Defining Success Through Discipleship

February 5, 2024
Dr. Ruiz reads to students
By Elizabeth Hunter

Defining success can sometimes be even more difficult than achieving it. Since 1965, Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis has built a legacy of academic, athletic, and artistic excellence rooted in biblical truth. Now, thanks to the school leadership’s willingness to make changes based on a recent ACSI accreditation renewal process, their success includes a renewed emphasis on discipleship and deeper integration of a biblical worldview into the curriculum.

“We want to have high excellence in academics, but not at the risk of letting go of the biblical worldview,” said Dr. Angela Ruiz, the Academic Director at Heritage. “Shaping that discipleship piece is the most important thing that we will bring to any family who comes to our campus.”

Dr. Ruiz has been involved in all points of the review process and resulting efforts to strengthen a God-focused and Bible-anchored educational journey for the students at Heritage. Throughout her own journey to this role, she has seen God’s hand and provision over the years. “I am blessed to have [been] in many different school settings that would allow me to be equipped for such a time as this,” she shared.

Heritage is the largest Christian school in Indiana, with almost 1,600 students enrolled from preschool through 12th grade, and a lengthy waiting list. The school offers competitive pay and continuing education for teachers, an expansive campus, a strong STEM program, extensive fine arts, competitive athletics, and a new robotics facility in development.

“God has truly blessed us with a great responsibility,” said Dr. Ruiz, emphasizing that opportunities to influence the faith of students and their families are the biggest responsibility of all. While this strongly held belief is shared by her colleagues, Dr. Ruiz said it is not unusual for schools to get distracted when they grow too quickly and focus on worldly success.

It was during the most recent accreditation renewal process that an ACSI review team noticed a lack of intentional discipleship across the school. “ACSI brought us amazing educators that were great in their craft,” said Dr. Ruiz, adding that the team of five each had unique viewpoints based on their own expertise. Their honest evaluation concluded that Heritage was outwardly very successful but was running the risk of operating like a school that is Christian in name only.

“That's the power behind ACSI coming in and being a loving partner to say, ‘Hey, you look really great on paper, but let us tell you what we really see when we're in classrooms … and when we're talking with teachers and students,’” Dr. Ruiz said. “That’s where iron sharpens iron.”

The feedback was difficult to hear at first, but the school’s leadership spent the summer studying God’s Word and examining their priorities. “The accreditation process only works as well as the team that is receiving it will allow it to,” said Dr. Ruiz.

Dr. Ruiz shared that one of the first changes the school made was to hire a Director of Biblical Worldview Integration who now works closely with her in developing all aspects of the curriculum. “Every time we talk about academics, we are also talking about biblical worldview shaping.”

Heritage also rearranged their academic calendar so that one day every month would be available for bringing in speakers to discuss how to better shape the lives of students, faculty, and staff from a biblical worldview. In the next few years, these conferences will expand to include parents and other nearby schools.

Part of the challenge of discipleship is keeping up with how the world is changing and being ready to answer the hard questions facing today’s students. In response, Heritage made the intentional step of creating Koinonia Groups—discipleship groups of six to eight students who meet for weekly small group discussions during the school day. Currently, the program is for eleventh and twelfth graders but will expand to include younger students over time.

Students are encouraged to sign up with their friends so they are more comfortable having honest conversations. Groups are led by a teacher, staff member, or a pastor from a local church who prepares through a summer training program. Kids get the opportunity to ask challenging questions, and leaders are tasked with providing biblical guidance based on truth and thoughtful application.

Koinonia Groups are optional, but almost every eligible student has opted in. Dr. Ruiz believes God has truly blessed this initiative as a way to reach students by showing them how to use God’s word as they navigate through life. “When we put our eyes on Him, He aligns everything else for us in ways that we can't even imagine,” she said.

As Heritage Christian School continues to grow and evolve, there is a renewed focus on knowing Christ, in addition to developing students who are emotionally sound, spiritually rich, and academically prepared.

“We talk about how ACSI has helped impact our school and how we are better because of the accreditation process,” Dr. Ruiz said. “One of the things that I would always caution a Christian school on is to make sure that you are growing at a rate in which you can still disciple. If our students leave us and don't know Christ, we've missed it all.”