The Boarding Academy Crisis

A few weeks ago I received a letter announcing a special constituency session to discuss the future of Ohio’s Mount Vernon Academy. Our conference boarding school, we were told, is facing a financial crisis.

I attended Sheyenne River Academy[1] in North Dakota for all four years. I imagine that I grumbled about the food and being away from home and the rules and everything else. But I wasn’t away from there long before I realized what a favor that mediocre, maintenance-deferred boarding academy had done for me. I went from a small-town public elementary school in rural North Dakota[2], where aspiring to an advanced education was unusual, to a place where just about everyone would attempt a college degree. I was thrust into an environment where I had to learn to take care of myself, where I practiced leadership, and where I could have real friends rather than the school-time-only acquaintances that a Seventh-day Adventist child from a conservative home was restricted to back then. In short, Sheyenne River Academy gave me a bigger world than the children I’d been with in public school. And I don’t regret it. SRA led to Walla Walla College, Andrews University, and The San Francisco Theological Seminary. Though she didn’t have to board away from home, my wife spent even more time in Adventist schools than I did. Both of us are grateful for our Adventist education.

As neither a parent, nor an alumnus of Mount Vernon academy, I only know it as an observer, but it seems to me to be a fine school. The principal and some of the other leaders are acquaintances of mine, and I trust them. I have suggested MVA to families in my churches. I think MVA offers opportunities for a quality education, for life-long friends, and for nurturing in students an ongoing relationship with the the Lord and the Seventh-day Adventist church.

But this piece isn’t about Mount Vernon Academy. It’s about a bigger question: what do we do with precious institutions that don’t have a market any longer? What’s happening here is being repeated in all the conferences with boarding schools around the country, and in at least one union conference with a defunct college. (The demographics suggest that a few other small SDA colleges may join that list eventually).

There are a number of solid reasons why these schools are failing. At the top of the list: the church is aging, and there are fewer children. The median age across the NAD is in the mid 50’s, and here in the Ohio heartland it’s over 60. Some claim that we have the same proportion of our children in church schools as we used to—we just have fewer children.

Sending your children to board away from home has always been expensive: my parents took out loans to educate four of us. But it seems to have become more expensive compared to income. Many can’t afford a $10,000 to $20,000 school bill for high school, and then more for college. School administrators discount tuition to keep enrollment up, but someone eventually has to pay the bill.

And parents seem no longer as willing as my parents were to send teens off to board, even for the sake of a quality Seventh-day Adventist education. I did my own unscientific research, which amounted to talking with a few Seventh-day Adventist parents I know (some of whom went to boarding academy themselves) about why they aren’t sending their children. Here’s a précis of what they said.

•The teen years are so precious: we want our children with us so we can bond with them and enjoy them.

•We want to guide and direct our children ourselves, not send them off to be raised by young deans and teachers.

•Teens are vulnerable in all kinds of ways: we want our children near us where we can watch out for them.

•We trust our local public schools. We live in the suburbs, not in an inner city where schools are substandard and dangerous.

•We believe that our local public schools offer a better education.

•The children don’t want to go.

•The children want to play league sports, or participate in drama and theater.

•Boarding academy is too expensive.

•They’re too young to be away from home.

Again, I’m not a parent, so I’m not going to critique these reasons.[3] It’s enough to say that not enough Adventist families are using this service that conferences provide to keep schools alive and healthy.

So crises are now a regular feature of the remaining boarding academies in the NAD. One of the first constituency meetings I attended as a young pastor was about the newly-built Dakota Adventist Academy. We had a number of those before I left that conference. In Central California I attended at least one crisis meeting about Monterey Bay Academy. This will be the second crisis meeting about MVA since I’ve been in Ohio. It’s deja vu all over again. Many boarding schools that were active when I was young are gone now. Those that remain are, with few exceptions, struggling.

Although we’ve been through this many times across the NAD, each time it comes up it seems to take everyone by surprise. In Silver Spring we have one of the most outsized denominational leadership teams in Christendom. But they don’t seem to have much to offer here. It’s a local problem. What we could use now are specialists in winding down ministries that aren’t working anymore, or transforming them into something else. But discussions about local conference boarding schools never happen at a creative edge. They’re always life-support discussions: institutional defibrillation, feeding tubes and respirators.

Many of you have been at these crisis constituency meetings, and you know how they go. The brethren explain the situation, which amounts to, “We don’t have enough paying students to keep this school open.” People queue up at the microphones to say, “You’ve got to keep it open.” Ellen White said we should; or, my great grandfather graduated here and you can’t close it now; or, Adventist youthdom will completely crumble without it; or, we’ve invested too much in the buildings to let them go unused. Along the way you’ll hear blaming of the principal, the academy board, the conference leadership. Why didn’t you see this coming and tell us before? Why didn’t you have a long-term plan to solve it? You will probably hear the word “mismanagement.” Expect at least one angry “over my dead body will you close our school” speech. (I once heard at such a meeting the demand that we fire as many conference pastors as needed to raise the money to keep a seriously underused school from closing.) Expect, too, some scolding on the point of faith, as in “where is yours?” (though I suspect these people would be the first to object if you tried to pay their paycheck in faith rather than hard currency.) Eventually someone presents a motion to raise lots of money and recruit students. Just raising your hand doesn’t cost anything, so most people will raise them.

It occurs to me that this old model of church governance—having a meeting where everyone gets to vote to have someone else solve an insoluble problem—isn’t applicable to this problem. Perhaps we need a new kind of decision-making model, one that depends on investment rather than hand-raising. Let’s say that anyone who has sent their children to the school and paid the bill gets an automatic opportunity to vote yes. (Being an alumnus isn’t enough: that was your parents’ doing, not yours.) Everyone else who wants to keep the school open has to invest to get their vote. You get a vote for pledging to pay the tuition (or some predetermined portion) for a student for the coming school year. Those who neither sent their own children to the school nor are willing to invest money in it now, get recorded as no votes. Maybe delegates can go home and think about it for a week or two. Or band with others to come up with the amount for one vote. Maybe they can convince a paying student to attend—another way to earn a vote. Perhaps each congregation can discuss it and see if they can come up with enough money to earn all the votes the congregation is entitled to.

But you couldn’t just sit there and raise your hand committing others to solve the problem based on a vague feeling that we should have a school. It’s like the shareholders in a buggy whip manufacturer or washboard factory voting to keep making the products even though there’s no demand for them. Pour money into it, use it, or accept its demise. It’s that simple.

I think we’ll have lost something precious when children don’t have the opportunity for this kind of Adventist education. But if my use-it-or-lose-it analysis is correct, it’s probably inevitable. You may be someone who has no connection to one of these schools, and you may suppose it doesn’t matter to you. But consider this. It may be one more degree turn of the rudder into the death spiral of the NAD church: fewer institutions serving the young, so reduced attachment to the church, fewer families raising their children in the church, less tithe, fewer pastors, churches closing, and on it goes. How to reverse it, no one seems to know.

[1] Every time I write about my alma mater, someone contacts me to say I must have misspelled its name. I assure you that the North Dakota river the school was named after was “Sheyenne”, not “Cheyenne”. Don’t ask me why. I wasn’t there when they named it.

[2] There wasn’t an elementary church school near where we lived, or I’m sure we would have attended it.

[3] These parents don’t say, “Because we don’t care if our children stay in the church or not.” But I’ve observed that children who attend SDA high school are more likely to keep a relationship with the church, go on to Adventist college, and marry a Seventh-day Adventist—though that’s not to say that Adventist education is a solid guarantee of later church involvement.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6504
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Spot on, Pastor Seibold.

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It takes 35-45-year-old’s not 60-year-old’s to have academy-age children.

Or a church in another decade.

Got it.

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How about we stop throwing money at all these “efforts”, including throwing money into trash baskets in the form of denominational books; and invest, instead, in a conference backed education systems - for the academy level; and divide the colleges by what degrees are offered to cut out redundancies. Elementary age kids can easily function in local public schools with oversight by the local church social programs, engaging the kids on the weekends.

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Do you recognize a swan song when you hear it?

All the reasons parents’ listed are sufficient to realize that Adventist boarding academies, as well as the day academies are dying, and it’s not being faced. When there are so many excellent schools PLUS the most important and precious time for parents is to have their teens at home under their influence.

While I spent my academy days at a boarding academy, I would never subject my child to that type of education and environment. That is why my daughters sent their daughters to non-SdA schools where they were involved in sports, drama and excellent teachers.

With the increasing age of the church it is unrealistic to believe there can be continued support for boarding academies.

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Absolutely true: Strategic planning, let alone creative, lateral thinking associated with strategic planning, doesn’t seem to happen. This is a deeply rooted challenge in the Denomination, generally. Few leaders can agree on outcomes, let alone how to achieve them, and as is the case in any large institution, they are risk-aversive, even though current practices are failing . I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community, where I and many of my neighbors attended a private, non-denominational school; most of my classmates also attended Thursday afternoon religious instruction—certainly on their way to bar/bat mitzvah. Three hours every week, studying the Torah and learning Hebrew. Temple provided a lively social environment and culturally specific activities. Yes: the Orthodox and Reformed communities did not mix much, but everyone learned his or her religion and had a social safety net. Investing resources in church-related after-school instruction , including SAT and pre-college preparation if it’s not available in public school, would help build an extra-curricular program and engaged cohort. One challenge we have is that we identify ourselves more by what we don’t allow than what we enjoy, so holding school dances, which, really, is where young adults mix and match, is not likely to work.

But other ideas are out there, and reviewing the causes for the demise of the boarding academy and working from there would be a good start. This is a thorough, insightful assessment of the issues the Denomination faces, altogether.

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I couldn’t agree more. This is a model that quite simply doesn’t work anymore. I attended 4 years of boarding academy, and all three of my boys have attended a local Christian (non-SDA school), primarily because there was no SDA elementary school nearby. By the time high school came, they were unwilling to switch, and my husband and I were unwilling to have them board. These are very important and formative years, and we wanted to be closely involved in their lives through high school.

But the conference is always in a bind for money, and we maintain a lot of buildings and campuses that are underused. We need a new business model for the church, one based on the way the world and the church actually are today, not the way they were 30-50-70 years ago.

Thanks for bringing up this topic.

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Or a church whose constituency is wiling to send their children to a place that is foreign to them and costs more than their rent or mortgages. For some inner-city constituents, assimilation and eventual abandonment is also a fear (boarding academy to college far away to never returning to wherever they came from).

In other words, yes: A church from another decade / century.

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When I taught at MVA, the bills were not getting paid. Even the ABC store had to require COD from MVA. They went through business managers every three years. Then there is the student body. I would approximate that half were not SDAs, less than 10% were Ohio conference members. From 20 to 40 students were from overseas. There are not many youth in Ohio, much less academy aged. Just like an old car, MVA should be put out to pasture. They lost their common weal funds and owed lots of unpaid payroll taxes too. What a mess.

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I think that consolidation is inevitable. The cost of facilities that meet modern needs, especially in science and technology is much better spent when the costs are distributed across a larger student body and tuition base. Reproducing these facilities hundreds of times over is not possible and some schools suffer from inadequate facilities. Larger urban schools can attract more students with a high quality education and excellent facilities while a small rural school will not.

The same thing goes for school leadership and teachers. The cost can be spread out which can make schooling more efficient.

In the early days of SDA academies the US was much more of an agrarian society. Education was more simple. Schools had industries including agriculture that gave students jobs to offset some of the cost of education. It is a different world.

In full disclosure, I attended boarding school in South Africa for around 6 months in elementary school and a California day academy for 9th grade. I also attended an SDA University for a few years. Other than that I was home schooled and went to a public school where I graduated from High school. I also attended a Public University where I got my BS degree. My experience includes many different education environments. The one that was most impactful in my life was Public University.

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This is a very complicated issue. IMO there are two primary issues. First, there has been acceptance of subpar academics. Conference officials think that having Christian teachers makes up for bad programs. Maybe that worked in the 60’s.

The second issue has to do with the type of constituents boarding academies serve. Constituents who can afford boarding schools tend to be in urban areas that have quality christian day schools. Academies generally serve the rest of the constituents - and those constituents need large scholarships.

It takes a huge financial commitment to sustain quality boarding school programs. We need to move beyond the man-made conference boundaries (and Union) to create quality regional schools. But, that will take something more difficult to find than the millions of dollars: humble conference/union leaders willing to vote themselves out of job.

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Here in Ga-Cumberland the Educational Director last year said only 27% of church members in the Conference had school aged children. Like many other Conferences, we have an aging church. And, how many of these members have more than 2-3 children? Large families are no longer in vogue like they were when a lot of the Academies in the NAD were built.
The reasons that Loren cited for parents not sending their child to boarding school are all across NAD. I was staff at an Academy for 25 years and the experience the Academy students get cannot be obtained at home or at a local High School. The association, the developed vision obtained about Adventism from the other students, being forced to be independent and self suficient and taking care of one’s own needs. Learning to “work” and working as part of a team. Meeting schedules and being on time.
Then there is the Religious side that cannot always be met at home, isolated from one’s peers. Academy discusses Old Testament, The Life of Jesus, New Testament Church, Adventist Church History and Doctrines, How to Survive in the World as an Adventist Adult.
These Religious instructions covering 4 years are NOT taught in Local Churches to Youth. Most local churches have a Hit-and-mostly-miss Religious Education program for its Youth. Most Local Churches do not have a Youth Training Program in place for the Youth when they become Adults to take over the operation of the Church.
Sooooo, there SHOULD be a concern about the Aging of the Church, and how many kids now in Cradle Roll, Kindergarten, Primary and Juniors will remain members after they turn 15 or 16?
Whether we have Academies or not, we need a Religious Education program in every Local Church that will inspire Youth when they turn Adult age, to remain in Love with God and His Commission.

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i don’t see that pulling the plug on an institution that isn’t financially viable is a failure…it may have served a need well at one time, but things must contantly be evaluated in terms of current conditions and likely long-term trends…i attended pioneer valley academy in new braintree, mass., for a time, which was an excellent school…but the school is closed now, due to a declining enrollment that had no likelihood of changing…i don’t see this as a failure, nor do i think it challenges the reality that pva was a good school…it’s just a carefully considered response to a current situation, which is the prudent thing to do…and pulling the plug in one place doesn’t mean not investing in some other place or reinvesting in the same place when and if conditions change…

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#1–misplaced trust. This may have been reasonable 50 years ago, but not anymore.

#2–I don’t believe that for a moment. I know too many people who went through the SDA school system, and are successful in medicine, business, teaching, and so on.

3–very lame; very lame indeed. A sad excuse for depriving kids of a Christian education. Priorities.

4–That one I agree with. We certainly couldn’t afford it; so we homeschooled–all 12 grades. Both kids are getting good grades in college, which we can’t afford either, but at least they’ll be in debt for the rest of their lives, not us. :wink:

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There are SDA boarding academies that are not only surviving but thriving. Perhaps an article about a thriving academy would balance out this doom and gloom. I would give you the name of a busting at the seams conference supported boarding academy for the article but the school is so over capacity that I am afraid that they would be overwhelmed with additional applicants. Let’s focus on what works, not the failures. With regard to the expense, when you have a child you have 14 years to get ready for academy tuition, don’t wait till registration day and then cry “too expensive.”

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It must be a revenge from “the Sharptons and the Jacksons of the world”… :slight_smile:

Great article and timely. I agree with your comments on finding humble strategic leaders and they certainly do not exist within the Illinois conference.

This issue extends to the day academy’s. We live in Chicago (3rd largest city in the US) and the Adventist day academy is on life support. This is despite having committed faithful teachers and external financial assistance from a fund that was sold a lemon.

There are many issues including what Loren has highlighted as to why Adventist secondary education is dying. And this is really sad. The schools are run on tradition and controlled by church beauricracy that prefer to be treated as emperors rather than servant leaders. With little commercial skills and minimal personal investment decisions are made by committees that are elected on tradition and Adventist heritage. They are run by insular minded people that do not want to reach the wider community or change . The buildings look like something out of the 70’s and they are barely standing. The finances are a mystery and no one cares or understands. Most of these people have doctorates in something but these doctorates have been funded by the “system” and they have minimal relevance in running schools.

It would take a miracle for Adventist education in Chicago to turn around and become what Adventist education should be. Spirituality and academically world class. There are solutions and there are funds but there is simply no vision or appetite to change.

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It is all pretty simple, times have changed. When my mother went to an SDA boarding school she was moving out of a small house with six siblings and was working her way through school. She worked at an Academy industry for the summer, paid off her bill and had money owed her. Times have changed. Where I live in northern Minnesota it wasn’t uncommon in the 30s and 40s for students to move into and board in “bigger” towns to finish high schools. This is the paradigm being lived in when trying to maintain SDA boarding schools.

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Solution:

Cut out half (or more) of “evangelistic efforts” spend the money on infrastructure and nearly free tuition and more SDA children would be attending. Simple.

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I, myself, attending a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school for three of my four high school years. Focusing on why parents do not want to send their child to a boarding school is, in my opinion, approaching the problem from the wrong perspective. Haven’t you all wondered why there’s not very many youth in the church in this time and age?
As someone who used to attend weekly to not attending anymore, I can tell you. I’m not comfortable in our churches. I’ve visited several different churches, from non-denominational to LDS. SDA churches have by far the most cold, critical members I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been welcomed, opened armed, to churches that we’re told are “leading people astray”…yet when I show up to ours, including the one I was baptized in, I am left feeling lonely and excluded. As I said, I was raised in the church. My grandfather was an incredible Seventh Day Adventist Evangelist. I appreciate old hymns and traditions very much, but today’s youth do not. I’m not saying that the church should have a rock-band like worship service, but if the ministers and elders could find a way to really relate to today’s youth, your problem may start to resolve.
I believe this is the biggest reason students would rather attend a public school than being sent off to a boarding academy full of rules and regulations that they wouldn’t have to adhere to otherwise.

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