Private Education is Not Just for the Wealthy: Challenges and Opportunities for Christian Education in Rural Communities

16,380 hours. I did the math. This large, overwhelming number equals the sum of hours my children would spend in a K-12th grade classroom. I felt a little overwhelmed by the prospect of my son and daughter spending that much time away from our home. You see, I invested seven years of my life in the public education system, and while I value and appreciate those years, I also knew I wanted something different for my own children. Something more.

I believe raising children is a timed event with eternal consequence, that the 16,380 hours they spend in a K-12th grade classroom cannot be squandered. On the contrary, every hour, minute, and second must be used to the fullest to equip the next generation of thinkers, doers, and difference-makers for the kingdom of God. And thus, my journey with Christian education began when we made the decision to enroll our daughter in the Pre-K 3 program at Christ Classical Academy.

Situated on the busiest highway and nestled behind First Presbyterian Church in the small town of Dyersburg, TN, Christ Classical Academy currently serves 135 students in Pre-K-10th grades. This past school year, CCA celebrated its 25th Anniversary. God has been faithful to sustain CCA for a quarter century! My level of involvement at CCA has evolved over the years: from parent to board member to board chairman to being hired as Administrator in 2017. This progressive journey has given me a unique perspective. Over the course of the last twenty-five years, CCA has experienced both growth and attrition, both seasons of harvest and seasons of drought, both challenges and opportunities.

As a former public-school teacher at multiple schools in rural communities, I was ignorant about the challenges I would face in running the only private, Christian school in our small, rural town. I will focus on the two biggest challenges I have experienced in my four years as Administrator at Christ Classical Academy.

First and foremost, the biggest challenge is a lack of resources. We do not have a large endowment or an expansive list of major donors. We examine closely every single dollar we spend in our bare bones budget, which means our faculty makes far less than they should. Our administration wears many hats because the funds are simply not there to expand our team appropriately. We currently operate with a 35% tuition gap; therefore, we must fundraise—A LOT!

The logical solution to the problem is raise tuition. However, the demographics of our rural community do not support this solution. While our tuition is lower than the private schools closest to us (50 miles away), many of our families sacrifice to pay tuition or require financial aid or scholarships. According to citydata.com, “25.1% of Dyersburg, TN residents had an income below the poverty line in 2019, which was 44.8% greater than the poverty level of 13.9% across the entire state of Tennessee.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that the consensus in a rural community is that private education is reserved for the wealthy, the privileged, the elite. While the makeup of our families speaks to the contrary, it is a stereotype we fight daily, nonetheless.

Another solution would be to increase enrollment, which we would love to do! In fact, our enrollment has increased every year for the last four years from 78 students in 2017 to 135 students in 2021 (an average of 14 students per year and an anomaly in a town that is decreasing in population annually). Despite this growth, CCA’s full capacity (when we become a Pre-K-12th grade school in 2023) is 285 students; this means it will take us a minimum of 11 years to reach full capacity (only) if we continue to grow at the current rate. This brings me to the next challenge of running a Christian school in a rural community.

As a rule of thumb, rural communities have a tremendous amount of pride in their local public schools. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is an endearing quality that speaks to the loyalty of small-town residents. Our town has two local school districts. Many residents grew up attending one of these two school districts. Our local schools are filled with good, Christian administrators and teachers and are not considered failing schools (due to their state standardized test scores). Families hold tightly to their public-school roots and don their school colors with pride under the Friday night lights.

Therefore, to choose an alternative to the expected requires both conviction and strength. Conviction that education should be Christian and strength to make a choice to pursue Christian education even when your Christian neighbors find your conviction odd. As we are in the Bible Belt, Christianity is embraced and professed by the majority in our rural community. Despite this, most do not see Christian education as an essential part of Christian living. Thus, it is an alternative that many Christians have never considered or researched. Furthermore, popular opinion in our local community is that society is in decline and government is suspect; yet, analyzing government education’s role in the degradation of society is not (yet) a common practice. Perhaps this will change as (I believe) it will become harder and harder to deny the presence of a government agenda in our government schools (even in our small, rural communities).

Despite the challenges of leading a Christian school in a rural community, there are also endless opportunities to celebrate. As I presented the two greatest challenges, I will also focus on the two biggest opportunities I have experienced in my role. The first is the opportunity to grow in faith as one who has been called to lead a Christian school. Nothing has grown my faith more. When we have faced massive fundraising needs, God has provided time and time again. There have been many times when our situation looked dire. Despite this, He has always been faithful to answer with just enough in just the right time. Our small, rural community has been a huge part of sustaining our school as businesses and individuals have given generously either to our annual fund or to one of our annual fundraising events. Furthermore, we have prayed earnestly for God to send us men and women who are called to our ministry, and He has been faithful to answer. The pool from which we draw qualified candidates is smaller than it would be in suburban and urban areas. Yet, teaching and cultivating the hearts, minds, and souls of the next generation is no small matter and certainly not a task you want to put in the hands of someone who just wants a job. Praise be to God for supplying our every need, from financial to faculty!

Another opportunity is CCA has the market cornered as the only private, classical, Christian school in a community that holds tightly to conservative, Christian values. One must drive nearly 50 miles to find another. As our society continues to tilt more to the leftist liberal perspective, I believe more eyes, hearts, and minds will become awakened to the idea of Christian education. When that does happen, we will be ready to welcome mission-fit Christian families to our CCA family.

In closing, my prayer is for Christian schools to unite in support for one another; for Christian philanthropists to view Christian education as an eternal investment; and for Christian families to pursue Christian education for their children. Leading a Christian school in any community (rural, suburban, or urban) is no small feat. Yet, it is a high calling and a worthy endeavor for the benefit of the next generation and for the glory of God!