Resurrecting Trinity Baptist School

Enrollment grows, girls wear pants and a new administrator takes the helm

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

After bottoming out at roughly 30 students in 2012, Williston’s Trinity Baptist School is in the midst of a turnaround. Its current enrollment — 70 students including kindergarten through 12th grade — remains a far cry from its 180-student heyday in the mid 1990s, but it appears the school has recovered from the attrition that nearly forced it to close six years ago.

First-year administrator Rob McIlwaine identifies a few factors he believes have fueled the resurgence.

There is a long-standing disconnect between Christian notions of creationism and public school teachings of evolution. But, according to McIlwaine, new divides have surfaced in recent years that have led more Christian families to consider a private, bible-based education.

Examples include public school acceptance of non-binary notions of gender, the adoption of national Common Core standards measured by standardized tests and the proliferation of interpretive forms of grading (Trinity sticks to the traditional A, B, C, D and F).

“There is a view being presented in government schools that is antithetical to a biblical world view,” he said. “We don’t have any opposition to public schools, but their worldview and ours are really different.”

McIlwaine spoke Monday inside the school’s single building behind Trinity Baptist Church off Mountain View Road. It was the first day of “School Choice Week” in Vermont, part of a national movement to increase awareness about educational options for children. Gov. Phil Scott signed a school choice week proclamation earlier this month, and a rally was held Wednesday in Montpelier with several Trinity students in attendance.

“Vermont has many different types of public and nonpublic schools, as well as families who educate their children in the home,” Scott’s proclamation reads. “It is important for parents in Vermont to explore and identify the best education options available to their children.”

Launched in 1974, Trinity attracts students mostly from the families that attend its parent church. It also enrolls students from Essex, Richmond and as far away as North Hero who attend similar churches.

Trinity’s families, McIlwaine said, are looking for an education that aligns with what is taught at home and in church.

“It all begins with God,” he said. “He exists, and he is the sovereign creator of the universe and that’s not being taught in public schools.”

At the same time that a widening divide between public school teachings and Christian beliefs has turned more people toward Trinity, the school has also relaxed one of its signature traditions — its dress code.

For the first time this winter, girls have been permitted to wear pants, as opposed to the knee-length skirt that has been the tradition for 43 years. McIlwaine called it a common sense decision.

“Culturally, things have changed since the Christian school movement started in the ’60s and early ’70s,” Mcllwaine said. “The concept of modesty and appropriateness used to be for girls to wear a skirt. We are not holding onto those traditions as much anymore.”

Trinity requires male students to wear collared shirts and pants, and girls to wear modest shirts and skirts down to the knee. The change to allow girls to wear pants will be in effect only December through February.

“It is definitely a lot better,” said Trinity eighth-grader Michaela Milligan, who has been at the school since kindergarten. “Pants are much warmer, more flexible and more comfortable. And you don’t have to change after school.”

A dress code is still important for the school, though. McIlwaine said it instills “a mindset and an attitude that ‘we’re here for school.’ If kids are dressed to play, they want to play.”

The dress code is another recruiting point for parents dismayed by student attire in public schools.

“Even the administrators are frustrated with how girls are dressing in public schools,” McIlwaine said. “Our dress code is designed to be modest, not ‘look at me.’”

McIlwaine took over for Sharron Loller, who was forced to step down as the school’s administrator due to an illness last year. She died earlier this month. McIlwaine had planned to arrive last summer, but instead came a few months early when Loller’s health deteriorated.

The church’s lead pastor, Billy Gotcher, recruited McIlwaine from a similar job in Scarborough, Maine. The two had worked together at a church in Michigan in the early 2000s.

Gotcher has been the pastor at Trinity Baptist Church for three years.

“The relationship I have with him drew me here,” said McIlwaine, a native of Chicago and father of three. “We felt the Lord was leading us this way.”

The school building is in the middle of a renovation with classrooms receiving new flooring and paint last year and plans for a kitchen renovation in the works for this summer.

McIlwaine’s goals are to continue to grow enrollment and promote spiritual growth and academic excellence in students. The school plans an open house for prospective students April 6.