The Decline of Christian School Sports
Oct. 08--Three years ago, Tom Anderson had to make one of his toughest decisions as a father.
His construction business had been decimated by the recession and the single father of two found himself in a financial bind.
After cutting various expenses and rearranging his finances as best he could, he had to make the decision he hoped to avoid: He was going to have to pull his children out of their private Christian school because he could no longer afford the tuition.
"After eighth grade I told the school that we needed a break because we can't afford it," Anderson said. "They said, 'If we give you a break we have to give everyone a break.' ... As a single parent with two kids it was too hard for me."
One of those children was Tommy Anderson, a small but athletically gifted teenager.
At his new school, Anderson grew into his potential. He was Oak Hills' starting shortstop in the division championship game as a freshman, was named the Mojave River League Player of the Year as a sophomore and is now receiving considerable recruiting interest from a host of major college baseball programs as he enters his junior year.
As far as he is concerned, Tommy Anderson is glad that things worked out the way they did.
"The (Christian school) sports teams weren't really that competitive," he said. "The better athletes want to be pushed. I think I would've left (even if we could have afforded tuition) because you get more exposure in a regular high school. If you're being compared at a Christian school to players at a real school, they are going to pick the other guy because you're in a lower league."
The Anderson's story is a familiar one across the High Desert.
With an unemployment rate of 15 percent in the area, hundreds of children have been pulled out of the area's three private Christian schools -- Apple Valley Christian, Hesperia Christian and Victor Valley Christian -- over the past few years because parents can no longer afford the tuition. Scores more have left because they saw a bleak future for the private schools or to seek out better athletic opportunities.
One of the many consequences of this new reality has been the steep decline of Christian school sports.
Getting Hit Harder A brief look across the Christian school sports landscape paints a sobering picture.
Victor Valley Christian canceled its football season last year with three weeks remaining because it didn't have enough healthy players left to field a team, and has already canceled one game for the same reason this year. VVCS also had only four girls on the court at times during its basketball season last year, and its volleyball team this season has barely enough players, only two years after that program reached the State playoffs.
Even the VVCS baseball program, which has reached the playoffs four straight years, is struggling to field a full team.
"I used to get maybe 15-20 kids that would come out for the team," VVCS baseball coach Paul Hobbs said. "Now I have to go and beg kids to come out."
Apple Valley Christian was supposed to shut down entirely at the end of the last school year before private donors stepped in to save the school. AVCS was only able to field six full teams, none of which had an above .500 record last season.
Hesperia Christian has fared the best of all of the Christian schools, with seven of its programs qualifying for the playoffs last school year. But HCS suffered a debilitating blow this year when it had to cancel its football season because it didn't have enough players to field an 8-man team.
How did things get this way?
While no region was spared the effects of the Great Recession, the High Desert suffered a concentrated blow and has not yet seen the recovery that other areas have.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for the High Desert currently stands at 15 percent. San Bernardino County as whole has an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent, while the national unemployment rate is 7.8 percent.
Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household incomes for Apple Valley, Hesperia and Victorville -- the locations of the three schools -- are all less than $54,000. At least 18 percent of people live below the poverty line in each of the three cities.
With the High Desert economy in such a state and tuition ranging from $3-7,000 per student per year at the Christian schools, an exodus has taken place. All three of the schools have seen their enrollments decline by roughly 50 percent since 2006.
With vastly fewer students to draw from, the Christian schools have found themselves struggling to compete, or even survive, athletically.
"The overall quality of the athletes we're getting just isn't the same," Hobbs said. "In the past we've had five or six really good players come up together. Now there are only two or three kids at times and they see what's around them and who else is playing, and a lot of times they choose to leave."
Just about the only programs that have maintained their previous levels of success are the HCS boys and girls basketball programs. The boys team has reached the division semifinals three of the last four years, while the girls have 15 straight playoff appearances.
But even they are feeling the pinch to various degrees.
"For my first eight years as the coach I would have no less than 30-40 kids come out for my basketball program every year, and I'd keep 12 on varsity and 12 on JV," HCS boys basketball coach Scott Dobyns said. "Last year was the first year we didn't have a JV, and this year I have only 13 kids who are working out with me."
Some of the defecting athletes moved out of the area entirely. But for those whose families stayed, an attractive option existed.
The Charter School Explosion Many of the parents who could no longer afford to send their children to the private Christian schools remain wary of the public school system.
As such, many chose to send their children to charter schools, which are free to attend and are regarded as on par with the private Christian schools academically.
As the Christian schools have cut sports programs and struggled with enrollment, the three largest charter schools in the High Desert -- Academy for Academic Excellence, Excelsior and Riverside Prep -- have seen their enrollments double or even triple in recent years. They have experienced a boom athletically as well, in stark contrast to the Christian schools.
Excelsior has reached the past two CIF-Southern Section 8-Man Division 1 title games in football, and just opened a brand new $34 million campus that includes a sparkling new gym. Riverside Prep debuted its $2 million football field last season and will open a new gym this year. AAE has taken hold of the Agape League, the same league the Christian schools play in, in numerous sports, and fields more teams than any of the Christian schools.
University Prep, which is not technically a charter school but serves as an alternative to large public schools and the Christian schools, is coming off a CIF-SS Division 7 championship game appearance in boys soccer, and six of the seven sports teams it fields reached the postseason last year.
Chris Fore has been on both sides of the equation. As athletic director of Capistrano Valley Christian in Orange County, he witnessed more than a quarter of his student population leave. Now the athletic director at Excelsior, he's trying to handle all the students transferring into his school. The football team has seen a 30 percent rise in participation in the past year alone.
"What starts happening is you lose a few kids and then it's that inevitable cliff you start falling off of," Fore said. "One or two transfers, then other kids don't want to play and it becomes a locomotive you can't stop. It felt like there with some of our sports that we were on the operating table, we didn't know whether the thing was going to live or not. ... It's night and day (compared to Excelsior)."
The most prominent athlete who transferred from a Christian school to a charter school is Joe Harrison, a football player who spent his freshman year at Hesperia Christian and then moved to Excelsior.
As an Eagle, he rushed for 6,428 yards and 97 touchdowns in his three years and was also named the CIF-SS 8-Man Division I Defensive Player of the Year for his play at linebacker as a senior.
"I was in foster care and I was getting money from the state (for school)," Harrison said. "But it wasn't enough because HCS was raising the prices each year. It was just becoming too much and I wasn't benefiting from it."
Not Just the Charters The charter schools have not been the only area schools that are growing, building new sports complexes and drawing former Christian school athletes.
Despite budget cuts from the state, two new large public schools have opened in the past three years -- Oak Hills in 2009 and Adelanto in 2012. Both have gyms and on-campus fields for football, baseball and softball that are some of the finest facilities in the High Desert. Additionally, Silverado will complete a $13.5 million sports complex renovation in January and Hesperia opened its new football field in 2007.
Just as with the charter schools, the public school sports programs are growing in spite of the recession.
Dane Barton is one of the most recent athletes to defect from a Christian school to a large public school. The talented basketball was a key part of Hesperia Christian's run to the semifinals last year, but elected to transfer to Oak Hills even though his family could have afforded for him stay. He said the primary reason he transferred was that all of his closest friends had transferred out.
"It was really hard leaving one of the best programs up here," he said. "But all my friends had left. They were all gone."
The Future Enrollment at Christian schools has been declining for nearly half a decade now, and the sports teams are falling further and further behind in terms of success, number of athletes participating and facilities.
So is this just a temporary down cycle? Or is this the new reality for the High Desert private schools -- one where many teams have to be dropped altogether due to lack of participation, and even the teams that are left are barely able to put together a roster?
Looking out across the landscape, it's hard to be optimistic.
But many Christian school coaches believe it can be turned around and that their schools will once again be able to field full, competitive teams.
That all depends on one thing, however.
"As the economy goes," Hobbs said, "we go."
Kyle Glaser can be reached at email@example.com or at (760) 951-6274.
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