“I think that [enrollment increases in Christian schools are] going to last. When I talked about how we get the chance to pull back the curtain and show families who we are, the families that have come to us, all of these new ones, they have said over and over, I can’t believe we’ve been missing out on all of this. I’ve had families crying, saying we should have done this sooner, and whatever it takes, we’re going to keep our son or our daughter in Christian education until they graduate from this school.” – Bradley Dunn, Head of School, Valley Christian School
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full podcast episode here or using the player below.
Michael Arnold: I’m happy to be joined today in The Teacher’s Lounge by Mr. Brad Dunn, Head of School at Valley Christian School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Brad has been involved in Christian education for over 27 years. His involvement began when he started attending a Christian school at the start of his high school career. And then he received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Pensacola Christian College and a master’s degree in school administration from Tennessee Temple University.
Brad was a fifth grade classroom teacher for seven years. He also served as the Development Director while helping launch a new Christian school in Pensacola. He served as an elementary principal for eight years in Normal, Illinois, where he helped grow the school from 200 to 380 students, built a new gymnasium, and added eight classrooms.
Brad’s career took a different path when he became a State Farm agent in the great State of Iowa, where his five children attended Christian schools in Cedar Rapids. God gave Brad the opportunity to become an international businessman, where he traveled the world for five years, spending time in over 20 different countries and gaining a deep appreciation for the God we serve in His wonderful creation.
Brad is currently finishing his ninth year as the Head of School at Valley Christian School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where enrollment has grown from 250 students nine years ago to an anticipated 700 plus students this Fall of 2023. Brad is passionate about this generation, believes that they have a spirit about them that God is going to use in a mighty way in the near future. Building strong Christian schools that really shaped the future of our country is a huge responsibility, and Brad applauds each and every administrator teacher who is busy doing Kingdom work.
And Brad currently serves on several boards in the Oshkosh community, President of the Board for Habitat for Humanity, Oshkosh President of Southwest Rotary Club of Oshkosh, Board Member for Excellence and Leadership. So we are honored today to have Brad join us at The Teacher’s Lounge.
Bradley Dunn: Hey, thanks for having me, Michael.
Bradley’s background in business that help him in his role as Head of School
Michael Arnold: We’re so excited to talk mostly about your response to your enrollment explosion there at Valley Christian; what a huge responsibility! But I have to think that your background in business has served you well, as you tried to lead your school during this time. You want to share anything about that, what the connections that your business background has brought to your perspective there as a Head of School?
Bradley Dunn: Sure, absolutely. That has had an impact. It was like blinders had been peeled back somewhat when I came to Oshkosh and took my first Head of School position. It seemed like I was seeing things that I hadn’t seen before as a principal. And just being able to use some of that business acumen to help run maybe a little bit tighter ship, be able to wrap my hands around a school budget a little bit better. I think for most principals or heads of school, that budget piece is one that they typically try to shy away from. And so that’s been really neat, to see how God is using that.
Michael Arnold: And is that what has opened the door for you to serve on some of the other boards that you serve on? Or did you go seeking those out, or how did those happen? I think that’s a great opportunity for a school leader to be engaged with the community in those ways.
Bradley Dunn: I would say our Board of Directors here at Valley Christian very much have received some good advice through the years from different organizations about what their Head of School should be doing and how he should be positioned in the community. And the former Head of School was part of the rotary club in town and was also part of Excellence in Leadership.
And so my board asked when I came on the job if I’d be willing to go take a look at those organizations. And yeah, both of them were very open and very welcoming and it’s the first time I’d ever served on a committee or been part of a service group that wasn’t associated with my church. It’s been a neat journey.
Michael Arnold: And what a great opportunity to just rub shoulders with other leaders in the community.
Why choose Valley Christian School?
Michael Arnold: Now Valley Christian, it’s an independent school, right? It’s not a church-based school per se.
Bradley Dunn: That’s correct. We’re an independent school. We probably represent a little over 50 different churches from the Fox Valley. But no, we are not associated with a church; we’re 100% independent.
Michael Arnold: Founded – I believe I saw about 1974, as an independent school.
Bradley Dunn: Yes, we’re coming up on 50 years. We’ll be celebrating our 50th year, so we’re already making plans.
Michael Arnold: And with your explosion in enrollment, I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to share your elevator speech with prospective parents and others. Why choose Valley Christian? Why don’t you share that with us? What would you tell people about what makes Valley Christian unique and a good choice for parents?
Bradley Dunn: Sure. We tell everyone that comes by who we are. I mean, we know who we are and I think the word on the street is that people know that we know who we are. We don’t try to be all things to all people. And it goes directly back to our mission. Our mission is that every student here at Valley Christian, they’re going to discover their God-given design. We’re going to help equip them so that they can reach their full potential.
And why do we do that? So that they can boldly impact their world for Christ. Even this morning and our teacher in service, as we’re wrapping up this school year, I put three of my staff on the spot. And I said, the trip that you just took with our eighth graders – we took them down to the field museum in Chicago. And then from there, they took them to Kentucky to see the Ark and the Creation Museum. I said, how did that trip play into fulfilling our mission here at the school? And so it’s just been a lot of decisions between what is good and what is best. And I think we’ve gotten a lot better at making those best decisions and making sure it ties into our mission.
Enrollment increase at Valley Christian School
Michael Arnold: Yeah. Why and how questions are some of the hardest questions to answer. But that’s a great question. How did that fit into our mission as a school? And your school has, as I said, experienced an explosion in enrollment. I think ACSI reported recently that most Christian schools have experienced about a 10% growth as a result of the pandemic, but yours was trending upward even before the pandemic, is that correct?
Bradley Dunn: Yes, we’ve averaged between 5 and 10% for the last nine years with the exception of last year; we had a 25% increase. So we had just over 400 students – we had 405 – a year ago, and then this year we had about 515 students.
Michael Arnold: That’s awesome. What’s been driving that in your mind? What’s caused parents to check out Valley Christian and ultimately decide to put their kids in your school?
Bradley Dunn: I think with a lot of schools who are experiencing growth it’s the shakeup of our world. It was kind of like God took the globe and just gave it a good little shake, and COVID exposed a lot of things. And we’ve had more families coming to us from the public school than we’ve ever had before.
And so that’s been a big part of it. Here in Wisconsin, we are part of the school choice program. So it does give families who may necessarily not have the means to pay for Christian education the ability to choose our school over the public school.
Challenges that come with with enrollment increases
Michael Arnold: And enrollment explosions like many schools have experienced over the past couple of years because of the pandemic, and hopefully even before that, come with their own set of benefits, right? It’s always good to have more students and more families, a bigger community, but also challenges as well. What challenges have you guys experienced as your student enrollment has increased?
Bradley Dunn: Yeah. I think one of our biggest challenges was just making sure that we were 100% buttoned up on knowing who we are. So our board had us go back and review everything from the first time someone made a phone call to our school or stepped on foot on our campus until that final family interview when we accepted them into the school. We wanted to make sure to double down on the fact that we were being 100% authentic in who we were. We’re a Christian school through and through. We make no apologies for that.
We tell every family that comes to our school, yes, they’re going to get Bible class every day and chapel once a week. Also in middle school and high school, there’s a discipleship group that your student would be part of. They get to do life with 8 to 10 other young men or young women with a faculty member. But it’s also woven into our science and our English and our math. We’re a Christian school woven throughout everything that we do. And so I’m usually at the end of a tour when we go to pray with that family. They are either running for the parking lot saying, what did I get myself into? I think that place might be a cult – or more times than not there’s tears running down the parent’s face saying, this is exactly what I want for my child.
Why attend a faith-based school?
Michael Arnold: Well, I was going to ask you, I think you already answered this question – but I was going to ask you if the community, those who are sending their students, are hoping for something different, they’re just looking for an alternative to maybe a bad experience at the public school or another school that they’ve been at. But it sounds like you’re pretty clear up front. This is who we are; we’re not an alternative, we’re something different and this is how we’re going to do things.
Bradley Dunn: Yeah. I’ve even invited some of the higher ups in our local public school to come take a tour of the school. And it’s very friendly all throughout. And then towards the end they ask the ultimate question, why are students coming to your school, Brad? And I point right to our mission statement that happened to be hanging right on the wall. And I said, because the families who come here, we’re going to help them discover their God-given design. We’re going to equip them to reach their full potential, not so that they can get a good job and make a lot of money. So that they can boldly impact their world for Christ. So we really get families who are coming to us who love our mission and what we’re all about, and they just kind of look and go, oh, okay.
And it’s not that people in our community are bashing public education. It’s, like I said, when God shook up the globe, it was an opportunity for every Christian school to pull back the curtain and let them see exactly how we’re living out our mission, that they could really see who we are and what we’re all about. And I think the same thing happened in public education; the curtain got pulled back, and I think a lot of parents got to see what was going on.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. And who ultimately is responsible for educating our children? It’s not the public school. It’s not even the Christian school. It’s the parents.
Bradley Dunn: It’s the parents.
Teachers’ experiences with an expanding school
Michael Arnold: You need a good partner to help you with that. That’s awesome. But as far as teachers and facilities and co-curricular programs, how are those things impacted by increased enrollments?
Bradley Dunn: It has been a challenge, Michael. I mean to find extra classrooms, we started doubling. We started back in kindergarten and we’ve worked our way up now over the last few years. I think next year it will be doubled all the way through 11th grade, and taking some larger classrooms, throwing up a wall, and making that into two classrooms, just so we have extra space.
We’ve also been hiring other staff; we have a full-time nurse now. I’ve got an admissions director and I have an assistant learning coordinator, and we hired an assistant principal. So we just try to make offices anywhere and everywhere we could. So we’ve basically maximized our space here.
Michael Arnold: Have the teachers felt added pressure? The pandemic put a lot of pressure on teachers. Has part of that been because of the enrollment, or have they been energized by the fact that the school’s growing, or is it a bit of both?
Bradley Dunn: No, I think at the very beginning, probably four or five years ago when we really started seeing more growth, there were those normal kinds of kinks that were exposed. Is it the right curriculum? Are we giving our teachers all that they need to successfully teach in the classroom? But no, I think they have been energized the last few years. As I mentioned earlier this morning, we were reflecting on how we see God at work this past school year.
And, I think my third grade teacher shared – no, it’s my second grade teacher. We cap our classrooms typically at 22 students, but we always allow for that one extra student that you just know God is going to send you. So we’ll cut it off, and then we wait for just that student that you know God wants to have at your school.
And that happened in both of our second grade classrooms this past year. Both of them lost a parent very suddenly and very tragically. And both of those students, we were able to allow to take that extra spot in the classroom. And then this teacher had tears rolling down her face on what a blessing it was to be part of that journey for that student and that family the school year. So, no, I think they’re walking away energized because they see all that God is doing.
Michael Arnold: And it is energizing to feel like you’re, for whatever reason, pulled into a place where somehow you’re allowed to make a difference in the kingdom of God – that it’s bigger than you. It’s different than you. But for whatever reason, God, in His wisdom and sovereignty, has selected you to be a part of this program. That’s exciting. That’s energizing. And that’s why we focus on mission, right?
Bradley Dunn: Yeah. So when we’re looking at hiring new staff, obviously they need to have that degree. They need to be able to teach effectively in the classroom. But ultimately we’re all about kingdom work here. And the tool that we happen to use to accomplish kingdom work is education.
And the teachers, when you get that class roster, I tell them you have a lot more responsibility than those 22 names on your list. You get mom and dad; you get grandma and grandpa. If that family happens to come from a divorce situation, you might double all of that. And then add in some aunts and uncles, I said, so your sphere of influence is really large. And I said, you can’t give what you don’t have. And I believe our teachers do a fantastic job of investing in their walk with the Lord so that they have plenty to give.
Hiring during enrollment increases
Michael Arnold: Yeah. That’s awesome. So as you tackle the increased enrollments, which, as I said, a lot of schools we work with here at Curriculum Trak are reporting similar things – and that’s something that we’re excited for and thanking God for along with the schools – but as you’ve encountered this, you’ve had to scale up in a lot of ways, I’m sure. What area would you say you’ve had to scale up the most quickly?
Bradley Dunn: Obviously it’s hiring and getting the right people in place. Last year we made, I think, 20 hires to handle the influx of students for this year. And we’ve already made 26 hires for next school year in the last month. That’s been a pretty heavy lift on our schedules. It’s taken a lot out of us, but that is the primary focus right now of getting the right people to be sitting in those seats.
One of the areas that we’ve done is the assisted learning program to make sure we’re able to handle the needs of students who are coming our way. In years past, if there was a need we just didn’t deal with it, and said, hey, that’s not going to be a fit. But at the same time, now that we’re handling needs, we don’t take every single need. So we do a pretty full-blown assessment and we’re very upfront and honest with the parents and say, this is what we’re able to offer. And this is how I think we can or cannot help. And so that’s been a major focus of ours. The person that was sitting in that role we actually just moved up into a leadership position.
Maybe we’ll talk about this here before the podcast is over, but we just acquired some new space and we’re continuing to expand. And that is how we’re going to be able to go from 500 students to 700 students.
But an area that I think fits in very well with this podcast this morning is when we’re talking about Curriculum Trak is that we have been using that and been using it pretty extensively. And so the person that I’m moving up into the assisted learning role is we’re also going to make her our Curriculum Director. She is the one who has been doing a ton of training on Curriculum Trak with all of our teachers.
And so when, say, a new fifth grade teacher comes in, we’re hiring a fifth grade teacher who has had experience and a fifth grade teacher who’s brand new out of college. For both of those teachers, they’re going to be new to our school. They’re going to be able to walk into that Curriculum Trak. They’re going to be able to see all of our course maps, our standards, what are expected student outcomes, how the biblical integration is there. And they’re going to get to focus, not so much on what needs to be taught, but how they are going to deliver the best education. So we appreciate that tool with Curriculum Trak, it has been a godsend for us.
Michael Arnold: Well, thank you for that plug. We appreciate it. But that’s exactly right. Having those maps in place, we could talk all day about that to support your expanding staff and new teachers and help them get on board. And I’m also thinking about what you’re seeing, as far as assisted learning and inclusion in the classroom and, well, that’s a whole other topic that we could unpack.
Bradley Dunn: Oh yeah, for sure.
Raising funds as a Christian school
Michael Arnold: That’s so encouraging to hear, but there’s probably also – I know you get some support from the state of Wisconsin through the school choice program, which also ties back to your mapping efforts. You have to demonstrate what you’re doing there – but there’s probably other areas that state funding is not helping you. You’ve had to raise funds?
Bradley Dunn: Absolutely. We have been on a journey here the last few years, one to pay off debt. We had a little over a million dollars on our mortgage that seemed like it’s just been hanging around our neck, for who knows how long. It was that anchor that was just producing all the drag on the back end. And we put in a strategic plan, the 2017 to 2020 strategic plan, that somehow some way in that three-year period, we were going to pay off that debt and do it very quietly. It wasn’t going to be any sort of campaign. God miraculously used about four donors to pay off that million dollars of debt. And so for the last few years, we have not had that drag.
And we actually wrote into our strategic plan that every penny that we were paying on that mortgage would 100% be directed to teacher salaries. And so all of our teachers received a 9% increase. And then last year they received a 7% increase in their pay. And then for this upcoming contract, they’re going to see another 8% increase. So we are investing in what we feel are our best assets. And those are teachers.
Launching a capital campaign in the future
Michael Arnold: Yeah. So that was part of your strategic plan? But you also launched a capital campaign as well?
Bradley Dunn: No, we have not launched a capital campaign. We are in the very beginning stages now to make the case that we definitely need to be thinking about, and in the very near future, launching, a capital campaign. With this explosion in growth we were able to double all of our classrooms, and now we just received some space about 10 minutes up the road from a school that had been in existence since 1977. They closed their doors this past Friday. We’re saddened by that because we really want Christian education to be growing throughout the whole Fox Valley, where we live. But that church where that school was located, they are still committed to Christian education, and they are allowing us to come in and to rent that space.
So here, we’re going to get a second gymnasium, different classrooms, offices. But now the problem that poses, we’ve been doubled in it all the way through 11th grade. Now we’re going to be 3 classrooms from preschool through eighth grade. So there is definitely a need for us to be thinking about a capital campaign so that we can continue to fulfill our mission and meet the needs of these students to prepare them so that they can have an impact on this world for Christ.
Building relationships with donors to move a school’s mission forward
Michael Arnold: Yeah, without incurring a lot of debt and going backwards in terms of a mortgage hanging around your neck, as you described it. So how does one go about exploring and putting together a capital campaign? What advice would you share with other schools who may be in a similar situation to yours?
Bradley Dunn: One of the things that I’ve been doing is, I have been able to reach out and to hire a coach that really helped me understand what it means to build a relationship with a donor, to share your mission with them, and then to make that ask. It’s been said that money is the fuel that moves missions forward. And so learning how to get better at that craft I would say is really, really important.
I had the opportunity this past year to make an application to become part of the Van Lunen Executive Management Leadership Team. It’s a cohort of 20 heads of schools from all over the United States and Canada and the faculty at the Van Lunen do a fantastic job of giving you real-world advice on things that you’re dealing with on a daily basis. And so those are some of the things that we’ve been doing to prepare ourselves for this soon to be coming capital campaign.
First and foremost, as I told my teachers this morning, this summer when God brings the school to mind, I want you to be praying for the hearts of our students – that God would tenderize them, that he has a plan for them. And I believe now more than ever, these students need to be ready to face things that I don’t think we’ve had to face in our day and age. I mean, my Christian walk, it’s kind of been an easy street, and I believe this generation is going to come under a little bit more persecution than we’ve seen. And I said, so please pray for the tenderizing of their hearts that they would have a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, that they would be sensitive to spiritual things. And I said, please pray for that over anything monetary for our school.
And so that’s kind of been our focus and I think that is how God has been preparing us for what he has next. And so we are going to need more facilities, more space to take care of living out our mission.
Michael Arnold: And how are you when it comes to the capital campaign? Are you seeing that the alumni, the students who’ve graduated from your school since 1974 or whatever, will play a big role in that? Or is it going to be community donors? Who are you targeting as far as the givers to your campaign?
Bradley Dunn: Basically what we’ve been doing the last few years is I sit down and have face-to-face meetings either at a breakfast, a lunch, or a dinner. And I’m doing that with alumni. I’m doing that with alumni parents and grandparents. I do it with our current families, and yes, because I rub shoulders with so many people in our community, I also go to different organizations and look for funding.
We have an endowment fund at our school that has been around for 10 or 12 years. It has 30 or $40,000 in it. And so in my Rotary Club, sits the president of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation. They have, I dunno, 115 million in assets that they manage. They give a lot of money away. And I just asked them, I said, we’ve got 40,000 in there. Would you be willing to match that to help build some energy? Because in our current strategic plan, we would like to build that endowment fund at your organization to a million dollars. It took about a year or a year and a half, but this year we received a $40,000 gift from them for our endowment. And so all of those areas we look towards.
Michael Arnold: And I could see how, especially for families or alumni, former graduates, that connecting that to your mission is very powerful. Community leaders, are they getting behind it because of your mission as well?
Bradley Dunn: We haven’t officially launched any capital campaign, so we’re not at that stage where we’d be getting the community behind us, but I do feel that we’re primed and we’re ready. In my Rotary Club, they used to talk about the three high schools in town. And in the last few years they talk about the four high schools in town. So the two public high schools, and then there’s a Catholic high school and then there’s Valley Christian. And so we are definitely on the radar. We’re definitely on the map. And I’m excited about that.
Michael Arnold: Well, I can only imagine. I’m not sure how big Oshkosh is or that the Fox Valley region, but a school of your size has to have its fingers all throughout the community and when it comes to the families that you’re serving and the families that are supporting you. So it seems like it’d just be a natural outgrowth, to say, hey, I’m sure you’ve got people at our school that want to get behind the school.
Funding an expanding school without accumulating debt
Michael Arnold: That’s exciting to hear. I think it’s a common problem that the schools are gonna face. How do we move forward in a strategic way? In a way that exercises good stewardship without taking out a lot of debt? Because I think some of the concerns, some schools are a little bit concerned that it’s a flash in the pan. Like it’s short-term. It’s the flavor of the month, so to speak, or things are really tense and divisive right now in our culture so let’s find something that’s more in alignment with our values. Is it going to last? What’s your take on that? Do you think that enrollment growth is sustainable? And how do you make sure that it’s sustainable?
Bradley Dunn: Well, I’m a little bit biased towards that. I think that it is going to last. When I talked about how we get the chance to pull back the curtain and show families who we are, the families that have come to us, all of these new ones, they have said over and over, I can’t believe we’ve been missing out on all of this.
I’ve had families crying, saying we should have done this sooner, and whatever it takes, we’re going to keep our son or our daughter in Christian education until they graduate from this school. And we put up a sign on the front of our school this year, that is our vision statement and it’s got our name up there, Valley Christian School, but right underneath it in big letters, it says graduating Christ-centered world changers. And so for every visitor who comes to our school, we want them to see that. For every teacher and administrator who sees it, it keeps at the front of her mind, this is what we’re about.
And for those families that are coming to us when they’re young, we’re already telling them, we don’t do kindergarten graduations. We do kindergarten promotions. We don’t do eighth grade graduations. We do eight grade promotions. The only graduation ceremony we have at our school is when they walk across that stage and they receive their diploma when they graduate from high school. And so we paint the picture that when they come to us, we want them until graduation.
We’ve put a lot of things in place, Michael, that has helped us with our retention. I mean, we’ve averaged a 97% retention rate here at the school. And we don’t have retention problems when it comes to our staff either. They’re staying.
So this wave of new students that are coming, well, we’ve shown now, it’s still happening next year. There’s another huge wave. We increased by a hundred this year. We’re going to increase by 200 next year.
And I told my staff, the next wave that we’re going to see is not students, but solid teachers who have been in the public school. They said, we are committed to be salt and light, and many of them who are starting to come to me now are saying, I’ve gone as far as I can go. And I’m not able to live out and be that light that I want to be like I have been able to in the past, and I just can’t do it anymore. And we are having teachers with 7 years experience, 23 years of experience, 2 years of experience. And they’re saying, this is what I want.
And so, no. I think God is doing something big, he’s preparing this generation for a future and we have to be all about preparing them for this.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s good stuff. And I know on your website, you’ve got your school outcomes, your graduate profile outcomes right there. They’re robust. There’s a lengthy list. I think you’ve got a summary list at the top, but then you go into the details of what you expect your graduates to look like when they graduate from your school. And I think it’d be worth checking out as well, if they’re grappling with those school-wide outcomes or graduate profile outcomes, check out Valley Christian’s website. Find them there because I think that’s a great tool for parents and teachers, to say, this is what we’re trying to do with our students.
Bradley Dunn: Yeah. As I was talking with the teachers again, one of the things that I love about working with our staff is that they’re all still very hungry. No one feels like they’ve come to a place where they’ve arrived. And as a school, we’ve made the commitment to be an accredited school. We have a dual accreditation, one through the ACSI, the Association of Christian Schools International, and the other one through Cognia, which is one of the largest organizations that accredit colleges and other institutions in the world.
And we do that because we’re willing to take a look in the mirror and invite our peers to come in and say, okay, what areas are we doing well in and where do we need improvement? And because we’re willing to always have that continuous improvement plan, I think that’s one of the reasons that I think families are attracted to us.
Michael Arnold: I just pray God’s blessing on your future efforts. I hope that your story is just one of many, as far as Christian schools around the United States, around the world, that are seeing an explosion and growth and forcing themselves to ask, okay, how do we handle this? How do we continue to be the best stewards possible of our students so that we can meet them where they are and help them to excel, even when unfortunately others have to close? Let’s remain faithful and keep moving forward and be successful. So thank you for sharing your story and taking the time to talk to us today in The Teacher’s Lounge.
Bradley Dunn: Michael, I appreciate that. And maybe one last nugget that I could leave is, I think every Christian school should be investing in leadership development. Who on your staff do you see as a leader? How can you invest in them? Because when the spot opens up and the need arises, you want to have strong leadership on the bench, right on your team already, that you can promote from within. And that takes time. And so start now because in three to five years you’ll have them ready.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. That’s great advice. Thanks for that.
Bradley Dunn: Thank you.