It was one of the best times of my life. I was an actor, soloist, sportsperson, scientist, researcher, essayist, poet, politician, leader . . . you name it I was trying my hand, achieving good results and becoming more confident as I mastered new skills and searched out my life purpose. No, I wasn’t dreaming—I was at high school.
Now I know that for some people, their high school experience isn’t great. I get that. I had my share of pressure, teenage uncertainty, angst and challenges. I witnessed bullying (although there was nothing like the online issues teenagers face today). All of these experiences shaped me into the man I am today. And all of them were had at Adventist schools. Am I thankful I attended Adventist schools? Absolutely.
This is our mission field, presenting Christ to those who have never even heard His name, except maybe as a swear word.
I am familiar with the arguments against Adventist education. It’s too expensive; it’s limited in its subject options (so it’s not expensive enough?); it’s sheltered; my kids are too bright for an Adventist school. I’ve heard it all. And yet I think Adventist education is definitely worth another look. Need proof?
I was recently speaking with Gavin Williams, education director for the South Australian Conference, and was blown away by the things happening within our school system in South Australia. Let me share some of them with you.
Just to let you know I am a little biased. My siblings and I attended these schools, my father attended the high school, my mother still teaches there. The Prescott Adventist primary and high schools in Adelaide have been an important part of our family for years. And I believe they are a big part of why all of us are still attending church. But more about that later.
When I started school at what was then Northern Districts Seventh-day Adventist Primary School, there were less than 60 students. For combined worships we would meet in the room of Mr Christian, one of the teachers. Now known as Prescott Primary Northern, it’s the largest stand-alone Adventist primary school in Australia with more than 370 students.
South Australia’s largest Adventist school system also includes Adelaide’s fastest-growing independent school. In recent years, Prescott Southern expanded from being a primary school to include a high school with 670 students. There is now quite a waiting list.
This year, the total number of students at Prescott schools is 1200. Not so impressive when measured by the size of some private schools, you might say? But let’s look at it in a different way. According to church membership data collected by the Australian Union Conference, there are around 3000 church members on the roll in SA, but only about 1500 attend weekly. That means for every regular church attendee in SA there are 0.80 students. Almost 1:1. And as Prescott Southern grows, this ratio will improve even further. Only 16 per cent of all Prescott School students come from Adventist homes; most come from nominally Christian or non-Christian families.
“So this is our mission field,” Mr Williams says. “Presenting Christ to those who have never even heard His name, except maybe as a swear word.”
There are annual weeks of spiritual emphasis with the resulting Bible and baptismal classes. But the real focus is on the schools’ day-to-day interactions with the students. As one of the non-Adventist staff said, “I feel so blessed; this is a wonderful school. If I had children young enough, they would definitely be attending this school . . . it is like a little taste of heaven on earth!”
But the school system does face challenges. Firstly, it has struggled in the past to attract young Adventist teacher graduates. Adelaide was seen as a bad career choice and too far from the bright lights of the east coast. But the Prescott system is turning these notions around.
“We employed nine Avondale graduates in 2015 and five the year before,” reports Mr Williams. “We attempt to provide a caring and professional environment for our young teachers and it seems to be working.”
Indeed young teachers from interstate are trying out the Prescott School system and, consequently, choosing to stay.
“I came to South Australia because I felt wanted. I have found the support for me as an individual to be exceptional. I am enjoying a positive work environment and a leadership that empowers graduate teachers and challenges them to excel. Everyone is working together as a close-knit team,” says third-year Prescott College teacher Carlos Vera (pictured below).
Not only are young grads from interstate now looking at Adelaide as a viable option but those who previously attended the schools are keen to teach there.
“I came back to SA because this is where the dream of being a teacher started for me. I attended all three Adventist schools as a student and had wonderful teachers. They inspired me to be a teacher and I wanted to come back to the state where I was taught. I felt called to be here. Things are going really well for me and I am enjoying my ministry at this school,” says third-year Prescott College Southern teacher Kaden Pepper (pictured below).
Another challenge relates to the areas in which the schools are based. Two are in low socio-economic areas, while the original high school, Prescott College, is tightly squeezed into an inner-city suburb with no room to grow.
However, according to Mr Williams, “morale is high and the school continues to provide high quality teaching and learning as evidenced by the Year 12 results each year”.
Prescott College is one of the longest-running Adventist schools in Australia and is the Church’s only remaining inner-suburb high school, operating at Prospect since 1906.
“Our biggest school (Prescott College Southern) is based in one of the lowest socio-economic areas in the city, yet parents are prepared to financially sacrifice to have their children attend an Adventist school and receive a quality education,” Mr Williams says. “The school has extensive waiting lists and offers a fully differentiated curriculum as it caters for mainstream students as well as those with learning challenges.”
But what has made the schools in South Australia so successful? Mr Williams puts it down to the long tradition of Adventist education in South Australia, dating back to the early years of last century.
“Traditionally church folk in SA have been very supportive of Adventist schools. The smallness of our Conference means that we have the friendliness that comes from knowing most folk or at least knowing a little about them. This translates into our schools and even though most community people supporting our school system do not have an Adventist background, they regularly comment on the caring family feel of our schools.”
Mr Williams also credits the strong leadership and vision of the teachers, as well as the stability. Many of the longest-serving teachers have been there for 20 years. Christine Clark has been principal of Prescott Southern for 26 years. In 1990, when Mrs Clark began, the school had 28 students. Now it has around 670 students and offers education to Year 12.
“People who have a passion and have invested a lot of time into this Conference have helped to make our school system a strong one,” Mr Williams says.
Currently almost 100 full and part-time teachers are employed. In addition there are two full-time and three part-time chaplains and more than 50 teaching and school support staff employed between the three schools.
I do not know what my life would have turned out like if I had attended a public school. But I do know the influence that going to an Adventist school had on my spiritual life. The speakers at worship, the teachers and chaplains who pointed me to Jesus, the easy access to vegetarian food, which made me feel normal, the good friends who weren’t into partying and the small classes where everyone had the chance to have a go: all these things helped a shy, chubby kid with low confidence to achieve all that stuff I listed at the start of the article. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.
Jarrod Stackelroth is editor of Adventist Record. He attended Adventist schools in South Australia from 1990–2003.