A Better Way For Childhood Education

08 April 2015 Written by  By Kathy Zamora, with Peggy Collins
Published in April 2015 Articles

I am the principal of Golden Hills Christian School, which is the K-8 childhood education ministry arm of Brentwood’s Golden Hills Community Church.

I’m having a wonderful time in the position, in part because the school’s office manager — an amazingly capable woman named Peggy Collins — has been working by my side and supporting me for decades in an association that reaches back before Golden Hills School existed.

Our school has a current enrollment of 232 students. A Christian publishing company, called A Beka Book, provides our curriculum and educational materials, including extra challenges and helps both for quick learners and struggling students. A few years ago, we incorporated Math education materials from Saxon Math that resulted in a 20 percent rise in student test scores.

In 2012, Golden Hills School achieved accreditation with a Christian school organization, ACSI, and a secular accrediting society, called WASC. We earned the maximum six-year accreditation. It is a great validation! Parents who understand such things, know that the accreditation represents a prestigious stamp of approval by two societies with rigorous evaluation processes. Golden Hills School is creating a Christian-based educational experience for our children, which includes prayers and open discussion about God. However, in some ways we are providing a learning environment that includes features from the kind of schooling experience I had while growing up in Byron. Only a handful of people actually lived in Byron in those days. Classroom sizes were small; the teachers not only knew us personally, but they were on a first-name basis with our parents, as well. Many of our parents had gone to the same school and in their day, of course, students and teachers were not only permitted to speak about God, they actually joined together in prayer.

The education we are providing at Golden Hills School is traditional in that our values, standards of behavior, and worldview reflect the best parts of childhood education in America before the 1960s. We are allowed to give hugs to the kids, which is forbidden in public schools. However, educational technology together with advances in teaching methods, learning theory, and style of classroom decoration have greatly advanced the manner of learning. For example, we have outgrown the traditional attitude that childhood education should be odious and unpleasant. We are not simply willing to make the educational process pleasant for our students, but we devote a lot of resources into ensuring that throughout their subsequent lifetimes, students will have smiles on their faces when they recall their Golden Hills School education. One way we do that is by maintaining the small teacher/student classroom size ratios that all educators know to be critically important to learning success but that public school programs have difficulty implementing. We maintain student/teacher ratios at no more than 20 to 1, but our average ratio is actually about 16 to 1, which is half of the ratios that public school teachers are sometimes stuck with. Because of the small student/teacher ratios, Golden Hills teachers are able to modify teaching to learning styles. They get to spend individual time with their pupils and with the parents of their students.

The Golden Hills educational philosophy is based upon cooperation with parents being given the role as the key member of each educational team charged with a particular child’s education. In the view of the Golden Hills leadership, the parents and not society — certainly not the state — have been given the biblical mandate of bringing up the child. Our role is not to replace parents raising their child, but rather to come alongside them in order to assist them in discharging their God-given task of raising their kids. For that reason, Golden Hills School is a Discipleship-type school, which means that one parent, at least, is required to be a professing Christian. This enables us to extend the learning to the home environment. The system works! We submit our students to TerraNova, Third Edition research-based standardized achievement tests. Our students are ranked against all the Christian Schools in the nation. In many areas, our students are performing in the 80-percentile range. Golden Hills School has no formal PTA; instead, parents are required to volunteer their time serving in such capacities as helping in classrooms, chaperoning field trips, grading papers, setting up bulletin boards — serving in whatever capacities best match their availability and abilities to the school’s particular needs. Parents are expected to offer at least 20 hours a year in volunteer services, but the great majority of our parents actually donate much more time than that.

Golden Hills School’s parents and teachers come together to form afaith-based community and to create the“village” that, according to the famous African proverb, is required to raise a child. Not only do parents tend to become friends with members of our staff but they also become friends with other parents. Each of us regards Golden Hills more as family than institution. You can see that most clearly in times of emergency. During any kind of crisis, our families immediately begin to “circle the wagons,” to provide resources — bringing in meals, taking the children to school, and supplying whatever moral or physical support is needed.

Peggy and I have been part of this society in various roles; our own children attended Golden Hills School and developed life-long friendships with fellow students based upon their core of common values and shared memories.

Back Story
I graduated from Cal State Hayward in 1988, with a degree in Liberal Studies and began subbing in a Christian school in Pittsburg. Before that time, I hadn’t known there was such a thing as Christian Education. I was surprised to find that children in that school were having a better schooling experience than any I had known previously. The students were thoughtful and caring for each other. Not only that, they seemed actually interested in learning. The curriculum in that school took learning far beyond the boundaries of what I myself had learned in public school.

When my first child came of school age, I enrolled her in a brand new private institution, called Gateway School, which was renting facilities at Golden Hills Church. She was one of 20 charter students enrolled in the school’s very first kindergarten and first grade. From the beginning, I was impressed with the process of her learning. The class size, curriculum, and sense of caring were like those I had witnessed in the Pittsburg school. The next year I jumped at the chance of joining the school’s faculty when a kindergarten teacher position opened up.

One of the happy parts of the job was that Peggy Collins, who was administrative assistant at the time, was figuring out how to make everybody’s life better. Two years later, I moved up to fifth grade and two years after that moved down to fourth grade. That felt like coming home. I fell in love with fourth graders because their minds have developed to the point where they could process information, and they still wanted to please their teacher.

Things changed in 2001 when the principal was hospitalized with an illness. We were approaching the beginning of the school year, so I asked the board what they were going to do and they said that Peggy and I should step into continue the program during the principal’s illness. We conducted the hiring and in-service training tasks while waiting desperately for the man’s return. However, he never returned; during the first week of school, he passed away. The board asked Peggy and me if the two of us would co-administrate the school while they searched for a candidate. The search for a suitable candidate turned out to be a difficult challenge, one that involved going through a series of very unsuitable applicants. In 2008, the Gateway board petitioned Golden Hills Church to take over the school. Negotiations were complicated, but the church finally agreed to take over the school with the provision that Peggy should remain in place as administrative assistant and that I should become the principal. I had no ambition to take charge. For one thing, teaching was my area of gifting. I was good at it and loved the children I was serving. For another thing, I really didn’t want the stress levels that went along with school administration. I finally gave in because of the knowledge that there would be no school at all unless I agreed to the promotion. I prayed desperately that God would take that cup away, but finally had to admit that He wasn’t going to do so.

The name changed to Golden Hills Christian School. The fact is, however, that everything changed as we transitioned from being an independent Christian School to becoming a ministry arm of Golden Hills Church. Gateway School had been a parent-run board, which meant that parents had final decision concerning all school matters whether or not the parents had any idea about the actual issues. Under the new set-up, the Golden Hills management team became our board.

The change was a blessing for the school program and an enormous relief for me personally. The Golden Hills management team consisted of a group of professional ministers with a wide variety of gifts and talents that enabled them to apply a broad spectrum of wisdom and experience to any executive decision they would make. Just as importantly to my own personal value system, they were men of prayer. We were being led by a group of people who focused on what God wanted. The difference was substantial and, to me, perfectly wonderful.

Added to this substantial change, we could bring the Golden Hills Church’s sterling and powerful reputation to bear upon the school. Church members became a source of support. Word-of-mouth became a powerful recruitment tool.

The transition involved some difficulties. Everyone was closely watching to see what would happen. The management team gave us two years to bring the program up to speed and to become self-sufficient with revenues matching expenses. At the beginning, we were a skeleton staff running a lean program. Job descriptions were ignored; I did lunch duty.

We began with 130 students. By the second year, we had begun growing. We added a second kindergarten and were running two first grades. Things came together and by the time six years had passed, we had enrolled 100 more students.

We are enrolling students for 2015-2016, which begins mid-August. Peggy and I are expecting that it will be the best year yet.

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