Schools That Inspire: Inviting All Children To Come | Dr Darren Iselin

11 March 2024

The following article was originally published by the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE) by CSA's Director of Research and Innovation, Dr Darren Iselin.


Schools That Inspire: Inviting All Children To Come |  Dr Darren Iselin

 

As a natural expression of their God-given, image-bearing nature, every child desires to be seen, to be known, and to belong. While school years are formative for belonging and becoming in every child’s developmental journey, some children who don’t fit the traditional educational model due to their unique needs can at times feel unseen and invisible.

Due to their specific and highly specialized educational requirements, many students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often marginalised or excluded from Christian schools. Rather than imagining what “Kingdom come” might look like for these students to belong in Christian schools, many leaders perceive their inclusion as too difficult, too challenging, and potentially too much of a burden on time and resources.

The following story is how one principal, Mike Potter, sought to reimagine and challenge this dominant Christian school paradigm. Tyndale Christian School, a thriving multi-campus K-12 school in South Australia, embarked on a journey of care, compassion, conviction, and transformation that has impacted not just students with special needs but an entire school community.

For many years, Mike would engage in the cycle of enrolment interviews at Tyndale. Families would often ask whether their child who had intellectual and developmental disabilities would have to enrol at another school—a process that would sometimes mean separating siblings and typically forfeiting the opportunity to be embraced by the care, Christ-centredness, and support that are hallmarks of Tyndale’s culture.

 

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Matthew 19:14
 

Convicted

Mike grappled intensely with this dilemma: “As I began to pray and search the scriptures regarding these frustrating and heart-wrenching conversations, three themes become clear. Firstly, Psalm 139:14 declares that every child is fearfully wonderfully made, knitted together in their mother’s womb.” Mike was deeply challenged to consider that every child was knitted together by God who sees every child as wonderful and precious.

Secondly, Mike was drawn repeatedly to Proverbs 31:8-9, which exhorts us to speak up for those whose voices are not being heard. It became increasingly clear to Mike that there were a number of families who had children with special needs and disabilities whose voice and invitation to sit at the Tyndale table had inadvertently been muted and silenced by the school’s enrolment decisions. These families felt frustrated and ostracised that their child could not be afforded a Christ-centred education that aligned with their deeply held values and beliefs. Mike knew that something should, indeed must, be done to provide a seat at the table for these precious children.

Finally, Mike was impacted by the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:14, where He instructed the disciples to “let the little children come to me and forbid them not for such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Mike considered the core mission, ethos, and culture of Tyndale in light of these scriptures. He recognised that “at the heart of Tyndale is the desire to provide an outstanding educational experience within the context of a loving community of faith. The imagery of the oak tree (from Isaiah 61:3) is used to exemplify our school’s commitment to this heartbeat. But what does this vision actually look like for all our students . . . including our students with specific intellectual and developmental needs?”

 

“I looked at these precious image bearers and resolved in my heart: What option do I have other than to say, ‘Come, you are invited and welcomed at the table at Tyndale.'”

Mike Potter

Mike and his team became determined to reimagine and reconceptualise their educational model to intentionally support and integrate students with special needs. He remembers the strength of conviction and sense of call that was impressed upon him: “I looked at these precious image bearers and resolved in my heart: What option do I have other than to say, ‘Come, you are invited and welcomed at the table at Tyndale,’ and then we set about turning that dream into a reality.”

 

Implemented

As ideation gave way to implementation, what arose was the Zerna Centre—a dynamic and seamlessly integrated special needs learning space for children with intellectual and development disabilities. The Centre was named in honour of Mark Zerna, who pioneered learning support at Tyndale and advocated for these families for over 17 years. 

Centrally located as a hub on campus, the Zerna Centre was intentionally and creatively developed to specifically house a range of allied health professionals so that students from reception to year 12 could step out of class and into their appointments rather than missing full or partial days of school. Junior and middle school support classes operate within the Zerna Centre, providing intensive English and literacy remediation programs, introspective spaces, learning-through-play programs, and personalised and small-group instruction.

 

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

The Centre allows students managing a broad range of diagnoses, including autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, epilepsy, diabetes, vision and hearing impairments, genetic disorders, a variety of intellectual disabilities, and complex trauma, to function as an integral, welcoming, and embraced part of the school community.

A core component of the Centre is a commitment to run highly specialised classes for students with very high needs but also make sure these students are known, celebrated, and invited into wider campus events and experiences (not perceived as a marginalised or siloed part of school life and community). The students participate enthusiastically in chapels, camps, musicals, and a host of other wider school-related practices—but have lovingly curated spaces and professional and dedicated staff at the Zerna Centre to meet their specific and at times complex learning needs.

 

Blessed

The impact of the Centre has been nothing short of transformational for not only the students with disabilities but also for the entire K-12 student body, staff, and parent community. The oak tree imagery, the pulsating heartbeat of Tyndale’s vision to “provide an outstanding educational experience within the context of a loving community of faith,” is now flourishing in ever more diverse and highly significant ways. The school is seeing the implications of the vision to new vistas regarding personalised instruction, collaborative learning, social engagement, personal growth, and a culture of celebration and joy that has impacted the entire school community.   

Mike speaks of Zerna with an enthusiasm that is both contagious and inspirational: “Parents come to Tyndale looking for a place that doesn’t have a deficit mindset, but rather an inclusive and supportive mindset regarding the worth and importance of every child as an image bearer. I love that Tyndale can be a place that models the kingdom to our students with special needs; where we can truly and authentically be a welcoming, inviting, relational, and caring place where every precious child is seen, loved, and known and where we collectively celebrate their strengths and diversity as an entire school community.”

The innovative Zerna Centre educational model for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities serves as both an inspiration and a challenge for other Christian schools to consider how they can create an environment for those who need a place to belong and be known and where they too can have an invited, welcomed, and deeply valued and visible seat at the table.  

View the short video that showcases the inspiring work at Tyndale Christian School.

 

 

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