October 11, 2013

‘Do something radically different’

By Christopher Smith

— In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter is given keys to heaven by Jesus as a symbol of Peter’s spiritual authority over the masses.

Thursday morning, Gerald Porter received no keys, but was ceremonially given the authority over Christian Heritage School in front of students and staff inside the school gym.

Porter, who began as headmaster for the Christian private school on July 1, was told by several speakers that his new position brings with it long nights, but also great successes if he takes seriously the need for Christian education in a mostly secular world.

Charlie Phillips, the guest speaker, didn’t mince words when he told Porter much of Christian education is “failing.”

Phillips, the strategy director for the Chattanooga-based nonprofit Maclellan Foundation that promotes Christian endeavors, told Porter to break from the mold of how many view Christian private schools. Philips said he believes most private Christian schools suffer by either promoting strict legalism, conforming with the popular trends in the world or by sheltering students from secularism.

Hiding from the world won’t let “you engage in a competition of ideas, (to the point) that excellence becomes actually irrelevant,” Phillips warned Porter, students and staff. Instead, Phillips said, “do something radically different than the bulk of Christian education ... challenge the secular worldview with Christ.”

Renny Scott, the former headmaster of 20 years, said he believes Porter “understands” what it takes to lead the private school, especially in a time of transition. Porter is expected to oversee an expansion of the school.

School officials are trying to raise about $14.75 million to build a new high school across the street from the current 1600 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. location. A date for groundbreaking hasn’t been decided, school officials said.

Carol McFarland, director of outreach for the school, said the school has applied to the Maclellan Foundation for grants to help with the high school project, but won’t know the results of its application until sometime later this month.

New buildings and growth aren’t necessarily the main priority for Porter, Scott said, unless they benefit the students.

Scott said an early meeting with Porter led to a discussion about a block of wood that Porter brought with him from a previous education position and that he keeps on his desk in his office.

The block, Scott said, had the letters of the word “student” carved into its seven surfaces. Scott recalled asking Porter about it. Porter said it was a reminder to put students first when making decisions.

“He understands that the two most important things in our lives are the day we’re born and the day we discover why we were born,” Scott said.

That’s a principle Porter said he won’t take lightly, promising to make Christian Heritage a “source of pride” to the community and a place for students to get a “first rate education.”

“You have handed the baton successfully off,” Porter told Scott. “You gave your heart and soul ... and led with great passion and conviction.”