For the last ten years, Jennifer Contreras has been searching for a Christian school in which to enroll her son, Antonio. Over and over, she was told that someone else would be better able to educate Antonio due to his developmental delays. But, as Alma Heights Christian School’s head of school David Gross explains, “Elsewhere doesn’t exist.”
Jennifer recalls contacting twenty-three Christian schools within a 45-minute drive of her home in Pacifica, California. Most often, the school leaders she spoke with couldn’t envision how to serve Antonio and encouraged her to look elsewhere. “I was shocked, I cried in the car after those meetings,” she recalls.
“How could every child not deserve a Christian education?”
That question came to influence other areas of Jennifer’s life.
“I just couldn’t believe that no one else felt the same sense of injustice. I wanted Christianity to be a part of Antonio’s daily life, for him to learn about God from teachers who cared about his faith.”
Discovering an Inclusive Education Model for Christian Schools
In 2012, as part of her research for a doctoral dissertation on Christian education and students with learning disabilities, Jennifer learned about CLC Network and scheduled a visit. After spending some time at CLC Network partner schools, Jennifer recalls thinking,
“This is what it should be. I’ve seen it, it’s been done. It gave me a picture of what I desired for my son, and the confidence that this methodology could be applied everywhere.”
At the time, Antonio was enrolled in the local public school for his first year of high school. “Antonio started categorizing himself as a ‛special ed kid’ and identified himself apart from ‛general ed kids.’ I could see that the segregated environment wasn’t good for his self esteem and with his growth in learning how to integrate with the general community,” she remembers.
Antonio also began attending Coastside Church, which meets on the campus of Alma Heights Christian School (AHC) (Pacifica, CA), and making friends through the youth group. Jennifer was struggling with trying to find a new church home after seeing Antonio excluded elsewhere, but eventually she attended an event with Antonio. There she met David Gross, head of school at Alma Heights Christian.
Making a Place for Antonio at AHC
David was convinced that Antonio belonged at his school.
“I did not have a strategy in place for educating Antonio, but I was convinced that this was the right place for him.” he says.
“We had been making progress toward a more mature and inclusive educational philosophy for several years, and Jennifer told me that she could provide the expertise through CLC Network.”
Jennifer and David quickly came up with a plan, and Jennifer committed to fund the plan herself “with dollars I didn’t have!” she exclaims. “But the train had left the station. We were just trying to catch up.” Jennifer contacted her employer and learned they would match her gift to AHC, up to $50,000. The plan calls for launching the first year as a pilot, and adding resource staff as more students enroll.
Making Strides at Alma Heights
Antonio started attending AHC this fall as a 10th grade student. In the first weeks of school, he has already made strides. Antonio shares, “I like AHC because I can go to school with my friends from church.” But, the positive effects extend beyond that: Antonio’s verbal and math skills have significantly improved.
“We think that because he is around typically abled kids, he is able to model his speech after them,” shares Jennifer.
No one objected to the idea of enrolling Antonio, but there were many questions around how it would work. CLC Network consultants Greg Yoder and Barbara Newman made an early visit to the school in August to meet and train teachers, and to witness the first day of school. Greg reflected,
“It was a thrill for Barb and me to share this day with Jennifer that has literally been ten years in the making. God is truly at work at AHC and his fingerprints are all over.”
In addition to partnering with CLC Network, AHC hired Antonio’s former tutor to provide part-time support.
“Word was barely out that we were working with CLC Network and doing this, and we had another student (in addition to Antonio) enroll yesterday,” David shares.
“I’m guessing I’ll get in over my head, but CLC Network is here to help prevent that. I am excited about becoming a community that’s not defined by narrow outcomes for kids, that we are growing their souls instead.”
Thanks to the support of many donors, CLC Network is thrilled to bring our knowledge to California. David shares, “I look forward to confidently saying to other administrators, ‘See! It’s better this way.’ Then I hope that we can be a toehold for inclusive Christian education in the entire Bay area.”
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the director of advancement at CLC Network.