In 2002, God placed on my heart a call for the church I was pastoring to start a Christian school. At that time, I was unable to locate someone to lead us through the process in any significant way. However, it was God’s plan, and we successfully started a school with 37 students. By the beginning of the seventh year, our school had grown to 388 students.
Starting a Christian school is a very challenging endeavor, but it can be done, and at Renewanation, we are fully committed to making it as simple as possible.
Over the last few years, we have been involved in helping launch nine Christian schools. We have been searching throughout this process for the best practices to ensure long-term success. It has been a trial and error process as we have been trying to discover and build a system that can be reproduced across the country and the world by organizations both large and small.
We have many people call us each year about starting new schools. They always tell us they need teachers and the money to pay them. They also mention in passing it would be great to have enough students to pay all the bills, but they don’t think this is possible in the first few years.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, thousands of Christian schools were launched. Many of them used a system that allowed small organizations with small numbers of students to open schools. Though some of these schools faced significant challenges, they were the genesis of the Christian school movement in the United States and helped produce several million Christian adults who are impacting the church and our world today. Though the school I started wasn’t launched until 2002, I used some of the same principles and practices that were used in the 60’s and 70’s.
Key Components Necessary to Successfully Start a Christian School
A passionate, called, effective leader who possesses a biblical worldview
Committed, sacrificial teachers who are able and willing to donate a majority of their salaries (if necessary) in the first three years of the school’s existence
A church or organization willing to allow the use of their facilities at a minimal cost
A willingness to start small
Startup cost given by a church or group of donors
Let’s break down each of these components in more detail.
1. A Passionate, Effective Leader
In the 1960’s and 70’s, most Christian schools were started by a visionary pastor. These pastors were motivated by the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools and were spurred into action. In most cases, the church the pastor was leading became the startup-funding source as well as the facility host for the school. Most of these schools were started on a wing and a prayer. There were many weaknesses in most of these schools, but at the end of the day, their students were not secularized, and many of them are the church leaders of today. I am one of those leaders.
Today, we hear less from pastors but more from strong parent leaders and Christian public school teachers who sense the call to start Christian schools. They realize that 16,000 hours of K-12 secular education is not helping their children develop a biblical worldview and in reality, is helping them develop a secular humanistic worldview. I am confident that one of the greatest motivations for my father to start a Christian school in 1976 was the fact that he had eight children (nine by 1978) he was determined to raise for Christ. Eight of those nine children have been in full-time Christian ministry for most of their adult lives.
This passionate, effective, called leader can be a businessman or woman, an educator, or simply someone who is skilled in leading others to accomplish a significant mission. They need excellent people skills, a high level of energy, and a strong inner makeup that does not quit in the face of adversity. They also need to be an excellent team builder. We have seen pastors, parents, and even grandparents be this key leader in starting Christian schools.
2. Committed and Sacrificial Teachers
As leaders in this movement to give children a biblical worldview education, we must recognize that our cause is so critically important that we must do whatever it takes to be successful. In most cases, we start out at a financial disadvantage. Unlike the public school, we receive very little financial assistance outside of student tuition and gifts from donors. If our Christian school ancestors from the 1960’s and 70’s had been unwilling to sacrifice greatly, millions of American Christians today would likely not exist. Though I am often disgusted with people from both sides of the political spectrum, the Christian schools started in the 1960’s and 70’s produced millions of voters with conservative values. Government schools are mass producing future voters with values inconsistent with a biblical worldview.
If it had not been for teachers who were willing to sacrifice financially, at a tremendous level, the Christian school movement would never have been birthed in America. My high school algebra teacher had a master’s degree in math from a prestigious university. He made algebra come to life. He was a fantastic teacher! However, at night I would see him working in a department store to supplement his income. This always bothered me, and I didn’t fully understand why he had to work this second job. Now I understand and have a deep sense of gratefulness to him for his willingness to sacrifice and provide me with a biblical worldview education.
Let me make it very clear that I believe every school should be able to grow to the place where teachers make a livable wage. This should be a passion for every school. However, if we are going to start thousands of new schools, it will require teachers who are willing to sacrifice deeply in the early years.
As we were building the Christian school we launched in 2002, we were blessed to find qualified teachers who had another source of income. Some were recently retired from public education and were eager to teach in a Christian environment. Others had a spouse with a strong income and benefits or were willing to teach in order to receive the tuition benefit we provided our employees. The one common denominator with all of our teachers was the fact that they were passionate about giving children a Christian education. This, above any other factor, led them to make the necessary sacrifices to teach in a Christian school.
3. Church or Organization Providing Facilities at Minimal Cost
In every city and town, there are scores of churches sitting empty all week long. When presented with the tremendous opportunity to impact children through the use of their facilities, many of these churches will open their doors. This is not to say significant challenges don’t exist. However, when the vision to impact children’s lives is presented properly, many churches will catch the vision and even become partners at some level. Though most Christian schools start in churches, we have seen others start in parachurch buildings and even in buildings owned by local business people. In reality, we don’t see this as a major hurdle in most cases. Often, the school will need to raise funds to refit and repurpose the space to accommodate a school. However, if a school starts fairly small with just a few grades, this cost can be quite manageable.
4. Willingness to Start Small
I am not a small thinker. With God’s help, I have been growing organizations my entire adult life. I want to see every Christian school grow to reach hundreds of students. However, I have concluded that in most cases, starting a Christian school that will immediately offer 12-13 grades is not feasible. Again, there are exceptions, but they are rare. In the school I started in 2002, we began with K-8th grade and carried our 8th-graders forward until we had K-12th. In most cases, even starting K-8th will be too much. Our recommendation is starting with K-2nd or at the most K-5th grade. If a church already has a preschool, it is a very simple transition to start adding kindergarten and other grades that follow. By starting with just a few grades, you only need two to three teachers, and one of them can serve as the lead teacher or administrator. As the school develops a reputation for excellence, more students will apply which in turn facilitates finding more teachers and extending to additional grades.
In starting small, schools can be excellent, but they will not be ideal in every area. One teacher may teach two grades. It has been proven this method can work very well, but ideally, as the school grows, each grade will have a dedicated teacher. Starting small will also mean tuition will likely be less than other schools that are more established and have more programs to offer. We need to give parents strong incentive to take a risk on a new school. When tuition is extremely competitive and affordable, and when the educational experience and atmosphere is superior, growth happens. As the school grows in reputation and value, people are willing to pay what it costs to operate the school.
5. Startup Costs
Startup costs can vary greatly depending on the involvement of the organization that will be hosting the school and a number of other factors. If a new school is using a facility that has tables, chairs, desks, etc., already in place, this reduces the cost. If a new school is moving into an empty building, the costs are much greater. We have seen schools start with as little as $10,000 in upfront costs; however, the estimated average cost of starting a school with three to four grades will land somewhere in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. If there is a strong church involved in the startup, most of this will be provided by the church and its members. For those starting a school that is not connected to one church, funding can come from multiple church partners and individuals who believe in the new school. We do not view startup funds as a great obstacle to starting new schools. With a strong, clear vision, funding sources will be available.
There are many other factors involved in starting a Christian school. However, they are easily understood and implemented when the key factors discussed above are in place.
God wants children to be taught His truth. His heart is broken every time a child walks away from the faith as a result of an unbiblical, secular education. Therefore, He wants churches and communities to invest in starting schools that will teach children to see all of life through a biblical lens. With His help and a good plan, we can start new Christian schools all across America and the world. As we do this, thousands of new children will fall in love with Jesus, develop a biblical worldview, and change the world!
Editor’s Note: In areas where tax credits or vouchers are available to cover tuition or where a large number of guaranteed students are available, the model is somewhat different from the one mentioned above.
Jeff Keaton has been a successful pastor, church and school planter, and ministry entrepreneur. As the founder and CEO of Renewanation, Jeff now works across the United States and Canada to help awaken the church to the great need to give every child a biblical worldview. Jeff is married to his high school sweetheart, Michele, and has two daughters and two sons-in-law: Julianna, Andrew, Heidi, and Jordan. He is the author of The Life of Radical Faith.