My son, who attends Messiah College, is a decathlete—competing in 10 grueling running, throwing, and jumping events over two days. If there is one thing my son has taught me about the decathlon, it is that the first goal is always to just finish—to complete all 10 events. As his father, I watched him struggle to take his first steps 20 years ago and later saw him overcome numerous injuries, including two different fractures of his back. His senior track season has even been cancelled due to COVID-19, but his strength, perseverance, and dedication has not wavered. Because of all these challenges, I have a longer view of how his journey as a decathlete took time, had periods of incremental success and momentary setbacks, and was buoyed by his hard work and commitment to excel.
As the superintendent of the Christian School Association of Greater Harrisburg (CSAGH), a private Christian school district with two schools in the Capital Region of Pennsylvania, I can attest that success in any collaborative effort—like my son’s journey as a decathlete, and like a merger of two Christian schools—comes in small, incremental highlights will be confronted with momentary setbacks, and must be inspired by a compelling mission and vision.
Background for a School Merger
CSAGH was founded in 1954 to partner with families to provide a biblical education to their children. Over the years, the Lord began to develop a forward-thinking vision of creating a regional network of Christian schools in the greater Harrisburg area. After decades of prayer, varying level of conversations, and a great deal of thoughts and dreams, an opportunity arose for Harrisburg Christian School to collaborate with West Shore Christian Academy.
Harrisburg Christian School and West Shore Christian Academy are positioned on opposite sides of the Susquehanna River, about 20 miles apart. One school (HCS) is located at the foot of a mountain; the other (WSCA) is along Main Street in a small town. We employ 104 faculty and staff. The schools have a combined enrollment of more than 620 students covering an expansive 782 square miles and representing more than 150 churches in central Pennsylvania.
The collaboration became a reality in January 2017 when CSAGH, doing business as Harrisburg Christian School (HCS), acquired West Shore Christian Academy (WSCA), a ministry of Bible Baptist Church (BBC). Multiple factors made the timing right for unification, and we moved quickly (about six months from beginning to end) to make the acquisition a reality. It was complicated—extensive asset purchase agreements and rental agreements (WSCA’s campus is owned by a church) were needed. We were in frequent consultation with attorneys and financial experts, all while reassuring faculty and staff as well as parents and children that their schools would benefit from the partnership.
We were compelled by our confidence that a private, Christian school district would expand educational opportunities for students, stabilize and sustain Christian education for the future, and widen the impact of Christian education in this region and, eventually, around the world. CSAGH’s vision for collaborative Christian education is compelling and, I am convinced, dramatically increases our gospel influence in central Pennsylvania. Because of our combined enrollment, we are the largest Christian education provider in the mid-state, and among the largest in the northeast United States. As our students serve, intern, work, perform, and worship in local churches, workplaces, and communities, the gospel reaches a larger and more diverse audience than either school could have on their own.
Successes and Challenges
In our first few years as a private Christian school district, there have been many highlights to celebrate. Some of those successes have been visible—like combined professional development opportunities for faculty; joint spiritual emphasis and leadership retreats for students; pooled curricular resources like textbooks and science equipment; shared faculty between campuses; and unified efforts in raising money through fundraising events and donor cultivation.
Other successes were more behind the scenes but equally indicative of ongoing progress. We unified the CSAGH Board with members from both schools; established and developed district administrative staff (i.e., CFO, COO, HR, IT); systemized employee contracts, salaries, benefits, evaluations, and professional growth plans; unified district mission, vision, and core values language; began the unification of student outcomes and course objectives; integrated and systemized IT systems, including data storage and security; and joined food service operations and facility management.
Unification has not been without challenges, however. Joining two schools—with separate cultures, styles, and strengths—required employees, families, and students alike to trust that their beloved school community would simultaneously be preserved and prepared for a long, hopeful future. Balancing these goals has not always been easy (and we have misstepped at times), but, just three years in, we see student enrollment and financial giving trending upward while our overall institutional debt decreases. We just launched our first joint strategic planning process and anticipate emerging with clear objectives that will continue to guide our efforts to strategically and sustainably support our mission to provide Christ-centered education that sharpens minds, deepens faith, and develops gifts.
Many successful athletes make their sport look effortless, and, as spectators, we often attribute success to vague qualities like talent, luck, and good coaching. When my son competes on the track this spring, I will be among the few that know just how much practice, strength training, skill fine-tuning, setbacks surmounted, and mental discipline he has invested to perform at his best.
Collaborative Christian Education is Worth the Effort
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said, “Most overnight successes took a long time.” Our investment in the success of unifying Harrisburg Christian School and West Shore Christian Academy has taken significant effort. If the unification looked easy, it is by the grace of God. We have worked hard to care for many details. I assure you that collaborative Christian education is worth the effort and the setbacks. Take the challenge, reap the rewards, and enjoy the journey—together!
About the Author
Phil Puleo is the superintendent of the Christian School Association of Greater Harrisburg (CSAGH), an organization that oversees both Harrisburg Christian School (HCS) and West Shore Christian Academy (WSCA). Phil served at Harrisburg Christian School for seven years as secondary principal and eight years as headmaster before CSAGH acquired WSCA in 2017. Phil has a bachelor’s degree in secondary education-history from Messiah College and an MBA from Frostburg State University. Phil serves on a number of councils including ACSI Northeast Regional Council, Messiah College Presidential Advisory Counsel, and the Lancaster Bible College Corporation. He and his wife, Cristen, have four children. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.