Jack Mefford is the Principal of Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica, CA. He’s overseen the development of this small, faith-centered high school into a program-rich academically rigorous endeavor serving the educational needs of students from their local community as well as international students studying in the US.
Mr. Mefford carries a B.A. in History, M.A. in Elementary Education along with double teaching credentials. We spoke with him about the challenges and rewards of growing a school into a 21st century beacon of faith and learning.
Gradelink: We really appreciate you lending your time. One of the big things I noticed [about your website] is that you’re using social media aggressively with Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+. You don’t see every school utilizing all of these channels often, so how did that get started?
Jim Mefford: Well, it was a long, multi-year process not really born out of any master plan, so to speak. We started with a website, and then I taught a Yearbook class that also delved into social media. The kids basically took over our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, with my supervision. So it started with the students basically wanting to be involved in that process. And then at one point, one of our teachers had a friend who did a lot of search engine optimization, so he got very into using social media and linking it to the website so that we could show up higher on Google searches. And so he took over our social media outlets and he maintains those now in order to make our website come up higher on search engines. One of the biggest problems with recruitment is that even though you’ve got a great thing going, you might be so small that nobody can find you, so we’re focused on that.
So originally you had social media put in the hands of the students?
Yeah, when it started I just didn’t have the time, but they were excited and they knew how to use it. Then those outlets started getting more serious so I had to go back and take over again.
How long ago was that?
That was probably around three or four years ago.
We sometimes see schools actively utilizing Facebook and Twitter, among other social media outlets, butit still seems to be rare. How much would you say it’s helped your school?
Well, we might be turning a corner. This past year, we’ve had our best recruitment ever. We don’t have many other ways of reaching out, but ever since we’ve dug into the SEO work and social media, people have been finding us. We’ve had calls from people in Ohio! So I’m curious to see this upcoming year whether or not this is a trend or something out of the blue.
Do you think that SEO and social media are underused marketing tools?
Potentially! We still don’t know if this is set to be a multi-year success, so I’m hesitant to say. I’m not familiar with how other schools market, but if they’re smaller schools who seem to have a low profile, then I think yes, this could definitely help. But there are other schools out there that are doing phenomenally well and I don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s working. I do think that our website is significant compared to other schools and that helps.
Looking at your school’s recent posts, I notice a lot of them have to do with the student base, not the school itself.
Yeah, our mission is to create a family atmosphere. We want our school to fall outside of the institutionalized perception of schools, and to reflect a flexible nature and a family-community aspect. We’re not trying to push advertising; we’re not working hard to sell ourselves. We’ve created an identity, and for people that want a tight knit community, that’s what we’re about. That’s our selling point.
There’s definitely a sense that every student and staff member has a story to tell, and it makes it feel like the school is a cohesive community that has a story to tell. Do you think it’s helped the school as a whole?
Absolutely. The guy we have doing this was a Journalism major, and whenever he hears someone’s story, he immediately gets on that and calls them. His main focus is creating a brand new article about this person and telling their story.
You mentioned that you believe advertising your community was a great idea. What did you do before the website, the social media, the blog? How did you get new students to enroll?
Well, we started as a vessel for parents to homeschool through the church, but then they wanted more. So in that way, there was no real reason for outreach…but as the church grew, the school grew. The families in the church spread through word of mouth, so we grew that way. But about eight years ago, there was a bit of a church split, so we lost some families, and then some of the initial families ended up aging out. So our population was on the decline, and that’s where we started saying we needed to step up with our advertising efforts. We needed to at least let people know we were out there.
So when you started that initiative, did you run into any initial bumps in the road?
I think the biggest issue was deciding what our mission statement, goal, and identity was. We originally saw it was a drawback because we were so small without many programs to offer. We would ask ourselves, ‘Who’s going to want to come to a school like this?’ ‘How do we compete?’ The hardest part was admitting that we couldn’t convince somebody to say we were on the same level as other schools, but rather, show them what we’re all about and let them make the choice. And in that way, we’ve become more comfortable with who we are and what we do. And now we have families telling us we’re more casual, more open, more flexible than other schools.
Do you think that as you get bigger, you’ll be able to maintain that mentality and identity? Or do you see another rebrand coming up?
I don’t know, probably. Maybe a little bit. I’m not going to pretend to have any idea where we’re headed. A few years ago we never expected to handle international students, and since we were small, we had to really question how many students we could even take. I was personally concerned that we’d have to change multiple aspects of the school, but we’ve been able to avoid a lot of the issues I thought we’d have to deal with. So now I think that we can still grow quite a bit and still maintain our identity. I’d be excited to approach that challenge though and see where it takes us.
Let’s talk about the international student program. You mentioned that you were able to avoid some issues that you thought you might run into?
Well, when we first jumped into the program, we leaned on the programs and policies that we observed at other schools. That saved us a lot of headaches because we built upon that. That’s not to say we haven’t run into problems in the past. We’ve learned that certain agencies or organizations are more interested in vacations than academics. We also had to make sure we had good host families for the students so they weren’t cut off or isolated, and that’s still something we’re continually trying to iron out.
Moving back into your school’s growth as of late, are there any obstacles that you’re currently preparing to handle?
The first thing is going to be that our facility only has enough space for 100 people, so we need to find a facility that has the right space for us. If student growth continues, we have up-and-coming people in the school and in the church, so we’re not worried about the staff. I think the biggest aspect, like we talked about before, is how do you maintain both a sense of community and individualism in a larger school? I think that’s something we’ve still yet to answer for ourselves.
Where do you currently see your school in relation to other schools? Are you at the top, or do you see the school striving to still get better?
I feel like we’re usually playing catch-up, at least a little bit. But now much more, I see that we have something very unique that people may not be able to find at other schools. We have a niche. I’d like to be able to pay my staff a lot more. I’d like to be able to provide for them and the students. I wouldn’t mind having more stable facilities and sports programs. Some of those things, I wish that we could do. But I’m not trying to become like any other school in the area. I just want to be better for the kids that we have.
There’s a clear focus on the students on your website as well. You have a Youtube video titled “In One Minute, Find Out What Lighthouse Schools Do.” What was the inspiration behind that?
The inspiration behind that is really what we’ve been talking about: codifying what makes us different. Our pastor actually came up with it as a theme for a particular school year, but I’ve run with it and used it as a message for the school as a whole. “Excellent” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in schools, but in the scriptures, it’s stated that, “the most excellent way is to love.” And you can have a lot of other wonderful things, but if you’re missing that one attribute, then I don’t think you’re really excelling. So that’s what the video is about: what is love? What is excellence? What is the most important thing for our kids to be learning in school?
Your school has a student outreach program that takes students to England, Guatemala, and other places all over the world. Can you expand on that?
That comes from the church. We’re part of a global fellowship, and the church’s mission is to reach out to others and preach the gospel. So we have contacts all over, and we want to be able to take the kids to those places. Our school is tiny, but I always tell the kids that they’re connected to a fellowship with tens of thousands of people all over the world. We personally think that when they’re traveling, they're learning invaluable lessons no classroom can supply. A primary focus here is to show them how big the world is, and how large God’s community is that they’re a part of.
Do you ever find challenges in distinguishing between your school’s personal identity and this grander communal identity? Is it difficult to make the distinction while also incorporating both?
Yeah, definitely. That’s one of the discussions that always comes up with church schools. It’s something that I personally struggled with: do we even have an identity if we’re linked to the church? I thought we couldn’t operate as our own entity because the church’s mission is not necessarily to build a massive private school institution. So when I first came on board, I had to learn and accept that the school was secondary. At the end of the day, we want God and Jesus to change the lives of our students. All of these things that we’ve talked about so far have just been about that. We want to see incredible transformations in our students, so that’s why we’re not necessarily playing the same educational game as other schools. That’s why I don’t think being a part of the church is a problem. I wouldn’t trade away the spiritual dimension of our educational program.
How do you see yourself in comparison to public schools or other secular schools?
I would just say lucky. They have incredible teachers. I don’t think I’ve worked nearly as hard as they do. They have an incredible student load and bureaucratic red tape to cut through. They might have the funding, but we have so much freedom. And I think that if more teachers could have the flexibility that we’ve been afforded, I think we’d have some amazing happenings in education. I think in order to properly impart change into your students, you have to be able to get to their hearts. That’s the way to make a difference, and I think that public institutions – the higher ups, at least – are stifling that in some ways. There’s more than just teaching history and math in the core subjects, and pushing college acceptance as the ultimate way to happiness and success. I think it’s a shame not to be able to go deeper than that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say before we conclude?
I’d just like to reiterate that I think it’s Jesus who makes a difference. I think that the drive, passion, and love that He’s instilled in both our students and our staff has been a blessing. And again, I think it’s important that we allow the people within the school some creativity in governing the institution. Don’t let them be crushed from the top down. People teach because they love what they’re doing, so if we don’t stifle that, then they’ll never stop growing as teachers. There’s so much opportunity left in the educational field; it’s just about finding the right inspiration.
With reporting by Taylor Van Doleweerd for Gradelink