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Education faculty help plan a new Christian high school in Minneapolis

By Sally Jongsma

Zach Petersen, son of alums Ken and Deb (Butler) Petersen ('79, '81) spends Wednesday afternoons with residents of the Care Center in Minneapolis

Zach Petersen, son of alums Ken and Deb (Butler) Petersen ('79, '81) spends Wednesday afternoons with residents of the Care Center in Minneapolis

Professors at Dordt College are rarely looking for more work to add to their already heavy loads. But a request from a Christian school community in Minneapolis was too important and exciting to pass up. Interested in beginning a new high school, they asked the education department faculty to work with them to figure out what such a school might look like.

The Calvin Christian School community in Minneapolis has long talked about starting a high school. Several years ago, Dr. Dennis Vander Plaats, Professor Lloyd Den Boer, and Professor Barb Hoekstra met with a planning group to help them discuss and sharpen their vision for a high school. Vander Plaats wrote a paper outlining a vision for an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to curriculum, following more of a middle school model than a traditional high school model.

Work with that model continued in Minneapolis, sharpening a vision that leaders hoped would self-consciously help shape students’ Reformed worldview as they studied the world around them. After approving the school’s launch, agreeing on a vision, going through a strategic planning process, appointing several task forces, and hiring a development director to begin fundraising, they again came to the education department for help—this time to set up a curriculum that would allow them to achieve their goals of

Last year, Calvin Christian hired Dordt College graduate Steve Ahrenholz (’70) as principal. Den Boer took on the task of helping him develop a curriculum. The guidelines were clear: the school was committed to an integrally Christian approach, students were to be deeply engaged in their learning, community-building was essential, out-of-school learning experiences were important; and technology was a tool to be used boldly.

“To be perfectly honest, it scared me,” says Den Boer. But it wasn’t scary enough for him to pass up such an exciting opportunity.

One of the first things they did was to establish a set of aims. Since the coordinating committee wanted a more integrated study of knowledge rather than isolated study of subject areas, and because there aren’t many Christian models for such an approach, Ahrenholz and Den Boer were allowed to dream.

The list of aims became an accountability piece, helping them measure whether they were moving in the right direction.

“Listing your aims is a good place to start because you’re not constrained by facilities or disciplines,” says Den Boer. “They were fortunate to have a strong group of Reformed Christians committed to Christian education who supported the effort.”

After attaching goals to the aims, Ahrenholz and Den Boer developed a plan for what the week would look like. The day would start with an advisory (a small group time of devotions and discussion) or a Bible class. Much of each morning would be spent working on a six-week thematic, multi-disciplinary unit, with the main focus of the units alternating between social studies and science topics.

This fall, students and teachers gave the plan life. They began with a three-week orientation in which they talked about what it means to have a Christian worldview and what difference that makes. The first thematic unit on world cultures and geography focused on the Middle East so that students could better understand the world in which they live. After the two-hour thematic unit study, students spend an hour focusing on language arts or mathematics skills. Afternoons are spent on independent project work, Spanish, and physical education at an athletic club. Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to service learning and workplace learning.

Den Boer, who is also working on his Ph.D. in curriculum and who formerly taught English and language arts, spearheaded the social studies and language parts of the curriculum. Ahrenholz, a math teacher, fleshed out the science and math sections.

Because implementing this type of curriculum demands a great deal of development and cooperation, Den Boer and Dr. Pat Kornelis led a team building workshop for the staff of CCHS in August. Over the two days they took the plans already developed and pushed them beyond the outlines.

“It was a very reassuring experience,” says Den Boer. “They had hired a staff that could do this.” When the school opened its doors a month later, teachers were still refining the curriculum but they were ready to go.

“I learned so much about ways to change traditional curriculum to have students become more engaged in their learning,” says Den Boer. But it was not easy.

“When Steve and I first sat down to compare our actual curriculum to our aims, we saw that despite all of our efforts to avoid it, we had written curricula that focused more on knowledge than on our broader aims.” Their final product went as far as it could. The teachers and students had to make it concrete.

“This has been very exciting because we don’t have many examples of Christian high schools trying something different,” says Den Boer. “Now we can point to a school that shares our perspective and that illustrates how a different approach can work.”