The Potter's School
During her family's 11-year service as Christian missionaries to Croatia, Donna Pedroni soloed at homeschooling for as long as she could. But when her daughter, Kelly, reached eighth grade, "I knew there was no way I could teach science," Pedroni said. In 2001, after researching potential sources of help, some missionaries serving in the Middle East told the Pedronis about The Potter's School. That, Pedroni said, was when "the love affair began."
The Potter's School, like a range of other web-based groups, supports homeschooling families, but with some key distinctions. First, using internet videoconferencing technology, the school provides live classroom instruction for 1,750 kids worldwide, in which virtually the only thing missing is the classroom itself. Offering a full range of courses for students in grades 7 through 12, classes meet with a teacher in a live web session for 90 minutes each week. Each session uses live audio-meaning everyone in the class can talk to everyone else-in addition to text chat, video, slide show presentations, even live instruction via whiteboard.
Pedroni first enrolled Kelly in a science course, then added literature and world religion. She then enrolled her seventh-grader, Shannon, and later followed suit with two younger children, even continuing with the school after the family returned to Ashburn, Va., for furlough in summer 2006. "The professionalism of the teachers was just unbelievable," Pedroni said.
The Potter's School's second distinction is its missions emphasis. "One of the top two reasons that missionaries come home is that they don't feel they can properly educate their high-school-age kids," said director Jeff Gilbert. "We really do, by God's grace, help keep missionary families in the field."
The school takes a decidedly Reformed approach to academics as part of the bigger process that the Bible calls "labor." School is a subset of the larger mission of stewardship and discipleship, Gilbert said, not "some stand-alone process. School, chores, ministry, work-we see it all as labor to be done with excellence before God."
Gilbert has found that about 80 percent of the time academic struggles are actually struggles with the pursuit of excellence, rather than with subject matter. "We get a lot of phone calls: 'My kid is struggling in math.' Usually, the real problem is something related to initiative or diligence. Most of the time, we wind up approaching academics as an issue of character."
The Potters School's philosophy is that if a child is diligent, applying himself fully to his schoolwork and serving in the home, then that child is a "good and faithful servant" whether he earns an A or a C. Conversely, Gilbert said, "If a child is not diligent and gets an A, we view that as a negative."
Cornerstone Academy of Glenwood
What struck Carol Parent most the first time she visited Cornerstone Academy wasn't the curriculum. It was the body language of the kids. "I thought, these are not the special-needs kids I've seen in regular programs-sliding down in their seats with body language that said, 'Please don't notice me, please don't call on me,'" said Parent, who had spent 20 years as an educator, first in public schools, then as a teacher and administrator at a Christian school. "These kids were sitting up straight in their seats, participating. They were not afraid to be who they were, whether they were quirky or not."
Cornerstone Academy of Glenwood is one of a relatively few Christ-centered programs for special-needs kids in this country. A Maryland state-approved, non-public school for children in grades 1 through 12, the school provides instruction for kids with learning differences including speech and language disorders; attention and academic skills disorders; processing deficits and dyslexia. Tuition is $17,840 a year, about half the cost of other schools for kids with learning differences in the Baltimore area. Cornerstone uses the "Orton Gillingham approach," a structured, sequential, multi-sensory method that wraps visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile processes into learning to read and spell.
It also uses the biblical principle of gifting to restore academic self-confidence to students who may have lost it in traditional programs. "We start with our kids when they come here and begin to convince them of the truth that God has given everyone gifts," Parent said. "Depending on how long they've spent in other programs, they've spent a lot of time not being free to be themselves."
Parent wants to be clear that the Christian covenant community has done a great job with kids who fall in the low to high academic range. "Most of the time, it's because of budget that we miss the kids outside either end of the range. It's not because of Christian educators' hearts." Cornerstone, she said, is serving in another niche, a place where kids with learning differences "can experience the truth that God accepts them for who they are."
The Potter's House School
Grand Rapids, Mich.
In 1975, as John Booy was finishing up his degree at Calvin College, his Bible fellowship began praying that God would show them a place where they could serve together. Most in the fellowship were Calvin students; all of them committed to offering themselves up to service as a group. Soon, the fellowship felt called to a poverty-stricken neighborhood on the southwest side of Grand Rapids known as Roosevelt Park.
The fellowship began buying houses in Roosevelt Park, which at the time could be had for between $6,500 and $11,500. Then they started reaching out to their adult neighbors, inviting them for meals and music. Before long, though, "kids from the neighborhood started coming over pressing their faces up against the screen," Booy said.
"We were all white, Dutch, and from the suburbs," Booy said. "We had never met anyone in poverty. . . . We were completely blown away by the need."
Soon the group was reaching more kids than adults, inviting them in one night a week for a meal, Bible lessons, and crafts. Booy began teaching in Grand Rapids public schools and soon noticed that the kids in Roosevelt Park were two to three years behind his same-aged students academically. Gradually, the idea of opening a school took shape. And in 1981, The Potter's House School opened with 12 students and two volunteer teachers operating out of a church basement. Last year, the school enrolled 465 kids. Its mission: to serve kids whose families could not otherwise afford a Christian education.
Each child's tuition is set at roughly 10 percent of the family's discretionary income after adjustments for expenses. That can range from as low as $550 (or $50 a month) if a family is living at the poverty level, to as high as $5,700 for those who have the ability to pay. "Historically, we have turned away 100 to 180 applicants a year, predominantly families who had other options," Booy said.
The Potter's House School is 80 percent donation-supported in contrast to most Christian schools, which are 85 percent tuition-based. Each year, the school's development team must raise $2.3 million in scholarships-a little over $4,000 per child. And each time it expands, adding a new classroom, for example, "we accept the students first and raise the money second," Booy said. "It has to be somewhat realistic, but it's never totally realistic. We're never totally sure where the money's going to come from-we just step out in faith."
In more than a quarter-century, Booy said, the school has not had a single year in which it fell significantly short. The school's primary supporters are individual donors linked either to a classroom or an individual student. But the school also raises money through foundation grants, fundraising banquets, churches, and business donations.
"We have never had the luxury of having all the money raised before the school year starts," Booy said.
Booy still lives in the same $11,500 house that he bought in 1975. He's heard nearby gunfire recently, and three weeks ago someone was stabbed about a block away. But the school continues reaching hearts and minds in the midst of urban struggles. "It's the most powerful thing to see all these people coming, some of them broken, all of them with stories, becoming part of what Christ is doing in the world."