I was really excited to see a small piece of data that ACSI recently released in their Christian Schools and Covid-19 research (December 2020). In it, Swaner and Lee identified that schools who both re-opened last fall in person AND increased special education support saw enrollment growth of nearly 10%, versus enrollment declines overall with other options. While this research is admittedly correlational, it is quite striking. Those schools who reopened on-campus and decreased special education support experienced enrollment declines of 7%. That makes the overall increase in enrollment correlated with increased special education nearly 17% – a huge impact in any scenario.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to support students with disabilities in Christ-centered schools, just open the Gospels to almost any page and read about our calling to welcome the ‘other’. We are called to be the body of Christ by recognizing the gifts of each person and realizing the needs we have for belonging and interdependence. Theology is powerful, and our Christian schools so often act as a living testimony to God’s love.
But that same theology can be shrugged off, too, when we come face to face with the brokenness of our world. That brokenness and sense of limitations often keeps our schools from serving students with academic or behavior challenges. In my advocacy work, administrators often want to know: at what point does our ability to serve this student stop?
The act of asking such a question implies a feeling of helplessness, frustration, and a knowledge of our own failings. We place limitations on our imagination by picturing that line to be closer than it needs to be. Instead we can ignore that line entirely, and ask a different question: what else can we try to help this student stay in community? Focus instead on the space before that line than on the placement of the line, and not yet will become a mantra.
Inclusion and diversity isn’t meant to be easy. As humans we have so much to learn, about ourselves, each other, and about God’s love and design. When we keep ourselves from learning by drawing artificial lines between what we perceive is and is not possible, we give power to the distance we feel from God instead of the power of not yet.
But I know that stepping out in faith is hard, especially when we don’t know whether our steps will be successful. Doing the right thing may bring worldly benefits, too, such as increased enrollment of students of all abilities. Let that be a worldly reminder of a holy calling, which is what I see this research pointing to. I hope you hear this encouragement to follow Jesus with a commitment to students of all abilities. Even when times are tough, maybe even especially so, investing in support services and inclusive education is worthwhile. It is worthwhile not just as a way to live out our missions, but as a pathway to sustainable schools and growing enrollment.
So don’t be afraid to step out in faith and to ask the questions about what might be possible – instead of focusing on the point at which impossibilities take over. Our God is the king of possibility, and showing us new possibilities every day. Take the time to dream of what might be possible with faith.