Some Christian schools are finally grappling with their racist past and segregated present
‘We don’t look like heaven,’ and good intentions aren’t enough to change the status quo
Alma Heights Christian Academy opened in 1955 in a scenic valley in Pacifica, California, just south of San Francisco. Separate campuses for an upper and lower school are nestled along the San Pedro Creek, along with a small farm populated by rabbits, chickens and goats. It’s an idyllic place — a “cloistered community” people used to describe as “tight-knit,” said Michael Chen, the current head of the school.
Chen, who was hired as the school’s first principal of color in late 2017, said a better description might have been “exclusive,” and not just because the $12,500 to $20,500 tuition clearly delineated outsiders and insiders. Alma White, for whom the school was named, was a notorious racist and xenophobe with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
For nearly 50 years, the small private school has been led by the Grosses, a white family whose mission was to educate K-12 students from a Christian worldview. David Gross followed in the footsteps of his father, Joseph Gross, taking up the “head of school” position in 2014 after growing up on the campus, attending the school and teaching there for 24 years. When enrollment began to decline as the community around the school shifted from blue-collar white families to wealthy white and Asian tech industry employees, Gross recruited Chen to help turn things around.
But Chen would take the job only if the school changed its name and allowed him to take the culture in an overtly anti-racist direction.
Gross agreed. It was a matter of survival, and it was the Christian thing to do. “It’s about … lining up more with Jesus’ kind of thinking instead of with some of the historic biases and mindsets that obviously didn’t work well,” Gross said. In 2018, Alma Heights became the Pacific Bay Christian School.
Chen and Gross had this conversation a few years ago, before the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in May brought about a national reckoning over race. Now, with institutions across the country supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, more Christian schools could be in for some similar soul-searching.
Many of these schools were created to preserve racial segregation. Nearly one-third of the schools within the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the largest non-Catholic Christian school association in the U.S., were established shortly before or after the U.S. Supreme Court mandated public school desegregation, as many white families fled the public school system.
In September 2019, more than half of all ACSI member schools, which account for about 45% of all non-Catholic Christian schools in the U.S., reported that 80% or more of their students are white. Most school faculties are at least 82% white.
A nascent movement among evangelicals is trying to change those statistics and push Christian schools to grapple with the racism that underpins their founding. The 3-year-old Christian Educators Diversity Alliance is a coalition of teachers and administrators committed to bringing racial reconciliation to their Christian schools. Just 50 out of 3,300 ACSI member schools are listed as partners of the alliance, but the group has seen attendance at its annual symposium double each year, and it’s encouraged by trends showing that younger evangelicals are more inclusive than older generations.
But good intentions aren’t enough.
The schools that have begun to seek out Black and brown students often are uncomfortable holding the difficult conversations about racism and exclusion that are necessary to change the status quo, says Joel Gaines, who leads The City School in Philadelphia. “We’re not afraid to embrace the hard,” he said of his school. “We are committed to coming together under the Lord’s name.”
Hard it is. One teacher quit her job on the second day of an anti-racism training session that Gaines hosted at The City School. There’s also little demand for change from parents. A 2017 study from the Barna Group found that ethnic diversity is a low priority for both prospective and current parents choosing Christian schools.
Gaines is willing to help other schools have these conversations. However, if their leaders cannot agree that systematic racism exists and that it is affecting their students, there’s a limit to what he can do. “If I have to do that work, then you’re not ready to have the conversation,” he said.
What’s in a name?
For Gross, the conversation was unavoidable.
It rarely took long for the families of prospective students to ask about the Alma Heights name. It was impossible to sugarcoat the answer. White was the founding bishop of the evangelical Pillar of Fire Church. In January 1925, The Daily Times, in Longmont, Colorado, covered a rally where White was quoted as saying, “I defy anyone that is a true American and a Christian gentleman to find anything wrong with the tenets of the Ku Klux Klan.”
While she eventually distanced herself from the Klan, she publicly held to white supremacist rhetoric throughout her life. When the Pillar of Fire Church and Pillar Ministries established the Bay Area school in 1955, the year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, they named it after her.
The church’s denomination eventually moved away from its overtly racist past. But like many Christian denominations grappling with historical racism, its preference throughout the 1970s and ’80s was to ignore that history, Gross said, not to address it. In 1997, the church issued an appeal for forgiveness for “anything in our past that is short of Christian standards based on God’s word.”
Many denominations have offered similar public statements, particularly the Southern and evangelical branches of mainline denominations that split over slavery. Others who opposed the civil rights movement or refused to ordain Black pastors during the 20th century have also issued statements of public repentance. The Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church in America and the United Methodist Church have all publicly apologized for their racist histories.
Yet churches are still segregated.
In 2014, Pew Research reported that 80% of churchgoers attend a congregation that is predominantly one race. Slow changes can be seen, the report said, but the pace of change might be explained by another study. The following year, LifeWay Research surveyed nearly 1,000 churchgoers and found that 67% believed their church was “doing enough” to become ethnically diverse, and only 53% wanted to see their church become more diverse. Evangelicals were even more likely to say their church was doing enough, and white respondents were the least likely to say their church needed to diversify.
Attitudes around sexuality and abortion have shifted far more quickly than those on race, said Daniel Cox of the American Enterprise Institute. As more evangelical church members see friends and family who came out about their sexuality or voice support for reproductive rights, Christian institutions — especially schools and universities— have at least opened discussion on their positions.
“When it comes to race, attitudes are much more entrenched,” Cox said. Institutions have not had similar struggles around race, because segregation has kept white churches from seeing and hearing their Black brothers and sisters. “That impacts so much of how we engage on these issues and whether it’s a priority in our lives.”
When pastors try to address the issue, many are told to “just preach the Gospel” and to “stay out of politics.” But after this summer’s protests, some Black pastors have called on their white colleagues to consider that structural racism might have a lot to do with how their denominations look currently, not just historically. A few of these pastors have responded and are trying to address the issue of racism more directly with their congregations.
Chen says Christian schools have similar work to do.
In 2017-18, when Chen arrived, Alma Heights had seven Black students and 13 Latino students out of 285 total in K-12. Without a concerted effort, it was unlikely those numbers would change much. Gross knew that if Black and Latino families were made to feel like interlopers in a white institution, it would undercut the mission of the school. Earning a good reputation among communities of color, he and other school leaders have found, is more powerful in recruiting than diversity statements or marketing materials picturing a smattering of Black and brown students.
Besides seeking to shift the racial demographics of the institution, Chen had a vision for student-centered learning and for allowing teachers more autonomy in their classes, all in the interest of putting power into more diverse hands. An immigrant himself, Chen had great success recruiting and leading people of color in his former schools. But he made it clear he would not do so in Pacifica under the name Alma Heights.
In November 2017, Chen took the position as head of school, with the promise that a new advisory board would pursue a name change over the next few years. “I was willing to give it more time,” Chen said. But Gross moved to start the process almost immediately, and to make it official by the end of the school year.
Pillar Ministries agreed to let the school become a legally separate institution. But the legal changes and the new name would not be enough to ensure lasting change to the school’s culture and demographics. Usually, when institutional leaders try to address racial disparities, Chen said, they do so through tacking on diversity initiatives. They invite people of color into their institutions without acknowledging how they have historically worked to the advantage of white people.
It wasn’t that Alma Heights had been actively ostracizing or excluding people of color, he said. It was that its coursework, hiring process and decision-making preserved a status quo that kept white people at the center of the curriculum and prioritized faith traditions more common in white communities. The effects of white supremacy, Chen said, are “in the air we breathe.”
Tacit white supremacy can be difficult to expunge. When Trinity Christian Academy director of student development Matt Lambro discovered his suburban Dallas school on a list of segregation academies, he cringed. Segregation academies were established to give white parents a place to send their children when public schools were desegregated. Some openly advertised their purpose, and others (and some public schools as well) signaled their intent by adopting the names of Confederate leaders.
While nowhere in Trinity’s founding documents or marketing materials did it explicitly promote segregation, the school probably didn’t need to, given that it was established in 1970, the same year Sam Tasby filed the lawsuit Tasby v. Estes, which would bring desegregation to Dallas public schools.
In a 1972 Associated Press story, Trinity headmaster David Coterill said that the “unsettled” situation around desegregation had contributed to an uptick in applications, a financial boon for the young school in the sorghum farming community of Addison, Texas. He said parents who may have been motivated by “the busing situation” came to see the value in private education in its own right, and that qualifying Black students were welcome to attend.
“We have had some Blacks apply from the area,” Coterill said then, “but the pathetic situation is that they cannot make the preliminary testing.” The school’s tuition was another barrier, and Trinity did not offer scholarships, Coterill added.
Entrance exams and substantial tuition were common tools used to keep private schools white and middle-class — even after 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled that private schools could not discriminate on the basis of race.
Lambro, a white man who has been at Trinity since 2016, says efforts to diversify, driven by a belief in a global Christian faith, have been earnest. The school changed its financial aid process and launched a diversity committee that includes faculty, staff and administration from every division and department. But perceptions have been hard to shake. In 2017-18, of the 1,430 students at Trinity, 81% were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“We don’t look like heaven,” Lambro said, “My heart broke for that.”
At a recent gathering of local Christian schools, he said, he was struck by how many, including his own, were planning 50th-anniversary observances. Celebrating founding dates that coincide with the beginning of busing, without any acknowledgment of that history, struck him as tone-deaf. “What do you think happens when families of color see that your school is 50 years old?” he said.
When historically segregated schools do try to remake their image, they have to do more than get Black families in the door, said Vernard Gant, director of the ACSI A.C.E. Student Success Center. He helps Christian schools consider how they can recruit and support families of color, but many, he said, don’t realize how deeply whiteness is in their bones. He calls it the schools’ “accent.”
“[Schools] went into it thinking they could do business as usual,” Gant said. “They weren’t prepared to deal with their accent.”
Gant developed the A.C.E. acronym to describe the populations least likely to show up in Christian schools: academically disenfranchised, culturally diverse and/or economically disadvantaged.
Most of the Christian schools in his network are still a long way from inviting those students in, he said, and while he does not conflate racial and economic diversity, he said, both are lacking. “Christian school historically has really operated monoculturally,” Gant said.
Some racial exclusion has been explicit, historically, as in the case of segregation academies. Other exclusions are a byproduct of financial realities. Private schools are not funded by taxes and must run on tuition and private donations. That has had the effect of barring economically marginalized groups, including many communities of color.
Gant said he thinks about “how Jesus would do school. … He has this deep compassion for the poor and needy. I do not believe that he would come to protect or expand the advantage of the already advantaged.”
Students can hear their schools’ racial accent as well.
Davis Works, a junior at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Dallas, says he can tell the school cares because of the seriousness afforded to G.R.A.C.E., its student-led diversity council. G.R.A.C.E. stands for gender, race, age and ability, culture and economic status.
Works, who sits on the council, remembers G.R.A.C.E. being “joked about” when he was younger, he said. While faculty and students are still “pretty homogenous,” he says more are seeking the council’s input when addressing current events, such as the coronavirus and anti-Chinese rhetoric students have seen online.
While Works knows it’s important for white people to confront racism, he wishes his peers and teachers would listen more to students of color. “As a white male I know I have a status at Prestonwood that some of my Black female friends at Prestonwood don’t have,” he said.
Myia Sims, who graduated from Prestonwood last year, said teachers and many students at the school were uncomfortable when she shared her perspective as a Black woman. She enrolled at Prestonwood when her family moved to Dallas from Columbus, Ohio. Her parents wanted a private school with strong academics. While this was not her first time in a predominantly white school or neighborhood, she said, Prestonwood “was a totally different environment.”
In her 2019 graduating class of 129, she estimated that 20 students were Black. Most classes had few Black students, she said. Her family’s more liberal Christian beliefs and politics also put her on the fringes.
When it came to race, her teachers and peers preferred a “colorblind” approach, she said, and it pushed her experience to the periphery. “The world is always going to see me as a Black woman,” Sims said, “I know that as a Christian that’s not supposed to be the primary part of my identity, but still it needs to be addressed.”
She was relieved to find Jenny Brady, the school’s director of diversity. Brady, a white woman, affirmed that Sims’ discomfort was rooted in reality, and urged her to keep speaking out.
It was wearying, Sims said, explaining things to white people all the time. But, she said, she began to see it as a kind of mission. “I’m calling them out because I love them.”
Pursuit of theological orthodoxy keeps some schools from addressing their racial imbalances, but Brady said bringing in diverse perspectives is not the same as abandoning the Gospel.
She would like to see schools stop requiring families to sign a statement of faith upon enrollment, which 81% of ACSI schools currently do. “That, to me, is segregation,” Brady said — it keeps out students whom the Gospel would invite in.
Many parents choose Christian schools because they want teachers to reinforce their religious beliefs. However, Chen sees rigid, homogenous hierarchies reinforcing white supremacy, even if they are ostensibly based on religious doctrine.
Like many Christian schools, Alma Heights had hired primarily evangelical Christians. As a group, 76% of evangelicals are white, according to Pew Research. In the 2010s, Gross started, and Chen accelerated, the hiring of Catholic and Greek Orthodox faculty, inviting more people of color to apply. They allowed teachers to develop course offerings that matched their personal expertise and student interests, shifting some power into more diverse hands.
Even campus spiritual life changed once the school became Pacific Bay, said Lester Gutierrez, a Latino student who graduated in May.
In his first two years, when the school was still called Alma Heights, Gutierrez said, the administration listened to student feedback, but rarely let them shape the weekly chapels or campus events. Now, students take an active role. Student panels have replaced adult speakers, for example, and people of color, like himself, are in positions of leadership, he said.
“It’s led to some powerful moments that I don’t think would have gotten the chance to be shared if PacBay wasn’t a collaborative spiritual community,” Gutierrez said.
If the moral argument doesn’t convince leaders to pursue diversity, Brady said, a changing America might. “Christian schools are going to have to diversify if they’re going to keep their doors open,” she said.
While most evangelicals are white, they are, as a group, getting older. Far fewer people under 30 identify as evangelicals, and only half of those are white. Concerns about enrollment decline in Christian schools have circulated for years, and COVID-19 has many private schools in crisis.
But if Alma Heights exemplified the problem, it’s possible that Pacific Bay points the way forward.
After six years of enrollment decline, school administrators said, they saw an increase for the 2019-20 school year. Applications in February 2020 were up more than 200% over the previous year. The largest change was a twofold increase in those who chose “other” as their racial identity; most categories stayed fairly stable.
Increasing the Black and Latino enrollment in the segregated, congested Bay Area is going to require tuition and transportation solutions, Pacific Bay staff acknowledged, but they are determined to build on their efforts.
“The world expects more from Christians,” Gross said, “And they should.”
This story about Christian schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
This story has been updated to remove a section about accusations against Prestonwood students that the school denies.