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Gateway Christian has proven its worth

It’s passing strange how the incremental expansion of a Christian program in the public school district is creating a bigger fuss than its initiation nine years ago.

When the Gateway Christian School sought and won approval to come under the umbrella of the Red Deer Public School District in 1999, objections were raised.

Some people argued that religion has no place whatsoever in a secular school administration. Others worried about the quality, certification and leadership of teachers.

School board trustees listened to all those arguments. At the end of the day they decided, on balance, that expansion and inclusiveness were worthy goals.

It was the right call. By and large, the expressed fears were not borne out. What little opposition there was seemed to fade away.

The school was popular and successful, with a lengthy waiting list created.

There’s no biblical litmus test for families who wish to have their children in the program. Some parents wanted to enrol their children for reasons outside religion, feeling that the school would offer elements of structure and discipline that are not always apparent in all public schools.

What the Red Deer Public board did in embracing the Gateway Christian program is not unprecedented. In Calgary, a Jewish school has been a successful part of the public school district for decades.

We have also seen public (and separate) schools across the province expand programming to embrace a focus on areas as diverse as rigorous International Baccalaureate academic programs, hockey and fine arts.

There has been scant public opposition to that kind of consumer-driven innovation.

Schools today have to market themselves in ways that were unthinkable generations ago. Families want a range of choices. The Gateway Christian program is one of them.

Some critics say it’s inappropriate to cloister children — other people’s children, not their own — away from the mainstream and without the many benefits that come from dealing with people from different cultures.

That’s a fair point. But it’s also true that the expansion plan for the Gateway school will move in precisely that direction.

Starting in September, Gateway Christian will be extended to Grade 10 students. They will take core courses at the school in the morning and attend Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in the afternoon for their optional courses.

Lindsay Thurber’s size gives students far broader and deeper choices than they could get in a much smaller school. It also gets them into class and a school environment with students from diverse backgrounds.

In the following two years, Gateway Christian will expand to accommodate Grade 11 and Grade 12 students.

Optimism for that course of events was borne out in the school board vote on Wednesday. Only one trustee, Gail Holland, opposed the plan. The rest — including three trustees who were on the board in 1999 when Gateway Christian was first embraced — voted for expansion.

They have had years to monitor its development and to assess whether fears initially expressed by critics were validated.

Obviously, that never happened, in their minds. If it had, they would not have voted this week to go ahead.

Critics who are now opposing expansion had the same option last fall. The plan to extend Gateway Christian to high school grades was approved by the board two years before the October 2007 election.

If critics thought the expansion plan was wrongheaded then, they had plenty of time to rally public opposition, to seek seats on the school board and try to move it in a new direction. That never happened.

Nobody came forward as a candidate for the school board with opposition to the Gateway Christian program a key or even secondary campaign concern. It was a non-issue.

Six of the seven incumbents who sought seats on the public school board were returned to office, and the only newcomer, Cathy Peacocke, voted this week to expand Gateway Christian.

Not a single candidate opposed the expansion plan in the Advocate’s 2007 election forum, which gave office seekers a chance to express their views in their own words.

The supporters apparently included trustee Holland, who voted against it this week, but wrote last fall that “I fully support every program designed to enhance student learning implemented in the district.”

Gateway Christian has been one of those programs for years. There’s no good reason to halt its expansion.

Joe McLaughlin is Advocate managing editor.

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