Archived Voice Articles

Alums help birth new Christian high school

By Sally Jongsma

Alumni teachers and supporters attended the opning day activities at Calvin Christian High School.  Pictured are: Wendall Schaap (right front), Randy Kroll (center), and Jim DeYoung (back center).

Alumni teachers and supporters attended the opning day activities at Calvin Christian High School. Pictured are: Wendall Schaap (right front), Randy Kroll (center), and Jim DeYoung (back center).

Supporting Christian education is nothing new for most Dordt College alumni. A group of Minneapolis alums, though, got behind efforts to start a new and innovative Christian school.

“It was never a question of whether to start a Christian high school here, but when,” says Carol Veldman Rudie, a former Dordt College English instructor and member of the board of trustees. Forty years ago, when the Calvin Christian elementary school opened, the vision included a K–12 system. It has since grown to two elementary schools, one on the southwest side of the Twin Cities in Edina and another on the northeast side in Blaine. Because supporters of the school lived on opposite sides of the metropolitan area, discussions about starting the high school often ran stuck over location. Nevertheless, the commitment remained alive.

In 1999, recalls Randy Kroll (’80), a CPA from the northeast area, supporters rekindled their dream at an all-day meeting. They asked the question, “If we could design Calvin Christian High School, what would it look like?” The school’s mission statement was formulated that day: Calvin Christian High School nurtures a community of life-long learners whose horizons are defined by a biblical worldview and whose vision is enlarged so they are enabled to become Christ-animated catalysts for change in contemporary society.

“That’s where the current vision started,” says Kroll. Participants asked themselves what characteristics they would like to see in eighteen-year-old graduates and what it might take to nurture those traits. They went back to their basic beliefs about how a Christian should live in the world: graduates should have an actively functioning Christian worldview in which serving others is an integral part of their lives, and they should be critical thinkers who could become leaders committed to bringing change to their culture. Kroll and others were convinced that it was both doable and fundable.

The Gates Foundation research keeps pointing to high schools as a weak link in most school systems, says Rudie. She and Kroll attended a conference put on by the Gates Foundation to address that issue. It confirmed their commitment to a different approach to education for the high school.

From Kroll’s perspective, the reason for starting Calvin Christian High School was not so much a reaction against something as an opportunity to offer students a better way to learn to be Christian citizens. “I saw how rigid schools can be when my daughter began high school,” he says. Her teacher recommended that she be put into an advanced math class, but there was no flexibility in the system for such opportunities or for independent work.

Led by Kroll and Rudie, Calvin’s high school task force kept weighing options. As the high school took shape, board president Mike Bierma (’73), head administrator Steve Groen (’79), and development director Jim De Young (’81) gave their support and energy to the project.

“It was clear that we could not have a capital-intensive model,” says Rudie. Supporters could not raise the $10 to $15 million for a high school campus, and they had to deal with the distance problem between the elementary schools.

“We put a high premium on unity within the Calvin Christian school community in the Twin Cities,” adds Rudie. So, based on their dreams for more effective Christian high school education and a desire to serve interested people from across the Twin Cities metropolitan area, they came up with the more affordable model that became Calvin Christian High School this fall. Located in rented facilities nearly midway between the two elementary schools, the high school depends on city resources as well as classroom resources.

Enrollment is small, with fourteen enrolled in the initial freshman class, but enthusiasm is high on the part of teachers, students, and parents.

Open since September, Calvin Christian High School now has four full-time teachers and one part-time Spanish teacher. Ahrenholz was hired last year to begin work on the curriculum for the school and now combines principal and teaching responsibilities. (See article on pages 8 and 9.) This year Wendall Schaap (’96), James Vande Glind (’04), and Kerrie (Bussema) Oolman (’96) along with Arlan Koppendraayer were added to the staff. All were drawn to the school because of its vision for education.

“Education is not just a delivery of facts, figures, and ideas; it is connecting everything together within the framework of a Christian worldview. We are nurturing growth and expanding our students’ capacity to learn,” says Ahrenholz.

Ahrenholz, who helped start a Christian high school in Indiana, has been committed to an integrated, student-centered approach to education for some time, so he was eager to come to Calvin Christian. He believes that the model they have developed will benefit both academically advanced students and those that need more direction, because it allows students to work independently and at their level of interest and ability.

Schaap, who moved to the high school from the middle school, says he wanted to move to a higher grade level and didn’t look elsewhere because this was what he was looking for. “It was student-centered, project-based, narrative in assessment, and integrative—all things I had been working towards in language arts over the years, ways of learning that I knew had been effective.”

Describing Calvin Christian High School can be a challenge, Schaap admits, because people understand terms differently. But doing so is easier when they tell people what’s happening.

He describes the relationship students are beginning to develop with residents of the Care Center—where students go each Wednesday afternoon. He describes the independent project that Ben and Austin are working on—a music demo they are going to produce, which includes the writing, rehearsing, recording, and distribution of the demo. He describes a mini-advertising unit in which a local radio advertiser teaches about advertising and helps the students write their own radio spots promoting Calvin Christian High School, which are then compiled into one ad, recorded and played on a local Christian talk station. These activities give a sense of how service learning, independent projects, and real-life learning experiences are central to the curriculum.

Teaching this way takes cooperation and teacher-to-teacher interaction. Part of their time is spent trying to articulate what the benefits are. And part of the time is spent searching for new ways to teach concepts—doing things they haven’t done before, thinking about evaluation differently, looking for community connections.

Spring grad Vande Glind did just that. Walking past a wooded area near the school one day, he thought it presented a good opportunity for his students to study an urban woods. He found out from the city who owned the property, visited that business to find that they had no immediate plans for its use, and was told they would be happy to have Calvin Christian students use it for environmental study. Vande Glind contacted the Department of Natural Resources, which will provide a variety of educational resources for Vande Glind and his students. Vande Glind also uses lab facilities at Bethel College.

Parents Ken and Deb Petersen (’79,’81) are pleased with the education their son, Zach, is getting. “The small number of students wasn’t a big issue for us. We know Zach does well in a smaller group, and we have found that he has grown in self-confidence already this year,” they say.

“We even met once at Arlan Koppendraayer’s home at the end of the unit on the Middle East where we heard student reports and sampled Middle Eastern food. We hear quite a bit of information from Zach,” say the Petersens.

“I can’t imagine her being more challenged, spiritually, personally, and academically,” says De Young of his daughter, Ellen. He tells of family conversations about Greek dualism versus a Christian worldview that occurred after Ellen did research on Plato for a project. He appreciates the teachers’ commitment to help students find things they feel passionately about and encouraging them to stretch themselves as they learn.

“I wouldn’t trade [my experience at CCHS] for the world,” wrote Alexandra Ylinen for a brochure used at the dedication of the new school in October. “There’s so much patience and respect. My friends are honest, and my peers are really fun to talk to. We all help each other out and bounce ideas off each other. These people are my family.”

“Seeing the school open was a testimony to God’s faithfulness,” says Kroll. “There were many times we could have given up. We have something special, and I hope it flourishes.”

Wendall Schaap comments on school's development

I have been surprised by the change I've seen in students. Most have shown significant growth in seeing the connections between learning and life. Students are asking questions that challenge the way they have always thought. In asking students to evaluate their experience, we have been surprised at their perceptions, which in many cases reflect the goals of this model. I have been most surprised at the impact of narrative assessment rather than grades. At first many of the students (and some parents) were uncomfortable with not receiving grades. Very quickly the sense that they needed grades died off (for most), and both teachers and students could focus on learning—using and developing strengths, improving weaknesses—growing, rather than doing work to receive a grade. The purpose for learning very quickly changed—we could sense the difference—and what an exciting difference it was. That change came together in the six-week assessments, which became four-page documents that evaluated their progress in knowledge, completion of requirements, involvement and effort, and growth. It was refreshing to see parent-teacher conferences focus on patterns of behavior, work, and goals, rather than how teachers arrived at the grades.