Isai Bautista couldn’t read a word—“nada,” he says—when he transferred to the Bronx-Manhattan Seventh-day Adventist School in the third grade. Now he’s graduating from eighth grade with honors, thanks, in part, to a dedicated teacher who worked with him every day after school.
“She’s like a second mom to me,” Bautista says.
The Bronx-Manhattan Adventist School is one of eight Adventist schools across North America that independent filmmaker Martin Doblmeier profiles in his latest documentary, “The Blueprint: The Story of Adventist Education,” now available on DVD.
“The blueprint” can be traced back to Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White, who, in the mid-19th century, introduced the concept of holistic education—mental, physical, social and spiritual health coupled with intellectual growth and service to humanity.
Today, the Adventist Church operates the second largest faith-based school system in the world.
On location in Holbrook, Arizona, Doblmeier explores how the Holbrook Indian School—an Adventist boarding school near the Navaho Indian reservation—teaches students to find value and self worth in their identity as Native Americans and children of God. Many of the students come from abusive, broken homes in a community fraught with unemployment, drug abuse and gangs.
“I want to help them figure out that they are not less than everybody else,” says Vice Principal Jovanna Poor Bear-Adams, who herself grew up on the reservation and battled feelings of inadequacy.
At schools from Holbrook to the Columbine Christian School in Durango, Colorado, students share certain characteristics that correlate with high achievement, the documentary reveals—these traits include reading for pleasure, having positive relationships and getting good nutrition and adequate sleep. Students also identify themselves as spiritual.
Still, a decline in enrollment at some Adventist church schools has led some parents to question whether Adventist education can still deliver quality academics, says Elissa Kido, who directed CognitiveGenesis, a survey of more than 50,000 students at 800 Adventist schools across the U.S., Canada and Bermuda.
At the nine-student Pinon Hills School in Farmington, New Mexico, Doblmeier addresses the challenge of multi-grade classrooms.
“There’s been a cultural change in the Adventist Church. Forty years ago, if you were an Adventist family, it was almost a scandal if you didn’t send your children to the local Adventist school,” says Blake Jones, pastor of the Pinon Hills Adventist Church.
“That’s not the case today,” he adds. Half of Pinon Hills’ operating budget goes to supporting the school.
At Spencerville Adventist Academy in Maryland, students score in the 80 to 90th percentile in all subjects. “The Blueprint” makes the case that Spencerville is the rule, not the exception. CognitiveGenesis revealed that Adventist students outperform the national average in all grades, all subjects and regardless of class size.
“There’s no academic advantage in going to a large school,” says Lisa Beardley-Hardy, Education director for the Adventist world church.
At Loma Linda Academy in California, Doblmeier reports that students at Adventist schools score “considerably” above the national average in science, despite critics who have questioned whether good science can be taught in the context of creationism.
“We have found that we’re able to develop our students into critical thinkers—good scientists with good scientific method—who also understand the paradigm of how you can be a good scientist and be a believer in God,” says Robert Skoretz, principal of Loma Linda Academy.
Doblmeier explores another hallmark of Adventist education at Oakwood Adventist Academy in Alabama. One of the school’s core values is community service. The school holds regular community service days, during which students distribute food, clothes and other supplies.
“Students begin building habits early in life, and if we want to prepare them for a lifetime of service and involvement in their communities, we have to start early. It’s part of our curriculum,” says Sharon Lewis, principal of Oakwood Academy.
Back at the Bronx-Manhattan Adventist School, teachers say that the key to successful education is the home, school and church working together.
“Not many people from my neighborhood make it successfully,” Bautista says, “but I really think I’m going to make it.”
“The Blueprint” is the latest of Doblmeier’s more than 25 award-winning films on religion, faith and spirituality, which include “Bonhoeffer,” a documentary on Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and “Albert Schweitzer: Called to Africa,” a film recounting the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian’s life.
Doblmeier first profiled Adventists in a 2010 documentary tracing the roots of the denomination’s health message and ministry in North America. In May, he released “The Adventists 2,” exploring the philosophy and legacy of the church’s international health and humanitarian outreach.