SouthLake Christian Academy – Strategic Plan 2020 (DRAFT for public comment)

INTRODUCTION

SouthLake Christian Academy opened in the fall of 1994 with 23 students and three teachers in combined classes that included kindergarten through 4th grade. The founders of the school were members of SouthLake Presbyterian Church who intended for the Academy to prepare students for college and to proclaim Christ while welcoming students of all faiths. Over the next nine years, grades five through twelve were added, and in May of 2003, SouthLake Christian Academy sent its first ten graduates off to college. Today, the Academy enrolls 560 students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade and maintains its commitment to rigorous college preparation in a Christ-centered environment.

As SouthLake Christian Academy approached its 25th year, the School Board recognized the need for a comprehensive plan to guide the school’s future. The Search Committee for the current Head of School identified strategic planning as a chief priority. Current school administrators see strategic planning as vital to the health of the organization. Our teachers, coaches, parents, creditors, and community partners each have a vested interest in the future of the school. For these reasons, SouthLake Christian Academy launched a strategic planning process in the fall of 2018. This document contains a summary of the results of that planning process. We believe that the substance of the plan detailed below honestly reflects collaborative input from all SLCA stakeholders and represents our best efforts to capture both God’s direction and the collective wisdom of our community. The most challenging step of any planning process is the execution! For this plan to come to life, we will need God’s grace and the participation of all our stakeholders. We pray this strategic plan invites each of you to participate actively in the future that God has for SouthLake Christian Academy.

STRATEGIC PLANNING TASK FORCE MEMBERS

  •  Jed Belvin, School Board and Church Session
  • Lisa Cernuto, Alumni parent
  • Derek Farley, 11th grade student
  • Richard Hester, Parent
  • Brian Hines, Parent
  • Brooke Hondros, Parent
  • Sam James, 2003 Graduate
  • Sholeh Kornegay, Parent
  • Lynn Moore, 2nd Grade Teacher
  • Stuart Ross, Parent
  • Kim Sailors, Parent
  • Kennedy Smith, 2019 Graduate

PLANNING TIMELINE

The following is a summary of the strategic planning process. Supporting documents for each step of the process can be found on the school website: https://www.southlakechristian.org/about-slca/strategic-p.

Established a task force comprised of key individuals who represent a cross-section of the school. Set meeting schedule and timeline. (December 2018)

Gathered data about the Academy, its students, families, alumni, donors, and other stakeholders. Used surveys, SWOT analyses, round-table discussions, townhall style gatherings, and individual meetings to collect data. (January – July 2019)

Analyzed the data to identify common themes and values. Engaged in prioritization exercises with school administration and task force members to identify the main areas the plan should cover. Sketched out a rough draft list of plan categories that best represented the data and perceived long-term needs of the school. Identified the goals for each category. (August – September 2019)

Composed rough draft of strategic plan, identifying five main categories of focus and the top 3-5 goals for each category. (October – November 2019)

Generate buy-in by testing the goals with key constituents to see what resonates and generates excitement. Tweak the rough draft based on feedback from key constituents. (December 2019)

Communicate the plan to all constituents. Print a newsletter to mail to all people associated with the school, outlining the process and outcomes of the strategic planning process and enlisting support from the community. (January – May 2020)

Implement the plan. This is the most important and most difficult step, and will likely include rebranding, refining our mission and vision statements, and launching a capitol campaign to raise funds to implement the strategic plan. (2020 and beyond)

Review the plan. Reconvene the task force after one year to review progress and make necessary tweaks to the plan based on experience and feedback. (Summer 2021)

STRATEGIC PLAN FOR SOUTHLAKE CHRISTIAN ACADEMY

1. Faculty and Student Success

Promote an academically rigorous environment to prepare students for college and life.

Goals:

  1. Recruit and retain teachers of the highest quality, providing them with competitive compensation and supporting their professional development through continuing education, peer mentoring, and regular evaluation and constructive feedback.
  2. Create innovative opportunities for students to learn life skills through technical training, work-study programs, leadership development, and personal finance education.
  3. Promote a classroom environment conducive to learning, keeping class sizes small, behavioral expectations age appropriate, and campus safety a high priority.
  4. Enhance academic rigor by adding classes for ACT/SAT preparation, engineering, robotics, debate, public speaking, Christian ethics, theatre, and American sign language, as enrollment and funding allows.

Action Plans:

  • Conduct a salary study to assess competitiveness of our salary and benefits relative to peer schools.
  • Recruit diverse teachers from strong education programs in North Carolina.
  • Set a budget for professional development and create a grant proposal process for teachers to request funds for conference attendance.
  • Implement our new teacher evaluation and mentoring program (STEP program).
  • Survey parents and students annually for feedback on teacher effectiveness.

2. Spiritual Vitality

Foster Christ-centered community at school and beyond.

Goals:

  1. Establish ways for students to serve the community and the world, sharing Christ through local service projects and international mission trips.
  2. Develop a school-wide Bible curriculum and discipleship initiatives to ensure that SLCA graduates possess both the biblical literacy and theological competency to engage culture through a Christian worldview.
  3. Teach students to worship and to lead in worship by building music programs and ministry leadership initiatives that serve the school and local churches.
  4. Create ways to minister to SLCA families through parent Bible studies, spiritual life conferences, and pastoral care to families in need.
  5. Provide additional support for students with specialized academic, spiritual, and mental health needs.

Action Plans:

  • Identify service-learning projects for each school grade and deepen our relationship with our community.
  • Evaluate and strengthen current Bible curriculum and spiritual life programs with a thorough understanding of demographic trends so that we can spiritually invest in our students more fully.
  • Develop a robust worship leadership program through Chapel Band class, performing arts ensembles, and other worship leadership programs.
  • Begin a weekly Bible study for parents, host periodic special events for families (lunch speaker series, conferences, etc.), and identify resources to minister to families in need.

3. Financial Strength

Build financial stability and create a culture of philanthropy to protect the Academy’s future.

Goals:

  1. Launch a Capital Campaign to fund the major initiatives of the SLCA Strategic Plan, including academic, athletic, fine arts, and facilities improvements.
  2. Create an Annual Fund that will allow SLCA to cover the gap between revenue and expenses, help fund financial aid, and keep SLCA affordable for as many as possible.
  3. Retire debt, allowing the school to contain tuition increases and devote more revenue to school improvements.
  4. Build an endowment to provide resources for potential school emergencies, disaster recovery, employee assistance, and other unexpected financial needs.

Action Plans:

  • Conduct a feasibility study to determine realistic fundraising goals.
  • Establish convenient methods of charitable giving, including complete matching funds information, payroll deduction, estate and stock gifts, and gifts in kind options.
  • Designate a percentage of income from Annual Fund and Capital Campaign contributions to go toward debt reduction and endowment growth.
  • Seek an Advancement and Marketing employee to lead the school’s fundraising efforts and build a culture of loyalty and philanthropy with our alumni, parents, grandparents, and community constituents.

4. Enrollment Growth and Marketing

Create ownership and appreciation for the SLCA mission, reputation, and brand.

Goals:

  1. Establish standards for efficient and effective communication between SLCA and employees, families, alumni, and other constituents.
  2. Manage the SLCA brand for consistent messaging and appearance of our logos, colors, website, social media accounts, signage, uniforms, mascot design, and school-related print materials.
  3. Develop a plan to mobilizes SLCA constituents to share stories of school success and achievement that reflect the school’s Christ-centered commitments.
  4. Recruit students and employees from the ranks of international and minority populations so that SLCA reflects the population of our city and the diversity of the Body of Christ.

Action Plans:

  • Manage information flow from the school to all constituents in order to reduce the number but increase the value of emails while maximizing social media as a means of communication.
  • Engage a professional marketing firm to conduct a brand audit and help us better tell the SLCA story by all means possible.
  • Right-size school enrollment to a level at or near our efficient operating capacity by grade and class.
  • Engage an enrollment consultant to assist with minority student recruitment and maximize financial aid for growing under-represented student populations.
  • Develop social media as a major platform to promote the innovation and excellence of our teachers.

5. Facility Enhancement

Improve campus facilities and infrastructure to support the Academy’s academic and spiritual mission.

Goals:

  1. Provide new full-service dining space and a commercial kitchen for on-site food preparation, providing healthy food options to meet the dietary needs of all students.
  2. Update the appearance and function of First Building to reflect current usage, beautify property with new campus-wide landscaping, improve playgrounds, and install a sound system in the stadium.
  3. Build a new gymnasium to provide added space for JK-12 physical education, athletic competition, indoor recreation, and supporting locker rooms and meeting spaces for teams, coaches, officials, and teachers.
  4. Reconfigure existing gymnasium for use as a space for worship, fine arts, and school assemblies.
  5. Upgrade technology infrastructure to increase WIFI bandwidth, provide teachers with new laptop computers, and update touch-screen technology in classrooms,

Assessment:

  • Draw up a master site plan map to provide visual support for the SLCA strategic plan.
  • Consult with a general contractor to assess the feasibility of converting the lower level of Hampton Hall to a full-service dining facility for use until a new building is built.
  • Engage a general contractor to assist with plans for remodeling the exterior of First Building.
  • Engage a landscape architect to assist with campus-wide landscaping improvements.
  • Engage a general contractor to draw up plans for converting existing gym to space for worship, fine arts, and school assemblies.
  • Engage architects to draw up preliminary plans for new dining, gym, and assembly spaces.

CONCLUSIONS

A good strategic plan should guide an organization for approximately five years. No plan will capture all that a school does. Some initiatives identified during the planning process are already underway or complete. As no plan is perfect, minor changes to the plan will be necessary. We need the flexibility for additions, subtractions, and adjustments to the plan to reflect continuously changing realities. Because our plan is ambitious, we may not complete every goal. Because our God is able, we may accomplish more than we imagine.

For some organizations, strategic planning takes years and involves significant struggle and disagreement. This has not been the case with SouthLake Christian Academy. It is possible that those familiar with the Academy will read this document and ask, “Why did this plan take more than a year to devise? These objectives were obvious to me before the process began!” If that is your response to our Strategic Plan, then the Task Force will have accomplished its purpose. Task Force members will testify to how harmoniously a consensus emerged concerning the main objectives of the plan. Our belief from the beginning was that many voices would yield a better result than only a few. Participation in the formation of this plan was extensive by all SLCA constituents, including parents, teachers, students, administrators, alumni, and community members. The results are better for it. SouthLake Christian Academy will be better for it. Our prayer is that the Kingdom of God will be better for it as well.

APPENDIX: STRATEGIC PLANNING DOCUMENTS OF IMPORTANCE

SWOT Analysis: Task Force and SLCA Administration – January 2019

Strengths

  • teacher & staff engagement with students – employees care deeply about students
  • happy school, filled with joy, strong sense of community
  • location between Denver and Huntersville
  • strong college prep curriculum and track record
  • Christian commitment, teaching Bible, ACSI affiliation, Student Missions Fellowship
  • student trips, especially grade-specific connections to service and ministry projects
  • safe school with small class sizes
  • strong writing instruction, particularly in the high school
  • Academic Development Center resources
  • affordable & less than most private schools in area, availability of financial aid
  • connection to alumni years after graduation, teachers form mentor relationships
  • sports programs – availability & variety of teams, contribution to maturation

Weaknesses

  • facilities, especially lower school
  • lack of continuity in leadership and vision (3 heads in past 5 years)
  • absence of clear definition of success with buy-in from community at large
  • we aren’t good at “tooting our own horn”; telling the story of our successes
  • poor student attendance at many sporting events
  • lack of communication to parents about how to support service projects
  • poor communication, brutally long weekly emails ineffective
  • tuition is difficult for some
  • lack of cultural/racial diversity
  • occasional teacher weaknesses, people teaching subjects outside their ability
  • Wi-Fi & technology problems
  • questionable longevity of the church & theological guidance in its absence

Opportunities

  • market research to determine why students come to SLCA
  • tell our story, marketing, especially word of mouth and social media development
  • student ownership of more programming, clubs
  • strengthening connections between HS and LS students, building relationships
  • take advantage of our status as a neighborhood school
  • promote ADC more to outside constituents
  • advertise where our seniors have been admitted to college
  • create incentives/programs to entice students to attend sporting events
  • improve diversity of student population

Threats

  • charter schools
  • debt structure/load of the school
  • hwy. 73 expansion

Executive Summary of School Survey – May 2019

Demographics of respondents:

  • 68% female
  • 25% millennials
  • 92% white
  • 90% Christian
  • 70% Protestant
  • 65% associated with SLCA > 6 years
  • 50% live within 10 miles of SLCA

Priorities:

  • Top words/phrases that describe SLCA: Christ-centered, academically rigorous, biblically integrated, loving
  • Top words/phrases that should describe SLCA: Christ-centered, academically rigorous, loving, college prep
  • Top reasons for affiliation – Christian values, teaching, caring, location
  • Top facilities improvements – dining, Wilcox, lower school, athletics
  • Top projects to which you’d donate – academics, technology, gym, athletics

Perceptions: (percentage of people who agree or strongly agree)

  • SLCA operates consistent with Christian mission – 85%
  • SLCA is a good value for quality – 79%
  • SLCA students are well prepared for college – 76%
  • SLCA students are well prepared for life – 63%
  • SLCA teaches problem solving/critical thinking – 70%
  • SLCA has competent qualified teachers – 76%
  • Quality athletic programs – 74%
  • Quality fine arts programs – 58%
  • Competent/qualified administrators – 80%
  • Appropriately sized classes – 90%
  • Rigorous math – 83%
  • Rigorous language arts – 78%
  • Rigorous STEM – 65%
  • Rigorous foreign language – 44%
  • Broad options for electives – 45%
  • Broad clubs/extracurricular activities – 49%
  • SLCA students are motivated to learn – 67%
  • SLCA teachers communicate with parents effectively – 70%
  • I contribute financially – 32%
  • I attend athletics events – 56%
  • I attend fine arts events – 48%
  • I am willing to contribute to a capital giving campaign – 44%
  • SLCA does a good job marketing – 28%

Open ended questions:

  • Favorites – Christian, teachers, academics (class size), community/family environment
  • Improvements – facilities (dining & gym), classroom/conduct management, diversity, technology
  • Marketing ideas – social media, signage, billboard, print media, internet/website
  • Strengthen Christian identity – too Christian / not Christian enough, chapel-Bible-missions
  • Net Promoter Score – 18.2

Executive Summary of Town Hall Meetings – Summer 2019

Observations SLCA families made about the school survey data:

  • Christian identity and strong college prep are cornerstones of SLCA
  • Small class sizes are highly valued
  • Athletics and fine arts, while good, could both be better in terms of promotion and organization
  • Preparation for life, not just college, could improve (shop, home econ, financial management)
  • Diversity, dining facilities, foreign language rigor, and marketing all need significant improvements

Jobs parents are hiring us to perform:

  • Get my child into a good college
  • Instill in my child a moral framework and/or Christian worldview
  • Provide a safe environment for my child to learn
  • Help my child realize his full potential, become a leader, impact the world, etc.
  • Fix a problem my child has experienced elsewhere
  • Keep my child happy (friends, sports, fine arts)

SLCA’s top competitors (perceptions that appeared on all lists):

  • Cannon
  • Davidson Day
  • Lake Norman Charter (charter schools in general – Westlake, Lincoln, Pine Lake, Langtree)
  • Hough High School

Things that distinguish SLCA from our competitors:

  • Price
  • Mission/identity
  • School culture (family environment, sense of community)
  • Excellent and dedicated teachers
  • Academic Development Center

Attributes to keep at all costs:

  • Christian & college prep
  • Reputation of teachers
  • Sense of community/family
  • Small class size
  • Price/value

Attributes (or perceptions) to eliminate at all costs:

  • Poor facilities
  • Scandal plagued or financially weak
  • Overwhelmingly white, conservative, and privileged

Attributes to develop:

  • Becoming better at telling our story (marketing)
  • Diversity of faculty, staff, and students
  • Professionalism (athletics, fine arts, uniforms, brand images

Things that give you hope for the future:

  • Open conversations and collaborative plans underway
  • School leadership (teachers, administration)
  • Renewed energy and excitement (SLCA is a happy place)
  • Growth in Lake Norman area

Executive Summary of Project Prioritization Exercises – Fall 2019

 Project, Score, and Category                       

  • Enhanced marketing initiatives – signage, website, communications, brand analysis, Score 87, Marketing
  • Updates and beautification to existing facilities, landscaping, playgrounds, Score 72, Facilities
  • New dining space, food prep capabilities, healthier food options, Score 67, Facilities
  • Life skills courses, personal finance, leadership development, life issues education, score 59, Academic/Spiritual
  •  Financial stewardship: creation of annual fund, retire debt, build endowment, Score 57, Financial
  • Teacher development, incentive pay, evaluation, peer mentoring, continuing education, Score 43, Academic
  • Stronger technology infrastructure, training for students, employees, and families, Score 40, Facilities
  • New gymnasium, performing arts center, and worship space, Score 37, Facilities
  • Greater diversity of faculty, staff, and students to reflect the greater Charlotte region, Score 35, Enrollment
  • Enrollment growth to reasonable capacity, new preschool, boat commuting options, Score 29, Enrollment
  • Grow alumni relations, volunteers, and donors through improved communications, Score 25, Financial
  • Spiritual life programs, serving at-risk students, worship, family ministry, Score 19, Spiritual
  • Additional counselor for guidance and mental health support, Score 17, Personnel
  • Safety initiatives, secure facilities, safety officer, Score 12, Personnel
  • Academic enhancements – debate, ACT/SAT prep classes, engineering, Score 9, Academic
  • Develop STEM facilities, robotics, science curriculum, Score 8, Academic
  • New athletic facilities for tennis, softball, reverse home & away sides of stadium, Score 4, Facilities

*Scores reflect the project priorities identified by the school survey, SLCA administrators, and Strategic Planning Task Force members. Higher scores reflect greater interest in a particular project. Scores were intended to inform but not determine the final goals of the strategic plan.

Uncategorized

My Experience with Learning Disabilities

My life’s work has been in Christian education. But I am also a parent, and that’s what I’m writing about here.  I have three children, all redheads. I often joke that I am the patriarch of a ginger dynasty.  All three of my kids are really smart, but we’ve often thought of Kate as the smartest.  When Kate was 3 years old, she learned how to play a matching game that involved placing cards face down in columns and rows and flipping over cards two per turn until you make a match.  The person with the most matched pairs wins.  To this day, nobody in our family has ever beaten Kate.  We thought for a while that she’d figured out some way to cheat, until we learned that she also has a near photographic memory for faces and the details of events and places we’ve visited.  I taught her to play chess when she was 5.  She played for a few weeks and then lost interest.  She picked up the game again nearly 6 years later, and to my surprise still remembered the rules.  When it came to children’s books, Kate memorized all her favorites.  She would know when I tried to alter the story or skip a page.  She could “read” the story to me if I let her, and she knew from the pictures when to turn the page long before she could actually read. I could tell stories about Kate at length.

In 3rd grade we began to sense that something was wrong.  Kate began to do poorly on AR quizzes.  She started to lag behind her classmates on standardized tests.  She was barely reading at grade level while many of her friends were reading 2 or 3 grades above it, as her two older siblings had done.  At parent-teacher conferences, we expressed concern, but Kate was our third child and by then we were chill parents.  Kate was and is the kind of kid teachers loved – obedient, quiet, kind, respectful, cooperative, liked by her peers.  Teachers told us not to worry, and we followed their advice.  In fourth grade, the trend continued – low standardized test scores, reading comprehension problems, alternatively great and then terrible grades, depending on the kind of assignment or the style of test she took.  Picture books increasingly gave way to chapter books, and Kate’s love for reading evaporated.  It was a chore to get her to complete book assignments, and she often seemed to daydream when she was supposed to be reading.  The school had a special program for students with reading difficulties.  She entered and then completed that program, but we noticed no improvements.  We hired a reading specialist who worked with Kate two afternoons a week for about 4 months, and who then told us that everything seemed normal and that Kate was just a “laid-back kid,” which I suspected was code for a student who is not motivated.  Her fourth-grade teacher was the first, but not the last, to suggest that Kate might suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder.  I’d never noticed any attention deficit in Kate before, except when she was supposed to be reading, and neither had anyone else, and so that suggestion seemed to me like grasping at straws.

One day around this time Kate was trying to read a schoolbook to my dad, who himself cannot read out loud with any fluency because of his own learning disabilities.  My dad noticed that Kate tended to use her finger to follow words as she read and that she often skipped articles and prepositions and could not sound out words she did not know.  These are all things that I knew about Kate, but my dad commented that he did the same things still.  I was familiar with my dad’s story.  He did terribly in school and was told by his high-school counselor that he “wasn’t college material.”  My dad graduated with a biology degree from the University of Georgia and went on to have a brilliant career in business, teaching safety and environmental responsibility to multi-national companies drilling for oil offshore around the world.  Incongruously, I have distinct memories of standing next to my dad in church as he tried to sing from the Baptist hymnal.  He mixed up the words and lines of the hymns so badly, that if God had judged his theology based on the lyrics he sang, he would surely have been guilty of damnable heresy!  It never occurred to me to ask why a highly intelligent and accomplished biologist, businessman, and environmental advocate did so badly in school, could not sing from a hymnal, and had read fewer than a dozen books in his life.  But when my dad saw himself in my daughter, I began to suspect that something more complex was going on with his and my daughter’s ability to process language.  We talked to our pediatrician and at his recommendation we visited a developmental psychologist who tested Kate for a variety of learning disabilities.  He determined that she had an IQ of 125 (not a surprise) and that in his opinion, she exhibited no language processing deficits (a big surprise) because in his words, “she didn’t invert letters or numbers with any consistency,” as if that were the only or primary indicator of a language processing disability.  His determination was that Kate was “possibly” suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder and he suggested medication.  Well, when a guy with a Ph.D. in child psychology says it, it must be true.

Kate spent much of the 5th grade trying different brands and dosages of ADD medication.  The stimulant effect kept her awake at night, suppressed her appetite, and made her moody and aggressive.  We would have been willing to tolerate those side effects, except for the fact that the medication had no impact whatsoever on her academic performance.  Parent-teacher conferences were again predictable.  “Kate is such a sweet child, she just needs to work harder on reading and try not to daydream so much,” again, code for “we think she’s ADD.”  Kate continued to struggle with any assignment in any subject that had to do with reading.  Strangely, she was great at math as long as there were no word problems. She hated word problems.  She was also great at spelling when the tests involved recalling a simple sequence of letters, a colossally easy task for a kid with her memory skills.  But when the spelling assignments involved more complex skills like using words in a sentence, or differentiating homonyms, words that sound the same but have different meanings, Kate was as lost as a ball in high weeds.  She fell further and further behind her peers on reading comprehension and fluency scores.  But she still made mostly As in school, to her disservice I might add, and she continued to beat almost anyone at any game that involved memory or problem solving skills.  And so, the 5th grade passed and we continued to listen to teachers who assured us that Kate was fine, and that as far as they could tell, she was just a normal kid who needed more reading practice.

Just a few weeks into the 6th grade, Kate was failing every subject except math.  Adding insult to injury, we received the results of her ACT Aspire test that showed her in the bottom 25% nationally in multiple areas of academic progress.  Something just did not add up and my wife and I got serious about finding answers. We got scientific about things.  We had a hypothesis: that our daughter had a problem with the way her brain processed language, and we tested that hypothesis by collecting all the data we could and then seeking help from any expert who could help us interpret the data.  This led us by way of a network of contacts, to a Hoover based speech and language pathologist named Hettie Johnson.  After hours of extensive and expensive testing last fall, we got some answer.  One the bright side, we got confirmation that Kate had some unusual gifts: working memory – 95th percentile; cognitive problem-solving skills – 98th percentile; IQ – 98th percentile.  The IQ test is non-verbal and uses geometric shapes and items in a series to examine problem-solving abilities. The tester showed me some of the problems and asked me to solve them.  I got a few of them correct, but it took me several minutes to solve what my daughter solved in just a few seconds.  When the tester asked Kate to explain to me how she came up with the correct answers, I realized that her brain was working on an entirely different level than mine, and far more efficiently than mine.  It was as if I were talking to a genius.  But at the same time, the tests showed the source of Kate’s struggle: language comprehension – 23rd percentile; phonetic decoding efficiency – 23rd percentile; reading accuracy – 5th percentile; reading fluency – 9th percentile; reading comprehension – 5th percentile.  This remarkable combination of unusual gifts and striking deficits is called dyslexia.  For 10 years our school system missed it.  Skilled teachers, reading experts, and tutors missed it.  Pediatricians and a developmental psychologist missed it.  Kate’s own Ph.D. dad and nurse mom missed it.  I felt horrible, terrible, guilty about all the times I’d simply written her problems off as insignificant, or the result of ADD, or laziness, the times I’d told her simply to work harder, or coerced her to read more and more, and told her to pay attention, as if a blind person could learn to see with better concentration.

Dyslexia is an inefficiency in the way the brain processes language that expresses itself in any combination of dozens of ways, including an age delay in speaking, difficulties with pronunciation, struggles connecting letters to the sounds they make, problems sounding out words, struggles expressing one’s thoughts in writing, spelling problems, speech that is not fluent, pausing or hesitating often when speaking, difficulty finding the correct word to express a thought, and all of these inefficiencies typically show up most clearly when one is reading.  Speaking comes naturally and is learned on an unconscious level. Babies learn to speak on instinct.  Biologists suggest that speaking is a very ancient skill, built into our evolutionary inheritance, perhaps millions of years ago.  Our brains handle speaking quite easily and efficiently.  Reading, however, is a much more complex task and must be learned consciously and methodically.  Anyone who has ever tried to teach a child to read knows that it takes time, patience, practice, and very specialized skills that take years to develop fully.  In most people, the neural pathways utilized for reading develop efficiencies over time that allow us to hear, recognize, and make sense of words on a page with increasing speed, like traveling from Birmingham to Atlanta on I20.  For the dyslexic, however, the pathways used for reading are far more complex, and therefore less efficient, like driving from Birmingham to Atlanta on backcountry roads, slowly taking the scenic route.  Sure, you take in the sights and sounds of the rural south one traffic light at a time, but it takes much longer to reach your destination.  When you get there, you may very well be better for it, unless of course you are being timed and graded on how fast you get there.

If you use an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine the brain of a normal person while reading, you’ll see just a few areas of the brain modestly at work.  If you examine a dyslexic reader’s brain in an MRI, you’ll see the brain lit up like New York City at Christmas time, with multiple areas of the brain working at cognitive load capacity.  This explains why dyslexics find reading so arduous, and why they take frequent breaks while reading – the brain is working overtime to get to the meaning.  Dyslexics, like my daughter, develop skills rather unconsciously to cope with the inefficiency.  They learn to memorize things very quickly, they learn to problem solve spatially, mathematically, and non-verbally.  And sometimes they learn to smile, cooperate, say, “yes ma’am” and pull the wool over teachers’ eyes for years to get good grades and get by.  And Kate played the game so well she fooled everyone, including me, until 6th grade.  Our speech pathologist calls Kate’s learning difference “Stealth Dyslexia” – a condition characterized by highly developed coping mechanisms that mask significant deficits and make diagnosis extremely difficult.  She tried to comfort us by listing all of the famous people, artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and movie starts with dyslexia.   None of this made me feel a bit better.  The truth is, I missed it.  Wanting to believe she was ok, I ignored obvious signs when I could have helped her sooner.

After diagnosis, my daughter began to get the help she needed. She got an education plan that granted her testing, homework, and note-taking accommodations at her school.  She was given extended time to take tests.  She saw a tutor twice a week (at considerable expense) who was a Certified Educational Therapist and who specialized in the Orton Gillingham approach to dyslexia therapy. Since coming to SouthLake Christian Academy a year ago, Kate has thrived. She was re-tested by Dr. Jill Gottlieb who confirmed her earlier diagnosis and gave us good guidance about accommodations. She sees a National Institute of Learning Disabilities certified teacher in SLCA’s Academic Development Center twice each week. She has educational plan of action (EPA) that provides the accommodations she needs to learn effectively.  She has a support system in place now that we would never have dreamed possible in the public schools she attended.  Kate is now on a better road to success, one that recognizes her gifts and gives her a chance to thrive in spite of her reading inefficiencies.  But the truth is that earlier diagnosis would have been much better.  A dyslexia diagnosis can be made as early as age 6, there are warning signs that appear earlier, and outcomes are better the earlier the intervention.  The truth is, I am well educated and I have resources to get Kate help.  But what about other children, in other schools, who lack the knowledge and networks and know-how and resources to get help?  By some estimates, nearly 20% of children worldwide suffer from dyslexia. In prison populations, that number more than doubles to 48%. What hope do under-resourced students have to get the help they need?

I am an educator at a Christian school, so I spend a fair amount of time talking about Jesus.  Like Jesus, teachers touch lives every day that they go to work in ways that they will never fully comprehend and society will never adequately value.  They have a tough job, and honestly, students with learning disabilities make their job even more challenging.  Compounding the difficulty, I believe that generations of teachers have received inadequate instruction in recognizing and understanding learning disabilities.  I think that is changing across the country as it has at SouthLake Christian Academy.  I believe that it must change, not so much for Kate as for children around the country who are far less likely to get the help they need.  When teachers help a student with a learning disability, they demonstrate the love of Jesus to the least of these. Teaching a child to read is not just educational work; it is Kingdom of God work.  If I might paraphrase from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserable, “To teach another person is to see the face of God.”

Academics Dyslexia Learning Disabilities Uncategorized

SouthLake Christian Academy – School Highlights 2018-2019

The Class of 2019:

  • 53 students graduated from SouthLake this past May
  • 7 graduates will play a sport at the collegiate level, including baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse, and volleyball.
  • 68% of graduates earned scholarship monies, collectively totaling more than $3.6
  • million in awards for academics, athletics, arts, leadership, and commitments to their communities.
  • SouthLake graduates were accepted to 86 different colleges and universities and will be attending 29 different schools in 10 states, as far north as Pennsylvania, as far south as Florida, and as far west as Texas.
  • For the first time in many years, more of our graduates will be attending school out-of state than in-state.
  • 16 graduates started SouthLake in kindergarten or earlier and maintained continuous enrollment through graduation. They affectionately refer to themselves as “lifers” and they have been on a journey together that will forever shape their lives.

Athletics:

  • 80% of Middle School and High School students play a team sport at SouthLake Christian
  • SouthLake competes in the Metrolina Athletic Conference (MAC)
  • Varsity volleyball won the MAC regular season and tournament conference championships
  • Varsity football sought to defend their state championship, reaching the state semifinals
  • Varsity girls’ tennis won the MAC championship
  • Combined girls/boys swim team scored first place in MAC swim championships
  • Varsity boys’ lacrosse repeated as state champions in Division II
  • Five student athletes received All State recognition
  • Two student athletes qualified for the state golf championships
  • Varsity baseball powered to a 14-win season
  • SouthLake Christian won the 2018-19 MAC Sportsmanship Award

Fine Arts Presentations:

  • Christmas at SouthLake – concerts and art display (December 2018)
  • Choir Candlelight Christmas Evenings at the Biltmore (December 2018)
  • Shrek, the Musical – theatre performance, over 1700 tickets sold (February 2019)
  • Lower and Middle School Art Show (April 2019)
  • Lower School Spring Art Extravaganza (April 2019)
  • A Celebration of the Arts – Middle and Upper School music and art show (May 2019)
  • ACSI Festival: High School choir – Superior, Middle School Choir, Concert Band, and Orchestra – Excellent (Spring 2019)
  • Additions to Fine Arts Curriculum & Course Offerings:
    • Chapel Band/Worship Studies was added as course offering.
    • Middle school and High School students may participate in Chapel Band.
    • Theatre is now taught year-round by a new theatre teacher.

Financial Position:

  • $7.5 million in net revenue ($8.7 gross)
  • $6.7 million in net tuition revenue ($7.9 gross)
  • $6.8 million in debt (financed at 5.25%, 5-year term, 25-year amortization)
  • SLCA awards 1.2 million annually in employee discounts and financial aid
  • Expenses:
    • $5m (68%) to salary, benefits, payroll taxes
    • $830k (11%) to facilities
    • $378 (5%) to administrative costs
    • $1.2m (16%) instructional costs
  • 2018-2019 enrollment was 575
  • Donations:
    • $150k cash donations to school ($260 per student on average)
    • $37k donations in kind for athletics (dirt, flagpole, water, lacrosse wall)
    • $23k donations from teachers to classrooms ($360 per teacher on average)
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An Open Birthday Letter to My Dad

Dear Dad,

For your birthday, I wanted to write you this letter to thank you publicly for being a great dad. You did all of the things that dads should do. You played with me in the yard, took me hunting and fishing, taught me how to train a dog, coached my baseball teams, paid for my piano lessons, and attended endless band concerts. You took me to church, taught me about Jesus, gave me relationship advice when I needed it, and helped me choose a college. And you did these things while loving my mom, caring for my critically ill brother, taking care of your own aging parents, and earning a living in noble professions that helped protect lives and the environment. And to top it off, you were the best man in my wedding, traveled from around the world to see your newborn grandkids, helped us buy our first house, and passed down old cars for us to drive. I don’t say thank you enough for all of these things.

Of course you weren’t perfect. Your haircuts were sometimes a bit shorter than I’d hoped, like the infamous time that you gave me a buzz cut but forgot to attach the guard to the clippers. That was the first time that I ever saw my bare scalp, but it was kinda fun to see my grandmother cry when she saw the aftermath. Oh, and remember the times you tried to teach me about auto maintenance? My cluelessness once got you so flustered that you added fresh oil to the truck without putting the oil plug back in. And then there was the time that we got lost in Washington D.C. on family vacation. There may or may not have been some significant profanity involved after we passed the US Mint for the third time trying to find our hotel.

And while I’m thinking about it, let me just go ahead and apologize for always putting my feet under your seat. Now that I’m a dad, I know just how irritating that is. [Apparently I inherited your sensitive rear end.] I also remember that when we were kids you used to say that you wished we obeyed you as well as our labrador retrievers did. I always thought that was a joke. Now I had three kids and a labrador retriever of my own and I realize that you were actually serious, and I have to agree with you. And let me add that I’m rather disappointed that it’s now illegal to transport children and pets in the back of a pickup truck with a camper top. Sadly, my own children will never know the joys of laying on a mattress covered with dog slobber in the back of an old Ford on a 8 hour trip to see the grandparents.

These memories will stick with me until my dying day. I am thankful for them as I am thankful for you. You’ve said many times that when you became a dad you knew nothing about parenting, and that I turned out OK only by the grace of God. To that I would add one thing: you were there for us. You were a constant and consistent presence in my life. You were home in the evenings and on weekends. You spent quantity and quality time with us. You never tried to make up for lost time because you never needed to do so. I don’t know much about parenting, but one lesson I learned from you and mom stands out above the rest – time covers a multitude of sins. Of all the things I have to thank you for on your birthday, I thank you for your time.

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Myths Christians Believe (Part 4)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.
  • For Part 3 (myths 5 and 6), go here.

Myth 7: I can be spiritual without being religious.

This statement is alternately expressed in these ways: “I consider myself a spiritual person, but not a religious person.” Or “I am spiritual but I want nothing to do with organized religion.” The problem with this line of thinking is that the moment you express your spirituality in any way, you are engaged in religious behavior. And what is the alternative to organized religion? Disorganized religion?

Let’s define a couple of terms. Spirituality is a process of engagement with particular beliefs and ideals for the purpose of personal transformation. Religion is the set of beliefs, practices, cultural systems, and worldviews by which one defines his or her reality. You may disagree with a specific facet of one or both of these definitions, but however you define either term you’re going to find obvious overlap. If spirituality is expressed in any way, if it results in any behavior whatsoever, and if that behavior is shared by anyone, then you’ve entered the realm of religion. And if those behaviors are repeated in any way, by anyone, then you’ve created the beginnings of a tradition; you’ve entered the realm of organized religion.

So maybe you don’t like the organized religion that you see around you. I don’t blame you. I think there are many different ways to do church. But to throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting all organized religion is neither practical nor really even possible if you are at all spiritual. A purely individualistic spirituality that engages no one and practices nothing and has no interest in personal transformation is probably not spirituality worth claiming in the first place.

Myth 8: I love Jesus but I hate the Church.

I want to respect the fact that many who read this have been hurt by a church, some in profound and lasting ways. In fact, everyone who gets involved in a church will get hurt by someone in that church sooner or later. The more deeply you get involved, the greater the potential hurt. A close friend can probably hurt you more severely than an acquaintance. The only sure way to avoid being hurt by a church is to abandon it altogether. But can you still love Jesus and hate the Church that Jesus loves?

Speaking to Peter, Jesus said, “… on this rock I will build my church.” Regardless of how you interpret “rock” (as referring to Jesus himself or to Peter), you cannot miss the personal pronoun “my.” The church is Jesus’s church. The Apostle Paul certainly did not miss this fact when he wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  And of course, the Bible ends in Revelation with imagery of a wedding between the returning Christ, and his bride, the Church (Revelation 21-22). Cyprian of Carthage famously wrote, “You cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother” (The Unity of the Catholic Church). Augustine is credited with saying, “Though the church may be a whore, she is still your mother,” although this may be a misattribution. Similarly, John Calvin wrote, “for those to whom he is Father the church may also be mother” (Institutes 4.1.1). 

So can you love me but hate the wife whom I love? I’m inclined to think not. Can you love Jesus but abandon the Church he loves? Jesus seems inclined to think not. So if Jesus is a person worth loving or following or admiring or emulating, then perhaps we should take another look at the institution he founded, perverted though it is, and see if there aren’t creative ways to engage the life of the Church in healthy and transformative ways.

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Myths Christians Believe (Part 3)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.

Myth 5: Busyness is next to godliness.

Most parents I know fill their kids’ lives with activity. Sports or dance or music lessons or intellectual pursuits seem to fill up kids’ schedules these days.  And why are we even talking about grade school kids having a schedule?  Maybe because parents want to nurture the next Tiger Woods, child prodigies who will excel beyond their peers and become famous. Many teens I know follow the same pattern, trying desperately to build a resumé fit for the Ivy League. Most college students I work with fill their lives from dawn to dusk, often with really good things like Bible studies, intramural sports, church and/or campus ministry activities, leadership in a student organization, Greek activities, athletic team practices, and even some studying on occasion. Maybe the semi-idle wandering of many 20-somethings is related to basic burnout.  They’ve been going non-stop without a thought for two decades and they want off the roller coaster for a while. And do I even need to continue the conversation by pointing out the exhausting schedules that we parents and working professionals tend to keep?

“Beware of the barrenness of a busy life,” warned Socrates. It is possible to fill your life with so many good things that your life is no longer good. James Bryan Smith, professor of Theology at Friends University, lectured at Samford University a few years back and quoted Dallas Willard as saying, “If you want to get serious about spiritual growth, you must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Years later I remember this single quote. Citing the example of Jesus, Smith pointed out that the New Testament Gospels tell us dozens of times that Jesus withdrew to a quiet or solitary place for rest, prayer, and solitude. And for Christians fond of using the Old Testament law to make their arguments for tithing or standards of sexual behavior, what about Sabbath observance? As I recall, that commandment doesn’t derive from an obscure purity code in Leviticus, it’s one of the Big 10. And maybe of all of the Ten Commandments, Sabbath is the one observance that Christians and their leaders ignore most.

Myth 6: If things look great externally, they must be great internally.

The socially acceptable answer to the question, “How are you doing?” is almost always “Fine.” We keep up appearances. We dress well, put on a smile and an air of confidence, and go about our business as if we are fine, hoping to fake it till we make it. Secretly, we’re all hurting, struggling, and suffering to one degree or another. To whom can we admit it? Who wants to know? Who really cares? 

For the past several years, my office has conducted a Spiritual Life Inventory for students on our campus. We ask questions about spiritual practices, attitudes, beliefs, values, and issues of personal concern. What the data shows, in a nutshell, is that students on our campus are more spiritually involved (in many respects far more than national averages) yet just as deeply distressed as students everywhere. Issues of anxiety and depression, sexual behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, body image distortions, addictions, dysfunctional family relationships, financial stress, academic struggle, etc. plague Christian students just like others. And yet, if you took a campus tour, walked across the beautifully manicured lawn, enjoyed the immaculately kept landscape, attended a campus event, or looked out at the students enjoying lunch in the caf or food court, you might never know. You’d never know the hurt students bury inside and carry around in disguise.

Jesus once called a group of religious leaders “whitewashed tombs,” beautiful on the outside but full of death on the inside (Matthew 23:27). Religious people can be some of the most difficult people around whom to be vulnerable. Surely this is backwards. Religious belief and practice, especially that centered on Jesus, should bring us to the reality of our own brokenness so that we display a humility that makes us more approachable, not less. More forgiving and less condemning. More accepting and less judgmental. More transparent and less superficial. More honest and congruent, so that what’s on the inside matches what’s on the outside, and vice-versa.

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