults.) My experience is almost all and that has been the biggest surprise of all for my husband and me. Learning that the education superintendent’s grandchildren, who lived in the same conference as the superintendent, were homeschooled was frankly shocking. If the conference officials’ own families and children will not support the educational system why should the rest of us?

In the past religiously conservative families and their children often acted as the moral and spiritual compass of Adventist schools. Now they are largely missing, due to their choice to homeschool, replaced by those moderate families noted in this study. The rest of the families in SDA schools skew toward the liberal. While “liberal” families were the exception in our childhood, they have now become a large portion of the schools. This has led to changes within the schools themselves. SDA acculturation–one of the most important functions of Adventist schools in the past–is no longer effectively occurring.

While this is an interesting start and important data was collected, understanding what has really occurred in the past 25 years in Adventist education requires a much fuller survey of SDA families. What I find particularly ineffective is when school or church officials “guess” why families are not using their schools. Properly developed surveys can find the information they need.

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Thank you for this contribution to the discussion.
While noting membership attrition and declining enrollment at schools, I have not heard leadership give credence to the idea that it might be useful to consider the thoughts of people who have chosen to walk away from the denomination or from schools.
Your observation that such information is lacking, and would be useful, is a good one.

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The SdA college where my parents met is defunct.

The SdA academy where their three sons graduated is defunct.

The SdA college where one of the sons graduated can’t control a “mold problem” because of a lack of “finances”.

Do you think we would send our daughter for a SdA education?

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I wish the GC were the next to die.
Oh, wait a minute, it is already dead, isn’t it? :innocent::innocent:

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There has been talk on these forums of how “all of this doesn’t matter”, referring to AC19 and its actions. I agree that most of the actions of bodies like that do not affect most Adventists or won’t for many years.

However, how the SDA school system is managed does affect people today, right now. Families raising children only do so for a few years and they need support at that time. How is the church supporting them?

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