Monday, October 30, 2023

Looking Toward the Future; Post-Pandemic Accreditation Reflections

It's been three years since the visiting team from ACSI's Central Region accreditation commission left our campus and gave us a recommendation for full accreditation.  For those of you who don't know, ACSI stands for the Association of Christian Schools International, of which MCA is a member, and one of the services they provide for their schools is accreditation.  ACSI's commissions are recognized and approved by state departments of education, including Illinois, and are involved in dual accreditation agreements with several of the regional agencies, including Middle States, North Central-CASI, and Cognia.  

The COVID pandemic interrupted the preparation period for MCA and stopped the sending out of teams to schools for a while, so we had to wait for a little bit for our team to be available and ready.  We were thankful that our school was recommended for full accreditation, and for the encouragement that the team provided during their visit.  From their observations, they left behind four recommendations for our school to complete prior to the next accreditation period.  On just our second annual report for this accreditation cycle, we were able to inform the commission that we have met all of the major recommendations they left for the school to complete prior to the next cycle.   

A Continuous School Improvement Plan 

Developing a plan to continue improvements we made when we were still seeking accreditation was one of the major recommendations.  MCA has gone through a period of transition and some major change since the 2017-18 school year, and has reached a time in its history where planning for the future, in response to the school's experiences and changes which have occurred, now goes beyond securing a stable enrollment and securing its financial viability.  We have operated at near-capacity enrollment for the past two school years, and have had three years of solid financial security.  Our goals now must be adjusted to reflect where MCA will go over the next five, ten, even fifteen years. 

Our school's identity as Evangelical and non-denominational is an asset.  We are in a neighborhood in which there are no other schools of similar faith background and theology, but with at least one Evangelical mega-church, and several larger congregations of like faith and order, along with a cluster of smaller churches, many of them Spanish-speaking, that form the base of our constituency.  Since the pandemic, we have welcomed over 140 new students to our school, the majority of whom have come from the local public schools.  The adjustments we have made in our enrollment and admissions processes now reflect the school's desire to maximize the availability of seats for students in our classrooms because of this demand.  

Where We've Been

MCA has been here, at this location, since 1956, so this is our 67th school year.  It has transitioned over time to reflect the ethnic and cultural demographics of the surrounding neighborhood and currently is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse Christian schools in ACSI, with over 90% of our students coming from an ethnic or racial minority group.  Originally a Kindergarten through 8th grade school, a high school program was added in the late 1970's and operated for about 15 years before space requirements and changing demographics led to the decision to return to elementary education.  A "junior kindergarten" was added as an academic component for kindergarten preparation in the 1990's.  

The shifts in demographics and other circumstances have created ups and downs in the school's development.  An unsuccessful attempt to restart the high school program in 2017-18 led to a leadership transition and a downturn in enrollment.  The facilities were in need of a major upgrade and staff turnover was a problem.  But our school is built on a biblical foundation that starts with prayer.  Since the transition, the low point occurring during the 2018-19 school year, we have been blessed.  

Counting Our Blessings:  How We Got Here

Evangelical Christian schools are built on Biblical principles, including the dependence on prayer.  Midwest Bible Church has been committed to the school ministry since it was first founded in 1956, and in spite of adverse conditions, continues to remain committed to providing a Christian education and a biblical ministry of discipleship to students.  

The first steps in putting the school back on a solid foundation were supported by prayer.  The fact that God affirmed the continuing existence of this Christian school ministry, at this place, is evidenced by the blessings we have received that were part of his continuous improvement plan for MCA: 

  • Through the foresight of church members many years ago, funds were made available to renovate the main building, now known as the Vernon Lee Building, from top to bottom, along with the Pre-K building.  This was completed in the summer of 2018. 
  • The instructional faculty was stabilized with standard credentials requirements put in place for the accreditation process.  All MCA teachers have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in their teaching field, and full certification.  The turnover rate has dropped below 5% annually, and staff salaries have been raised across the board to a much more competitive level.  
  • Full accreditation, delayed by the pandemic, was granted beginning January 1, 2022 and is good through December 31, 2027.  
  • Donors coming forward enabled the school to complete the full renovation of the gymnasium, including the construction of a new band room, in the spring of 2021.  
  • The school achieved full financial independence in the fall of 2021, and has been able to develop contingency funds and savings for future maintenance projects.  
  • After being frozen in place for several years, teacher salaries were increased by over 10% beginning in the fall of 2023, with the goal of providing a minimum of a 5% increase annually each year thereafter. An insurance benefit has been added.  
  • Playground equipment was purchased and installed in the spring of 2023.
  • Our post-pandemic AYP scores in the spring of 2023 showed no adverse effects from the pandemic on the expected student outcomes of our students.  
  • Our re-enrollment rate is 95% of currently enrolled students. Enrollment has exceeded 200 students for the past two years. Since the fall of 2021, more than 145 first time students have enrolled at MCA.  
Where Are We Going? 

Of course, from a demographic perspective, it is our desire to continue the improvements we have seen in enrollment and financial stability.  We still offer tuition and fees at a lower rate than any other private, religious-based schools in our neighborhood, due to the full ownership of our facilities and being debt-free on their renovations.  Increases are planned to cover expenses for program additions and improvements as we continue to offer a distinctively Christian, academically excellent education to our students and their families.  These increases will primarily support teacher salary increases and benefits for teachers including covering professional development expenses. 

As we have increased the number of students we have enrolled, most coming from public schools, we have seen a decrease in the proficiency level attained on standardized testing in math and English language arts.  More than 80% of our students meet or exceed benchmarks in these subjects with proficiency levels running around 75%.  Students who have been at MCA for two or more years show proficiency levels similar to those of the students who have been here since kindergarten.  And while test scores are not the product of an education, they are one of the ways we measure the quality of academics which take place in our school.  (note, MCA students AYP is measured using the ITBS, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, except for those students entering a CPS selective enrollment school, who take the NWEA or Map Test, and those on Invest in Kids Act scholarships, who take the Illinois Assessment)

So what does a continuous school improvement plan for MCA look like?  

1.  We are now planning for enrollment management rather than enrollment growth.  Almost all of the vacant seats we have this year are in 7th and 8th grade.  As the current 6th grade, with 22 students, transitions to 7th and then 8th grade, calculating a 95% re-enrollment rate, we will reach full capacity of the school in the fall of 2024.  New student applications, at their current rate, will easily fill the few available spaces, less than 5% of the total, in any given year.  

2.  Academic achievement is stable.  We offer two transitional classes for students in eighth grade, Algebra 1 and Physical Science.  There is room to consider additional fine arts or elective courses for students, including Spanish for all students, K-8.  

3.  Capital improvements will include updates and improvements to campus security, addition of technology components and movement toward a full one to one from grades 3 up with the chrome book capabilities that we have.  

4.  Development of a community ministry service program for all students to become engaged in opportunities for ministry, which are abundant in this part of the city.   

5.  Continued increases in salaries for instructors and administration will ensure quality faculty.  The school needs additional personnel support in several areas, which the accreditation report noted and recommended.  

6.  There is a clear need for an Evangelical-based, distinctively Christian high school in this part of the city, where income levels and the growth and development causing increased property values show that one could be sustained.  Working toward development of a coalition of churches who are willing to catch and sustain this vision would be a goal that many parents would support. 

Continuing to Equip Students by Connecting Objectives to a Biblical Worldview

The MCA class of 2019 graduated from high school last spring, and entered college this fall.  That's hard to imagine, and what may seem like an eternity to the students was four very short years that passed by quickly for everyone else.  This fall, after earning some impressive scholarships, those students went on to schools like John's Hopkins, Notre Dame, Northwestern, UIC, DePaul, Olivet Nazarene, and Wheaton College, just to name a few.  

Conversations with some of our graduates can be inspiring.  It's clear that most of them picked up on the reason for them being here, and that their experience in this little Christian school on Cicero Avenue had an impression on their faith.  We're proud of their academic achievement, that's a good recommendation for what happens on our campus every day.  But to hear them speak of their faith, and of choices they have made because they prayed about the decision and sensed and discerned an answer, is also a recommendation.  The seeds of faith that are planted during the first fifteen years of a child's life are the most influential down the road, and we're glad to have them every day for just that purpose. 


Saturday, October 28, 2023

Support the Continuation of Invest in Kids Scholarships by Calling Your State Representative

During the current veto session, the Illinois legislature will determine whether the Invest in Kids Act, which provides tax credits to donors for scholarships provided to students whose family income qualifies them for assistance to attend a private school of their choice, including those like MCA which are religious-based, will be renewed.  The bill has been reintroduced by state representative Lisa Hernandez, of Cicero, and sponsored by Angelica Guererro-Cuellar, Kelly Burke and Marin Moylan. The governor has said that if the general assembly sends it to him, he will sign it.  So that is good news.  

It is currently in the rules committee.  There may be modifications, including a higher credit for scholarships that support students from underserved populations, something that would benefit MCA donors.  The new sunset date for the bill is 2029.  

We have multiple families at MCA who have been able to provide this education for their children through the Invest in Kids Act.  The scholarships have family income requirements and the amounts given are based on that, starting with the families at the lowest end of the income spectrum receiving the highest dollar amounts provided at 100% of their tuition.  The other two levels provide 75% of tuition and 50% of tuition.  Other expenses are not included.  The income requirements are based on family income, number of dependents, number of students enrolled and total tuition.   

Correcting False Information About the Invest in Kids Act 

As with any legislation involving money or education, there is plenty of false information circulating around about Invest in Kids.  The proposed information is available online from the general assembly itself, so any rumors or speculation can be corrected.  

1.  This is not a "school choice voucher program."  Invest in Kids is not a voucher program, nor a proposal for a voucher program.  It is a tax credit program.  Scholarship donors get a tax credit for scholarships which are given to income-qualified students to use at a school of their choice.  This includes both religious-based and non-sectarian private schools.   

2.  Public funds or tax dollars are not being given to private schools.  The money for Invest in Kids comes from private contributors who make donations to schools through various programs, such as Bright Promise Foundation or Children's Tuition Fund, which are our providers.  The contributor then gets a direct tax credit for their contribution.  There is no tax money involved and no allocation from the state budget is involved at all.  

3.  The program does not "take money away from public education."  The public education budget and allocations from federal, state and local sources is not affected, touched, tapped, or cut in any way and not a single penny of money budgeted for public education is affected by the program.  In fact, in the most recent edition of the Invest in Kids Act, a budget allocation was added to boost the public school budget in Illinois.  

Illinois issues hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits, mostly to big corporations and big business for making investments in developing areas, or in areas where the local economy has lost jobs and revenue.  The money that is being invested and spent does not come from tax revenue or the state's investments.  It is all private money.  

4. There is no separation of church and state issue here.  The Supreme Court has ruled that in such programs providing a public benefit, administered by government, as long as "no funds are taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in support of any church, denomination of religion, or in aid to any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, and that no such preference is given nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship," religious-based organizations can participate in programs for public benefit.  There is no sectarian favor in giving or receiving these scholarships.  

Invest in Kids involves no money from the public treasury, promotes no church or religious worship, is available to all qualified participants regardless of religious affiliation, and is therefore not a violation of the establishment clause of the constitution.

At MCA, Funds Are Put to Good Use

We account for our participation in Invest in Kids in two ways.  One, in order to participate, our school must complete the process for recognition through the Illinois State Department of Education.  We have done this successfully, based on their standards, which pertain to the quality of instruction and the safety of our premises, for quite some time.  Beyond that, of course, though it is not a requirement, the quality of MCA's program is affirmed by being fully accredited by a recognized commission, ensuring the highest standards of education are being met.  

Students who receive scholarship funds through Invest in Kids are required to complete the full battery of state objective tests each year.  Over 80% of our students meet or exceed the benchmarks in ELA and math.  Last year's CPS results can be found at Chalkboard-Chicago 2023 Illinois Assessment for comparison with schools in our area.  

And before the old argument that private schools are selective in enrollment, dismiss low achievers and behavior problems, and "fudge" their scores is used here, let's talk about who MCA is and who MCA serves.  We do none of those things.  Since parents pay tuition, we recommend that if their child isn't succeeding, and we've used all of the resources we have to get a response, then they may better spend their tuition dollars elsewhere.  But we work with every child we believe we are capable of serving and are called to serve, on behavior as well as on academics.  

Our school is made up of a population that is 90% racial or ethnic minority, with 80% of that being Latino, including 50% Puerto Rican.  An additional 10% are African American or Asian, or mixed race, and many of the students who are Caucasian are of Eastern European descent, such as Romanian, Polish or Ukrainian.  If the funds were available, about a third of our families would qualify for the scholarship funds, and outside of that, the school itself gives away over $150,000 each year in discounts and in-house financial aid in working with families to make our $6,500 per year average tuition and fees cost, which is one of the lowest for private schools in the city, work for them.  We're here to serve the city that we believe we were called to serve.  

Our AYP testing shows that over 80% of our students meet or exceed the grade level standards benchmarks in ELA and mathematics.  We've seen that drop a little bit since the pandemic, as we have enrolled over 135 students from public schools since the spring of 2021.  But most students, after enrolling here, get back up to grade level within a year or two.  

For any donor considering participating in Invest in Kids, we'd be a solid investment.  For legislators wondering about whether to renew or not, don't make a partisan assumption.  We're filling our seats with your constituents' children for a reason.  

Bi-Partisan Support

You can find out who your state representative and senator is by going to Find my Elected Officials.  Most of them are glad to hear from constituents, and at the state level, with so much going on in each session, don't always have a clear perspective of how their constituents feel about something.  We are aware that contributions haven't hit the capacity, and expect that to drop to a different figure, but our ACSI legislative advocates in Springfield are primarily hoping to see the bill extended for five more years.  

Tax credit scholarship bills enjoy bi-partisan support in the 15 or 16 states where they are currently in use.  This is because they do not use public funds, they are compatible with other tax credit legislation that benefits large corporations who make business investments in economically depressed or developing areas (such as grocery stores getting them for building locations in "food deserts" of small rural areas or large cities), and they are not expenditures from the state budget.  

It's difficult to argue against a program that benefits students from underserved populations as well as helps schools reduce their expenditures without losing any budget allocations.  The more seats available and used by students in private schools, the lower the cost per student to individual public schools.  In our area, CPS schools save about $20,000 per year per student who enrolls in a private school under this program by freeing up that much additional funding for the district to use for each student who withdraws.  And since those students also take the Illinois Assessment, it elevates the average scores that are reported by the district.  

Sunday, October 1, 2023

MCA's Origins are in the 90 Year History of Midwest Bible Church

 Midwest Bible Church celebrated its 90th anniversary today, October 1. Founded in 1933, the church, here at the corner of North Cicero Avenue and Cornelia Street, has a long history of visionary ministry to the youth of Chicago and beyond. The founding of the church's two long-standing ministries, Phantom Ranch Bible Camp and Midwestern Christian Academy, are linked to that vision to reach, and disciple, young people for Christ, preparing them for their Great Commission calling and service.

The history of Midwest Bible Church is directly tied to the founding of the organization known as Youth for Christ International. Torrey Johnson, who was the founding pastor of Midwest Bible Church, was its first president, and its first evangelist was Billy Graham. Many people don't realize that Billy Graham's first sermon broadcast on the radio was preached in one of the rooms of the Gideon Building, which is now the pre-school building on our campus.

This vision for reaching and discipling young people, led to the church's decision to establish a camp ministry in 1956 at Phantom Ranch Bible Camp on Phantom Lake just outside Mukwonago, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee. Each year, more than 5,000 children and youth are part of Bible camp experiences or retreats at Phantom Ranch. Just two years later, Midwestern Christian Academy was established on the church campus in northwest Chicago. Both ministries have been supported and sustained by Midwest Bible Church over the years, and the number of young people who have come to know Christ as their savior, and have grown into mature Christians finding their purpose in ministry is literally in the thousands.

Not only was Midwest Bible Church at the center of the formation of Youth for Christ International, but the church is the home of the second Awana chapter ever established, shortly after the ministry originated at nearby Northside Gospel Center. Awana still meets at Midwest Bible Church on Tuesday nights, and many of the students who participate are enrolled at Midwestern Christian Academy.

The commitment to Christian school as a ministry of the church, reaching young people is a strong one for Midwest Bible Church, coming as it does from the church's core values and its calling as a Christian body of believers. God has used this church to sustain the ministry of MCA, where students are engaged in study of God's word five days a week, and where discipleship as a believer is aimed at helping each student grow in their Christian faith, recognize the ministry to which God has called them to serve, and commit to following God's will with the foundation of skills they received while they were students here. There are no guarantees, but there are thousands of students who attended, and graduated from MCA who are following God's will for their lives and making an impact for Christ in a world that needs what they have to offer.

We are one of the oldest, continuously existing Christian schools in the city of Chicago. Among Christian schools established in the United States since the end of World War 2, the relationship between MCA and its founding and supporting congregation is a model of what Christian education could be, with a God-inspired vision of ministry. Most Christian schools in this country were started by groups of parents who saw the need for a place where their children could receive Christian discipleship alongside their education, rather than receiving education that undermined the things they were being taught in their church and home. Few churches, even those who do sponsor schools, do not make an investment beyond providing space for classes and a recruiting base for students.

But the investment of MBC in our school has sustained its existence. The past two younger generations have been leaving church and their Christian faith behind, over 80% of those raised in an Evangelical church during their childhood and high school years stop attending and participating during college, and either never make a profession of faith, or abandon their childhood practice, a figure which continues to increase. And a Christian school education isn't a guarantee that won't happen. But far fewer students, who attend a Christian school operated from an Evangelical perspective, will leave the church during college. In fact, what research has been done shows that 75% of the students who attend Christian school for at least five years of their elementary, middle or high school years, are much more likely to stay in the church than they are to leave it.

Midwest Bible Church and its ministry of Midwestern Christian Academy are proof that this can be done. And they are proof that God is in it, which is why it is succeeding.  

Give Thanks in All Circumstances, I Thessalonians 5:18

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord, and admonish you; este...