Connecting Columbia Union Seventh-day Adventists

Feature: The Educational Shift

As the Adventist educational system faces challenges, leaders look to the past to determine a best path forward.
Story by Alita Byrd

Seventh-day Adventist education in North America is facing some big challenges. In many schools, enrollment is down and costs are up. The aging of Adventist church members means that fewer have school-age children to send to Adventist schools. A cultural shift means that parents are less likely to send their children to boarding academy. These and other factors are believed to be why 170 Adventist schools in the North American Division (NAD) have been forced to close their doors in the past 10 years.

Ohio Conference’s Mount Vernon Academy (MVA) in Mount Vernon, which opened in 1893 on the advice of church co-founder Ellen White, is the latest school impacted. At a special constituency in January, the conference gave MVA two benchmarks to meet or it would close its doors at the end of the school year.

Robert E. Lemon, General Conference treasurer, writing January 16, 2014, on the Adventist Review website, called the decision “a painful ultimatum that should serve as a wake-up call on the future of these schools in the U.S.”

As it turns out, MVA failed to meet the first benchmark. As Ron Halvorsen Jr., Ohio Conference president, noted at the special constituency, “We need to figure out how to make Adventist education viable—now and in the future.”

Indeed, despite remaining the second largest Christian school system in the world—with 83 schools (K-12), 727 teachers and 5,670 students in the Columbia Union alone—Adventist schools across North America are fighting to stay relevant, competitive and open. Larry Blackmer, NAD vice president for education, summarizes more pointedly why the church needs to pay close attention. “Adventist K-12 schools are critical to the survival of the church, in my opinion,” he says. “We need evangelism, but if you want a strong second generation, with the same or similar values, Adventist education is the best way to do that.”

From this difficult position, leaders at all levels are debating the problem and ways to solve it. One part of this larger discussion is to examine the founding principles of our education system, to review the reasons behind its existence and evolution, which can help us understand its uniqueness and importance. Recalling and implementing these broad principles might help revitalize some schools, or possibly make it easier when it is necessary to shutter a beloved institution. Looking back may help us navigate the future more effectively.

The Blueprint Myth

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Christian education was fundamental for Ellen White and she was integral in the development of the Adventist education system, beginning with the first Adventist school, which opened in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1872. She wrote her first major counsel on Adventist schooling, “Proper Education,” specifically for the Battle Creek school. In it, she focused on the need for educating the whole person, as well as the importance for teaching practical skills.

As other Adventist schools opened, White continued to offer advice, publishing pamphlets and letters in the Testimonies, and in her 1903 book Education, she outlined the broad principles of her philosophy. Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students, published in 1913, contained advice aimed more specifically at Adventists.

However, despite some claims, White did not pen a detailed “blueprint” for Adventist education—a phrase that is still in use, despite its debunking in Myths in Adventism, a book by Adventist historian George Knight. It was also discredited in a pointed April/May 2012 article by Floyd Greenleaf, emeritus professor of history at Southern Adventist University (Tenn.), in the Journal of Adventist Education. Instead of detailed directions, they say, White offered general principles upon which to build Adventist schools.

It would also be a mistake to believe that the early Adventist schools all followed White’s advice. Battle Creek College experienced a particularly rough start.

In Myths, Knight lists a series of failings at Adventist schools during White’s lifetime. In some of the schools, administrators ignored White’s counsel; at other times they went to extremes in their attempts to follow her guidance, rather than taking the commonsense approach that she actually advocated.

“I don’t believe Ellen White envisioned a ‘system’ as we have come to know the meaning of the word, but I do believe she envisioned vibrant schools focused on developing students with Christ-like character; schools that facilitated student spiritual, academic, social, moral and physical growth based on principles and methodologies evident in the life of Christ,” says Hamlet Canosa, vice president of education for the Columbia Union Conference. “Moreover, Ellen White envisioned schools that prepared young people for faithful service to God and man.”

He continues, “The underlying principles and philosophical core found in the counsel of Ellen White’s writings must never be lost upon Adventist educators. However, education strategies, course offerings and teaching methodologies need to be fluid, reflecting up-to-date approaches more suited to an ever-changing world and workplace.”

Guiding Principles

So, how do we bridge our educational system’s foundation with a successful future? Elissa Kido, director of the Center for Research on Adventist Education at La Sierra University (Calif.), states that CognitiveGenesis and ValueGenesis studies document the positive academic and spiritual outcomes of an education system when we retain a “deep and active commitment to [White’s] wholistic principle of ‘the harmonious development of the physical, the mental and the spiritual.’”

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To accomplish that, many people have created summaries of White’s primary pronouncements regarding Adventist schools, including a useful one called “Objectives of our Educational Institutions” put together by her son, Arthur White. Below, her principles are distilled into four basic categories, and we ponder Adventist schools’ preservation of these principles:

1. The first and most important reason for creating Adventist schools, according to White, was the work of redemption and conversion of souls. “In the highest sense, the work of education and the work of redemption are one,” she wrote (Education, p. 30).

Canosa says union schools have not strayed from this objective and continue to make it a priority. “Our schools … are focusing energies on growing young Christians who will love and serve Christ,” he says. The acceptance of Christ makes possible related educational objectives, including character building and further spiritual education while focusing on the Bible. Union schools reach students through Bible classes, weeks of prayer, student-led devotions, weekly vespers and other spiritual programming.

2. Teaching students to become useful members of society and helping them gain a practical skill was something White talked a lot about. “In preparation for the world of work, every student completing a Christian educational program should have at least one marketable skill,” she wrote (Education, p. 218).

In White’s day, the focus was on manual labor, and Adventist schools created industries for their students to work in, including broom and furniture factories, binderies, dairies and bakeries. Today Canosa says the reality is that “governmental regulations, including compliance requirements regarding employing 14- and 15-year-olds, has made it very difficult for academies to find willing industries to assume significant risks for the sake of limited profit margins.”

Administrators, who believe industry opportunities make Adventist schools unique, suggest then that we discover new ways to teach students how to gain a skill they can use to support themselves. Two fairly new efforts are the pharmacy technician training course offered by an alumnus at Takoma Academy in Takoma Park, Md., and a welding course offered at Shenandoah Valley Academy in New Market, Va.

3. Gaining knowledge from books, though not an aim in isolation, was also important, White believed. She urged students to be “thinkers” and always to strive for excellence in whatever field of study they were focused on. “The youth should be taught the importance of cultivating their physical, mental, and moral powers, that they may not only reach the highest attainments in science, but through a knowledge of God, may be educated to glorify Him …” she wrote (Testimonies, Vol. 4, p. 425).

Academics remain a major focus in Adventist schools. Parents, especially, want a competitive education for their children that will help them get good jobs and become contributing members of society. According to Canosa, academic initiatives and contemporary teaching methodologies still based on biblical principles are demonstrating positive results as measured in standardized testing, CognitiveGenesis findings, high graduation rates and high percentages of academy graduates that matriculate to higher education.

Some schools in the Columbia Union are also investing in strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, a popular focus in mainstream education. The New Jersey Conference recently hired math, computer and robotics specialist Ferdinand Lagos to develop the STEM program in the conference’s five schools. Highland View Academy in Hagerstown, Md., has made long-time teacher and recent Einstein Fellow Ophelia Barizo its STEM coordinator.

Highland View Academy aims to prepare our students for college and beyond by offering a STEM program that will educate and inspire students to be technologically literate, innovative, problem-solvers and critical thinkers, so that they may make a difference in this global society, but not losing sight of our main purpose of educating for eternity,” Barizo says. “I feel that having a focus on STEM will make us more competitive and attractive to prospective students. … We need to be up there with the best. Not only will it make us look good, but, more importantly, will be a witness and testimony to the world, and a glory to God.”

4. The last principle Ellen White espoused is what Knight calls the “ultimate aim” of Adventist education: service and mission. “The object for which you are obtaining an education should not be lost sight of for a moment. It should be to so develop and direct your faculties that you may be more useful, and bless others to the extent of your ability,” she wrote (Testimonies, Vol. 3, pp. 223-224).

“Our schools at all levels are still focused on preparing young people for service and engaging in practical mission work in local communities, in different parts of America, and in countries across the globe,” says Canosa. “Whether providing food to the hungry; visiting assisted living homes; collaborating with locals to build schools, churches or volunteering at health stations in other lands, our young people thoroughly enjoy participating in practical missionary work at all levels.”

However, Blackmer believes we can still improve. “We need to reach out to our communities even more and make community service even stronger in our schools,” he suggests.

Parental Roles

While not considered one of her principles, Ellen White aimed the bulk of her advice at parents. “The teacher’s work should supplement that of the parents, but is not to take its place,” she wrote (Education, p. 283).

Dick Osborn, former NAD vice president of education, who remains in the education field, notes that parents who pay for their children to attend an Adventist school might tend to abdicate the responsibility for their children’s spiritual education—something White did not approve of. “I think we need to focus on redefining what Christian education is and be more inclusive,” Osborn says. “We have defined it as an Adventist K-12 school, but, more broadly, it starts at home with family worship, prayer and family dinner. It is bolstered by Sabbath School, Vacation Bible School, Pathfinders, service projects and the church.”

He adds that parents should “decide proactively how to deal with their child’s Christian education in a broad sense. A school can be a key element. But, parents can’t relax; they must think about it deliberately, whether their kids are in private or public school.”

Looking Ahead

As church leaders continue to commit to educating new generations of Adventist young people, lessons from the past can improve the future. “In part, the genius of Adventist education has been to establish schools and develop policies and patterns of instruction that can be adapted to surrounding conditions while continuing to fulfill original purposes,” Greenleaf wrote in the October/November 2006 edition of the Journal of Adventist Education. “The absence of formulas and other ‘how to’ instruction at the beginning … has forced each successive generation of denominational educators to reinterpret original purposes and principles in order to find applications appropriate to new times and places. This repetitive process has breathed new life into Adventist education. And if the church’s education program is to remain alive and fulfill its mission, the process must continue.”

Dale Twomley, a long-time educator who has headed numerous Adventist academies, including Shenandoah Valley in New Market, Va., where he is presently serving as principal for a third time, is optimistic about the future of Adventist education and a believer in White’s raison d’être of saving souls.

“I believe there is a long, straight line in the same direction for our schools. We continue to give our energies and efforts to help our students develop a life-saving relationship with Jesus,” Twomley says. “Yes, our methods are different from 100 years ago, but I see teachers every day helping their students to know Jesus—and to love Him.”

Alita Byrd, a child of the Columbia Union, writes from Atlanta.


Family and School work together to achieve good results in Adventist education. If the churches encourage and teach members to trust in God with His plan of tithe and additional 10 percent offering, there will be lot of scholarships available.

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