Nurturing faith with education

Ottawa’s faith-based independent schools go beyond the academic, with special emphasis on spirituality and valued traditions, writes Chris Hunt.

Rick Dystra pauses a moment to collect his thoughts before explaining his school’s philosophy.

“We offer a curriculum that is consistent with the Ministry of Ontario,” he says, “yet from a Biblical perspective.”

Dystra is the principal of Community Christian School, a faith-based Protestant school in Metcalfe, offering classes from junior kindergarten to Grade 8.

Ottawa is home to many faith-based schools, each with their own philosophy and particular way of teaching.

They all offer an academic program to teach students the skills they need while providing a foundation that is deeply rooted in faith.

“We integrate faith in all our lessons.” says Robertha Greenaway, principal of Ottawa Adventist School, a Seventh-day Adventist school.

“Every lesson we teach, we bring back to our belief in creation.”

For example, if a teacher was conducting a lesson on pioneers, says Greenaway, she’d highlight how everything centred on the family, and how important it was for the pioneers to be united, and that would be brought back to the unity of Christ.

This teaching philosophy dates back about a century and aims to help the student develop by focusing on three main areas: mental ability, physical fitness and spirituality.

Abraar School, an Islamic school in Ottawa’s west end, also takes a holistic approach to learning.

Academic excellence and Muslim character are nurtured alongside spiritual growth, independence and self-discipline.

“We are living in a world where there’s bound to be different voices when it comes to moral and ethical reasoning,” says Dr. Mohammed Saleem, principal of Abraar School. “I think faith-based education provides the opportunity for especially young minds to develop those moral and ethical skills.”

In addition to courses you’d find in most other schools, Abraar School offers Islamic studies. It also provides programs that teach students Arabic and the Quran.

Dr. Saleem says all aspects of life are connected, and these aspects are integrated and contextualized, then formed into lessons.

A simple example involves a child learning basic math.

“If students are learning about addition,” says Dr. Saleem, “not only will they learn how to add but they will also learn about how to use addition; for example, taking care of their daily duties when it comes to prayers.”

Family often plays a large part in a child’s faith-based education, as does the religious community. They work with the school to teach a child about academics and faith.

“We see the home as being the primary source for the child,” Greenaway says, adding that the church congregation nurtures the child and school is the tie that binds it all together.

“And then we have the school that builds up the foundation of the home and church. So we have this partnership that makes our education different and that’s what makes it work.”

Dykstra agrees.

“We work together with churches and with the family and basically have a united faith tradition that we base our message, our curriculum on,” he says.

Learning the importance of tradition is another key aspect. Children at the Westboro Jewish Montessori Preschool experience traditions in a very hands-on way.

During the holiday Sukkoth, students take part in a very significant Jewish custom.

“We take them out in the sukkah, which is a hut, and we have snack out there and we eat lunch out there,” says Devora Caytak, director of the school.

“And we make a blessing on the four-plant species, which is very important for the holidays.”

Spending time in the sukkah allows the children to connect with a cherished part of Judaism in a unique way while teaching them why that tradition is important.

“This is symbolic of the time that we travelled in the dessert and the Jews lived in huts,” she says. “It reminds us that God is in control.”

All of a child’s senses are learning implements at Westboro Jewish Montessori Preschool. In fact, children aren’t so much as taught as they experience.

Every Friday, to celebrate the Sabbath, the children bake bread called challah. Instead of talking about the bread or reading about it, the children actually make it.

They work with their hands, they smell the bread as it bakes, and they get to taste the end result. Even morning prayers are an experience, as the students sing and play instruments.

The decision to send a child to a faith-based school usually reflects a deep commitment from parents, who are essentially paying for their child’s education twice, says Elaine Hopkins, former executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools.

With the exception of Catholic schools, Ontario doesn’t fund faith-based schools, so parents are paying tuition in addition to any taxes that go towards subsidizing education.

The fact that the tuition is coming out of a parent’s pocketbook generally means that not only are they more apt to be actively involved in their child’s education, they will likely have higher expectations.

“When you are paying for something, you tend to want a better quality,” she says. “If it’s free, you tend to take it for granted.”

But it’s the worth the cost for many parents who want their children to build character while growing academically.

“Faith-based education not only focuses on character development, but it centralizes character development,” says Dr. Saleem.

“Who you are is more important than what you do or what you own.”


Author: Chris Hunt