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  • Writer's pictureMatt Garris

Christian Alternative School Leadership: A Literature Review

The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.

Christian Alternative School Leadership: A Literature Review

Christian alternative schools are virtually invisible in the contemporary educational landscape of the United States. There are a few anomalies, but most people do not even know they exist. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were nearly 35,000 private schools in the United States in 2016. Of these, some 14,000 to 25,000 identify as religious schools. However, Carniol (noted that many of these small religious schools lack the funding to provide appropriate services for students with special academic or behavioral needs. Similarly, Kruse stated that “there are thousands of alternative schools available; however, few of these have a Christian base.” Carniol discussed the conspicuous absence of literature on Christian alternative schools: “This case study… …fills a gap in information about Christian alternative schools… [because] there has been no study on Christian [alternative] schools… …to identify the elements that make [them] different from other alternative schools. There are no in-depth studies of a Christian alternative school.”


While Christian alternative schools are indeed rare, they represent a tremendous ministry opportunity within the modern education system. Public alternative schools are limited in their ability to make the necessary difference in their students’ lives because of neoliberal secularism, political correctness, and a general societal contempt for God and Christianity. However, the Church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, can make an enormous difference in the lives of these young people. Christians have a chance, through alternative Christian schools, to help these young men and young women change directions and live in a manner which glorifies God, serves His kingdom, and blesses humanity. As Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 9:37-38 (NKJV), “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”


This opportunity draws attention to the question of how to make this impact. How should the Church go about establishing Christian alternative schools? How does one lead such an organization? Currently no scholarly work addresses these exact concerns, but this review aims to begin the search for answers to meet the needs of those whom the Lord sends as laborers.


This literature review examines school leadership across a variety of educational contexts to determine which theories, when applied to practice, will likely have the greatest impact in Christian alternative schools. The following section details the specifics of this review.

Literature Review

There is no shortage of leadership theories in education. The literature is mixed, with some scholarly work addressing the approaches to education leadership in isolation while other research examines the synthesis and interaction between theories. Individual approaches sample heavily from the worlds of business and sociology, but Yingying Wang noted that “school leadership can be developed and strengthened from many approaches.” This review discusses several of these approaches, examines other factors influencing their effectiveness, and explores less common school leadership contexts.

School Leadership Approaches

While not every popular school leadership theory falls within the scope of this investigation, this review will discuss leading theoretical approaches from the business world, including transformational leadership, servant leadership, and distributed leadership; theoretical approaches from the social sciences, including culturally relevant leadership, culturally responsive leadership, social justice leadership, leadership from the social network perspectives, and ideological leadership; theoretical approaches unique to education, including instructional leadership and the relational approach to leadership; and blended theoretical approaches, including integrated leadership, cultural participative leadership, and transrelational leadership.

Transformational Leadership. Transformational leadership is the second-most widely discussed leadership theory in the reviewed literature and the widest of those coming from the business community. In Berkovich’s analysis of the 23 most popular leadership theories of the past three decades, transformational leadership was the subject of 819 peer-reviewed publications, significantly more than the 100 or less publications that 20 competing theories accumulated. Berkovich suggested several potential causes for transformational leadership’s persistent popularity, among them are the belief among many scholars that it is the ideal model for school administrators, the clarity and testability of its theoretical underpinnings, its relevance to schools, and its promotion by high-status scholars.

Research on transformational leadership flourished in the Western world beginning in the 1990s and has expanded into a global trend beginning in the mid-2000s. Kwan noted that transformational leadership’s popularity in Western education grew alongside its recognition in business, but peaked from around 1995 to 2010.

Kwan cited multiple studies which found instructional leadership to be more effective than transformational leadership in educational contexts and noted three deficiencies in transformational leadership research leading her to conclude that transformational leadership is less effective in education than in business . However, despite this evidence against transformational leadership, Berkovich found that half of the principals he studied were “single-style transformational leaders.”

Recommendations concerning transformational leadership and Christian alternative school leaders are in the section on integrated leadership.

Servant Leadership. While acknowledging servant leadership’s appeal due to its close relationship to Christian values, Branson et al. discussed the difficulty in applying this model in Catholic school contexts. Speaking from a religious perspective, Punnachet found that following Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership is no easy task, particularly when the Church’s expectation is for these leaders to exemplify Christ in their daily interactions. This difficulty leads to the increasingly common beliefs among Catholic principals that servant leadership is an ideal—God’s leadership theory—requiring supernatural abilities to fulfill. Furthermore, Taylor et al. suggested that rather than being an independent leadership theory, servant leadership is essentially a pathway to achieving transformational leadership.

Martin noted that education is fundamentally a servant-oriented profession. She surveyed Christian school leaders and found that most of them scored high in dimensions of servant leadership and many of them self-identified as more of a servant leader than an instructional leader. Among those servant leaders, they all scored highest in the dimension of organizational stewardship. Teachers evaluating their school leaders all stated that their principals believed the organization needed to function as a community. Interestingly, the teachers’ evaluations of their leaders showed more of a correlation between instructional leadership and servant leadership than the principals’ self-evaluations did.

While all of Martin’s data points are significant for Christian alternative school leaders, it is the strong correlation between instructional and servant leadership on the teacher evaluations that is most interesting. It appears that the school leaders, acting as servant leaders, unknowingly fulfilled their teachers’ instructional leadership needs. This certainly requires empirical verification, but it is nonetheless encouraging.

Distributed Leadership. Bernardo et al. described distributive leadership, or shared leadership in its Catholic context, in terms of its group orientation and intended outcomes. Bernardo et al. explained the characteristics of distributed leadership—collaboration, decentralization, fluidity, shared accountability and responsibility, and transparency. They added that these characteristics, and the leaders, followers, and the situation which contribute to the phenomenon of distributive leadership interact synergistically to such a degree that one must not consider them independent of one another. Elmore suggested a model of distributed leadership which divides school leaders’ responsibilities into policy leadership, professional leadership, and administrative leadership. Bernardo et al. equated effective leadership with the leader’s ability to “turn around poorly performing schools and promote lifelong learning as a stepping stone towards assuming wider and more shared leadership responsibilities.” Alternative Christian school leaders must seek ways to employ distributed leadership in order to ensure long-term success, prevent burnout, and achieve better outcomes for their organizations.

Culturally Relevant Leadership. Ezzani and Brooks stated that culturally relevant leaders support culturally relevant instruction which leads to a socially conscious learning community capable of recognizing, understanding, and challenging inequalities as they encounter them. They identify three fundamental components of culturally relevant leadership: liberatory consciousness, pluralistic insight, and reflexive practice. In other words, culturally relevant leaders have an awareness of themselves and society which leads to an active struggle against oppression, actively support the development of relationships between people with diverse perspectives, and reflect upon their practice for self-improvement. This theory and its associated tenets are of limited value for Christian alternative school leaders, but there are aspects of it, such as advocating for justice, loving one’s neighbor, and reflecting on one’s effectiveness, which hold practical benefits in these contexts.

Culturally Responsive Leadership. DeMatthews and Izquierdo studied the role of culturally responsive leadership in the case of a dual-language elementary school near the US-Mexican border and stated that this framework has a “unique focus and relationship with the historical, social, and political contexts in which school leadership is practiced.” They described culturally responsive leadership as being actively responsive “driven by explicit values, beliefs, and commitments to serving minoritized children.” These school leaders foster among their faculties a sense of personal responsibility for student success and create inclusive schools, particularly for those students who have been minoritized. They also noted that culturally responsive school leadership requires critical self-reflection, culturally responsive teachers, a responsive and inclusive learning environment, and engagement.

Beyond this, DeMatthews and Izquierdo said much that is of little value or detrimental to the worldview of Christian alternative schools. While their aims are admirable, some of their recommended methods are contrary to Biblical teaching. Wisdom dictates that Christian alternative school leaders should “eat the fruit and spit out the seeds” regarding culturally responsive leadership.

Ignoring the challenges that led to the students’ placements in alternative learning environments does not benefit them. Instead, Christian alternative school leaders should be active leaders, encouraging their faculty to internalize the desire and partial responsibility for student achievement and fostering an environment which welcomes these students and responds to their needs. However, the fuel for these actions should not be uncontrollable Marxist rage at perceived injustices or systemic inequalities. In fact, not even righteous indignation should drive these actions, but instead they should flourish as the natural fruit of leaders who overflow with Christian love and charity.

Social Justice Leadership. In their discussion on culturally responsive leadership, DeMatthews and Izquierdo addressed the broader umbrella of social justice leadership. This theory comprises many intersecting subtheories designed to respond to inequities and injustices which negatively impact minoritized groups. Some of the theories associated with social justice leadership include advocacy leadership, anti-oppressive leadership, antiracist leadership, color-conscious leadership, community-oriented leadership, culturally proficient leadership, culturally relevant leadership, Freirean leadership, inclusive leadership, and multicultural leadership.

Fei Wang referred to a growing consensus demanding educational leaders recognize inequalities and act to eliminate them. She also acknowledged a broader concept of social justice which includes “not only fairness, equity, participation, and empowerment, but also democracy, social transformation, inclusion, critical approach, and ethical/moral care.” Toward achieving this goal, she recommended democratic, transformative, and inclusive forms of social justice leadership.

Fei Wang’s work is extensive, but essentially suggests methods which educational leaders can use to ensure equity among all students. This is important, particularly in a Christian alternative school setting, because students likely belong to multiple disadvantaged classes.

Social Network Perspectives. Yingying Wang stated that leadership is a social process and school leaders can develop strong leadership through social ties, network structure, social influence, and school culture. This is important for Christian alternative school leaders not only in their leadership relationships with teachers, but also with students who enroll in the school.

Ideological Leadership. Eyal et al. described ideological leadership as “vision-based leadership that inspires followers with… …a comprehensive set of ideals” in their investigation of ideological leadership in public school settings. Noting that ideological leadership is typically employed by “grand leaders,” they explained that these leaders “offer a vision of closely linked goals and causes” and interpret events within the context of that vision which leads to the acquisition of loyal followers. Eyal et al. distinguished between personalized and socialized forms of ideological leadership, noting that personalized leadership prioritizes ideology over people while socialized leadership values people over ideology. They found that socialized ideological school leadership led to widely held values which helped accomplish organizational goals while the personalized ideological school leadership led to intolerance and dehumanizing of followers. Eyal et al. warned of the dangers of personalized ideological leadership, which they found led to lower organizational commitment, lower leader-member exchange, and other negative effects which outweigh any of its possible benefits.

Instructional Leadership. Instructional leadership emphasizes defining the school mission, managing curriculum and instruction, and establishing a professional learning community. Kwan stated that early instructional leadership consisted of strong, directive, principal-centered curricular and instructional monitoring. While instructional leadership practices have changed over the past several decades, it remains an influential theory. Gawlik noted that scholars have renewed their focus on the substantial impact which instructional leaders have on student learning outcomes. Kwan added that this trend, which has grown over the past decade, may be related to an increase in school accountability and instructional leadership’s perceived advantage over transformational leadership.

Instructional leadership practices vary across different educational settings. Gawlik explained how contexts shape instructional leadership practices. Martin studied instructional leadership among Christian school leaders, a group that usually does not describe themselves as instructional leaders; and found that they all were highly engaged in instructional leadership, although this differed somewhat by gender. She also found that while these Christian school leaders understood instructional leadership and literacy differently from one another, they all held similar Christian beliefs and they all believed that their management responsibilities negatively impacted their instructional leadership.

School leaders can improve their instructional leadership. Martin noted that the more principals focus their activities on the practice of teaching and learning, the more they will impact student learning. Roegman et al. identified school leaders’ use of data as central to instructional leadership, explaining that leaders should use data and support teachers in using data to make informed instructional decisions. Instructional leadership is a fundamental educational leadership theory and Christian alternative school leaders should focus on exhibiting and improving instructional leadership behaviors.

Relational Approach. Eacott developed the relational approach to educational leadership to include context not as a variable to overcome, but as an informant and product of leadership activity. While this theory is quite complex, it effectively shifts the leader’s theoretical paradigm in ways that may yield practical benefits. Eacott proposed that “auctors generate spatio-temporal conditions through organising activity.” Within this proposition, he explained that “auctors” refers to those who generate and reflects leaders’ responsibility for context instead of subjection to it, that “spatio-temporal conditions” refers to how time and space come together as a result of leaders’ activities, and that “organising activity” refers to leaders’ actions which predicate future spatio-temporal conditions.

Eacott noted that this approach operates in the present, with organizing activities focusing on how to interpret past conditions and generate the desired future conditions. As leaders begin to focus on these organizing activities, he theorized that they would develop an awareness of their underlying generative assumptions, the practical implications of their assumptions, and a story which fits their assumptions. Eacott named the assumptions “clarity,” the practical implications “coherence,” and the story “narrative” and explains that relational leaders use these constructs to define high-impact leadership in their respective situations.

In educational leadership, clarity centers around defining the purpose of education and/or school, coherence is the alignment between this purpose and the school’s activities, and narrative is the explanation of how effective the school’s activities have been in achieving the defined purpose. Eacott stated that all three of these activities are necessary for the relational approach to educational leadership.

While this approach to school leadership is extremely academic, complex, and theoretical in nature, its decentralization does hold a certain appeal for Christian alternative school leaders. The approach allows school leaders to frame purpose and context in a manner well-suited to their own communities instead of some arbitrary universal model in which Christian character may be less important than academic performance or test performance matters more than growth. Additionally, once local leaders have determined the objectives for their schools, they have the flexibility to organize resources and strategies to achieve them. Finally, the narrative portion of this theory allows leaders the flexibility to determine which of their strategies were effective at meeting their goals and which ones were not. While it needs additional empirical validation and a less complex veneer, Eacott’s relational approach seems promising for implementation across multiple educational contexts.

Integrated Leadership. Marks and Printy introduced integrated leadership as a blend between transformational leadership and instructional leadership. This approach is somewhat unorthodox in a field which often treats these theories as mutually exclusive and compares their effectiveness to one another. However, despite Robinson et al.’s meta-analysis finding that instructional leadership was at least thrice as effective as transformational leadership, Kwan’s findings suggested “that instructional leadership by the principal will not lead to considerable improvement in student outcomes unless the principal has already made available a school environment in which teachers are competent and motivated.” In short, Kwan’s research seems to suggest that regardless of which theory is independently more effective, they are a force multiplier when used in tandem with one another.

While the above discussion of integrated leadership focused on the integration of transformational leadership in conjunction with instructional leadership, Berkovich found that many leaders use multiple leadership styles and explained that diversification of leadership styles is an effective leadership technique. Hallinger stated that “effective leadership requires both transactional and transformational elements” and Berkovich discussed how combining leadership behaviors appears to be a promising approach.

Considering all this, an integrated leadership approach combining transformational, instructional, and possibly even transactional leadership styles seems to be advantageous to Christian alternative school leaders.

Cultural Participative Leadership. Sagie and Aycan theorized a model for cultural participative leadership which accounts for differences in organizations’ individualism or collectivism and power distance. Barthe and Benoliel explained that participative leadership results in different implementation and outcomes based on culture, personality types, principal-teacher exchange, and school structure. Furthermore, Barth and Benoliel explained that individualist teachers tend to focus more on personal goals while collectivist teachers focus more on school goals.

The cultural participative leadership model predicts how participative leadership differs based on a culture’s individualism and power distance. The model is a quadrant divided by an axis running from individualism to collectivism axis and an axis representing power distance. Individualists with low power distance have more democratic decision-making while individualists with high power distance have pseudo-participation. Collectivists with lower power distance have collective decision-making, and collectivists with high power distance typically do not have a role in decision making. Senior staff is present on the rare occasions when high power distance collectivists are involved in decision-making.

Transrelational leadership. Branson et al. introduced transrelational leadership in response to the transformational leadership’s lack of universal applicability, which they attribute to excessive focus on the leader instead of the relationships. They viewed relationships not only as the central focus of leadership, but also preconditional to leadership. In other words, leaders require followers, and true followership necessitates the acceptance of the leader’s authority, an acceptance which they believed leaders can only earn through the development of relationships. Thus, Branson et al.’s transrelational leadership model establishes four sequential steps aspiring leaders must take to earn the acceptance of followers and become successful organizational leaders: They must join the in-group, champion the group, shape the group’s identity, and align the group’s identity to its context.

Branson et al. explained how the earthly ministry of Jesus was essentially transrelational leadership and expressed how the approach is a good fit for Catholic [and all Christian] schools. They suggested that religious school leaders should be part of the school community’s in-group through regular active involvement, champion the school and its achievements, grow the Catholic identity of the school, and further the kingdom of God. While these suggestions apply transrelational leadership to Catholic schools, the prescriptions are equally applicable to churches desiring to start schools, churches with existing schools, or community Christian schools not affiliated with a particular congregation. In Evangelical or Protestant contexts, the modified steps may be to actively participate in the ministries of the church/school, be vocal about the church/school’s impact and achievements, disciple the members of the church/school, and leverage the church/school’s influence to share the gospel with those outside of the church/school.

Other Considerations for Practice

Several of the studies in this review addressed certain non-theoretical considerations for practice which merit discussion. These include the gap between theory and practice, the relationship between culture and school leadership, and the challenges which secular liberalism poses to religious schools. The following serves as a brief review of their mention in the literature.

Theory-Practice Gap. Roegman and Woulfin discussed the apparent gap between educational leadership theory and practice as a navigation point between two very interconnected worlds. They explained that theory is distinct from experience and ideology because of its scientific and empirical underpinnings while practice refers to actually doing the work of leadership. Saugstad called the relationship between theory and practice “a dualism such that theory is derived from practice and, at the same time, theory informs practice.”

Roegman and Woulfin acknowledged that implementing theory in practice is difficult for several reasons and suggest this is the reason practitioners often rely on lay theories or schemas. However, they found that scholar-practitioners who are able to implement research-based theories into practice achieve better results.

Bailey and Gautam suggested a sports analogy, considering theory as what the fans can see and practice as what the athletes can see. If the fans knew what the players knew, they would have a different understanding of the game. Likewise, if the players knew what the fans knew, they would also understand the game differently. There is a reason varsity, collegiate, and professional athletes watch game tapes and why NASCAR and NFL teams have staff elevated above the fray providing real-time feedback to the decision-makers; having the big picture leads to better decisions. The same is true with empirically-supported theories and Christian alternative school leaders should be mindful of this.

Culture. Barth and Benoliel discussed the importance of culture—including such dimensions as power distance, uncertainty avoidance, the relationship between individualism and collectivism, and the relationship between masculinity and femininity—in shaping leadership style. They reference implicit leadership theory in their explanation of why culture is such a determinant of leadership style and explain that it is a combination of the principal’s leadership style and school culture which are critical determinants of school effectiveness. Additionally, they stated that “in an era in which the world is becoming a ‘global village…,’ cultural sensitivity is becoming a social obligation.”

Secular Liberalism. While the ability of governments to impact public schools through funding and policy decision-making is obvious, this does not represent the entirety of the relationship between governments, politics, and schools. Political opinion shapes government decisions and those in turn affect educational settings in a variety of ways. While the challenges posed by secularism, humanism, neoliberalism, and radical progressivism in the United States are relatively mild, they are much more significant in private and religious schools around the world. Bernardo et al. described some of the challenges facing 21st century Catholic schools in New Zealand, stating that “neoliberal tendencies of successive governments are increasingly militating against the right of Catholic parents to choose a Catholic education for their children.”

Secularization is a growing trend in New Zealand, and Bernardo et al. expressed concerns that New Zealand’s Catholic schools will eventually fall victim to this trend “and evolve into nothing more than state-subsidized private schools characterised by religious nostalgia shared by a declining group of Catholic parents and teachers.” There is a legitimate basis for these concerns; Bernardo et al. cited several forces working against New Zealand’s Catholic schools, including increased secularist representation on school boards, neoliberal policies, the adoption of a national secular curriculum, the devaluing of religion, and a growing view of education as a marketable commodity.

The combination of these factors, combined with the government’s expectation for Catholic schools’ academic parity with public schools and the Catholic aim of discipling students has presented Catholic school leaders with the seemingly insurmountable task of protecting schools, driving academic improvement, and ensuring spiritual development, all while exemplifying the Catholic faith for everyone on campus. Their plight may seem dire, but Bernardo et al. have suggested interventions which may help to remedy it. Christian school leaders in the United States, and especially those in conservative and fundamentalist schools, must recognize the potential for similar challenges in the coming decades and begin preparing to defend their organizations against them now.

Less Common Contexts

While the above theories and considerations are generally applicable across most educational settings, the purpose of this study is to identify which approaches are likely effective in Christian alternative schools. Since the only source on Christian alternative schools focused on classroom practices instead of leadership, this section of the review will focus on related school environments. Additionally, this search includes settings outside of just Christian schools and alternative schools to better understand how school leadership differs across a variety of settings. This section explores charter schools, a system with a blend of secular and religious schools, Islamic schools, Jewish schools, Catholic schools, Christian schools, and alternative schools.

Charter Schools. Gawlik studied instructional leadership in charter schools and noted that while charter school leaders have greater autonomy than their public school counterparts, they also face unique challenges, and there is insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of the decisions they make. She found that the unique challenges faced by charter school leaders impact their leadership activities in ways that meet their schools’ immediate needs and allows them to lead instructionally. This article is of interest for prospective Christian alternative school leaders because it offers a practical example of leaders handling the managerial requirements of running a school while maintaining a strong focus on instructional leadership. This is particularly beneficial for school leaders who must not only perform the typical management activities, but must account for the specific educational and personal needs of students placed in alternative learning environments.

Mixed Secular-Religious Schools. Barth and Benoliel examined the relationships between religious culture and leadership styles in mixed secular-religious schools in Israel. Approaching their research from the perspective that culture shapes leadership, they evaluated how the individualistic-collectivistic dimension of culture impacted school principals’ leadership styles and how these factors jointly contributed to the schools’ effectiveness. They considered the three primary segments of Israeli schools—the non-observant state-secular schools, the observant state-Jewish schools, and the strictly-observant privatized ultra-Orthodox schools—and applied the cultural participative leadership model to them because it explains how the cultural dimensions of individualism-collectivism and power distance impact leadership styles.

Islamic Schools. While the inclusion of scholarly work on Islamic school leadership may seem counterintuitive to the purpose of this review, there are some insights in these works that merit discussion. Brooks and Mudohar developed a conceptual framework for Islamic school leaders which differs from some of the other religious school literature in its distinctly religious approach. They established Islamic leadership as three interrelated concepts—leadership, stewardship, and rulership—and suggest that Muslim leaders should be honest, trustworthy, truthful, and critical. At the heart of their framework are the leader’s beliefs about Islam, education, culture, and leadership. This easily transfers to Christian school leaders whose beliefs about Christianity, education, culture, and leadership impact all their leadership activities. Encircling these central beliefs are what Brooks and Mudohar identify as the seven key values expressed during Muslim leadership: giving good counsel and acting sincerely; consulting others; allowing for dissention, dialogue, and consensus; pursuing the common good; working ethically; being accountable to the community; and reflecting upon one’s work as a leader. Brooks and Mudohar explained that the central beliefs mitigate the encircling values. While these values may not be anti-Christian, they are not necessarily the same values Christian school leaders may ascribe as the most important in their roles. However, the model is valuable as a theoretical framework for Christian leaders.

Ezzani and Brooks studied culturally relevant leadership in Islamic schools which provides a whole educational experience centered upon religion. Because they represent a global religion, Islamic schools draw Muslim students from diverse cultures and sects of Islam. As such, there is adequate opportunity for discrimination, even within Islam. The school which Ezzani and Brooks studied promotes multiculturalism, interfaith dialogue, and “the concept of American Muslim identity, an identity whereby individuals are encouraged to identify as fully American and fully Muslim without contradiction.” This school had 40% non-Muslim teachers and even a non-Muslim administrator, yet was able to maintain its American-Islamic character. The implications of this study for Christian alternative school leaders will vary by location, but it is important to note that schools can self-determine the amount of diversity which they will tolerate. In this case, an Islamic school had a great deal of non-Muslims and focused heavily on tolerance and coexistence while other schools choose not to admit students whose families are not members of their congregations. Neither approach is necessarily best, but Ezzani and Brooks have demonstrated that it is possible to maintain some aspect of a school’s special character even across a wide range of faculty and student body diversity.

Jewish Schools. Vaisben researched Jewish school leadership training programs and discussed various Jewish learning environments including supplemental Jewish schools and Jewish day schools. While his article has a wealth of leadership information, it is the difference in scheduling options that are of greatest interest to this review. Jewish day schools function like traditional schools while the supplemental religious schools operate less than eight hours per week and are usually tied to individual synagogues. If Christian alternative school leaders were to subscribe to a similar model, it could function as an intensive intervention for day school students and as a supplemental after-school program for moderate-risk students who spend their days in other schools. This is one possible configuration, but the supplemental Jewish school model inspires additional possibilities for alternative Christian school settings.

Catholic Schools. Bernardo et al. studied challenges facing Catholic lay school leaders in an increasingly secularized New Zealand. Chief among their concerns is that Catholic schools maintain their distinctive Catholic character by focusing on the primary aim, vision, and philosophy of Catholic education, while keeping Jesus Christ at the center of everything they do.

Branson et al. also advocated for Catholic schools to maintain their distinctive Catholic character, but instead of focusing on external factors, addressed the internal challenge of Catholic school leaders having to lead spiritually, instructionally, and managerially. They advocated a leadership approach which balances these challenges while focusing on Jesus and maintaining the Catholic mission, identity, and practice.

Christian Schools. Martin opened her paper on instructional leadership in Christian schools with a discussion on the effectiveness of Christian schools in meeting the academic, cultural, and spiritual goals. She referenced the Cardus Report’s finding that Christian schools are growing students spiritually, but are not demonstrating any greater academic outcomes than public schools. This is concerning, particularly for Christian alternative school leaders. While salvation and discipleship are vital and Evangelicals rightfully emphasize eternal rewards and consequences over temporal ones, the question remains: If Christian schools are producing the holiest generation of ignorance the world has ever seen, are they really succeeding in Christian education?

Alternative Schools. Kumm et al. provided an overview of alternative education settings in the United States, noting that while alternative programs were originally established to prevent academic failure, they have evolved into separate settings for students with academic and/or behavioral needs that cannot be met in the general education classroom. Governments and statisticians have their own definitions of alternative schools which vary internationally, but Kumm et al. offers generally agreed-upon classifications for alternative learning environments, which includes alternative-to-expulsion disciplinary schools, residential facilities, and juvenile justice education settings. Parents, healthcare providers, legal systems, or school leaders place students in these alternative learning environments due to academic needs, expulsion from school, mental health issues, or legal issues. They also listed the most effective practices for alternative education and noted that implementation of these practices requires qualified and supported staff.

Bettini et al. examined the discrepancies in access to qualified and supported school leaders between alternative educational settings and neighborhood schools. They understood that such leaders drive effective schools, that alternative settings have a greater need for effective leaders, that alternative schools typically hire less qualified teachers, and that principal distribution favors higher-achieving schools. Unfortunately, Bettini et al. found that lesser-qualified principals are leading lesser-qualified teachers in teaching students who have greater disadvantages and require the greatest results to achieve equity in student learning outcomes. This indicates that those students are not at a disadvantage, double disadvantage, or triple disadvantage, but rather a quadruple disadvantage. They must overcome the disadvantages of their knowledge deficit, their behavioral and/or learning disabilities, having a less-qualified teacher, and having a less-qualified principal.


This literature review covered several prominent theories and additional considerations across varied school contexts. While a comprehensive analysis of everything covered is beyond the scope of this review, there are some concepts requiring further analysis.


Among the theories discussed, the most helpful for Christian alternative school leaders came from business scholarship, educational leadership scholarship, and the blended approaches. The integrated, relational, and transrelational theories seem the most promising from the review, with honorable mentions to the distributed, instructional, servant, and transformational leadership approaches.


The least applicable theories in this review were those which came from the social sciences. While social justice is important to Christian character, these theories approach it from a manner which is nearly inconsistent with Christianity and therefore inapplicable to a Christian alternative school context.

Implications for Future Research

Since this literature review was the first of its kind, it was intentionally broad. Future investigations should be more limited, focusing on theory or context alone, and limiting sampled works to a narrower field. For instance, future research should focus only on the strongest theories discussed or only on Christian schools. Additionally, a future study on the non-theoretical elements affecting Christian alternative school leadership, including concepts like secular encroachment and theory-practice gap would benefit Christian alternative school leaders.


Barth, A. & Benoliel, P. (2019). School religious-cultural attributes and school principals’ leadership styles in Israel. Religious Education, 114(4), 470-485.

Berkovich, I. (2018). Will it sink or will it float: Putting three common conceptions about principals’ transformational leadership to the test. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 46(6), 888-907.

Bernardo, M. A., Van der Nest, T., & Smith, L. (2019). Conceptualising leadership for principals of Catholic schools in Aotearoa New Zealand. International Studies in Catholic Education, 11(1), 80-95,

Bettini, E., Mason-Williams, L., & Barber, B. R. (2020). Access to qualified, well-supported principals across alternative educational settings and neighborhood schools. The Journal of Special Education, 53(4), 195-205.

Branson, C., Marra, M., & Buchanan, M. (2019). Reconstructing Catholic school leadership: Integrating mission, identity and practice. International Studies in Catholic Education, 11(2), 219-232.

Brooks, M. C. & Mutohar, A. (2018). Islamic school leadership: A conceptual framework. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50(2), 54-68.

Carniol, D. S. (2018). A case study of a Christian alternative school (Publication No. 1686) [Doctoral dissertation, Liberty University].

DeMatthews, D. E. & Izquierdo, E. (2018). Supporting Mexican American students on the border: A case study of culturally responsive leadership in a dual language elementary school. Urban Education, 55(3), 362-393.

Eacott, S. (2019). High-impact school leadership in context. Leading & Managing, 25(2), 66-79.

Eyal, O., Schwartz, T. R, Berkovich, I. (2020). Ideological leadership in public schools. Journal of Educational Administration, 58(3), 303-320. https://doi.og/10.1108/JEA-08-2019-0131

Ezzani, M. & Brooks, M. (2019). Culturally relevant leadership: Advancing critical consciousness in American Muslim students. Educational Administration Quarterly, 55(5), 781-811.

Gawlik, M. (2018). Instructional leadership and the charter school principal. School Leadership & Management, 38(5), 539-565.

Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).

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Kwan, P. (2020). Is transformational leadership theory passé? Revisiting the integrative effect of instructional leadership and transformational leadership on student outcomes. Educational Administration Quarterly, 56(2), 321-349.

Martin, M. E. (2018). Qualities of instructional leadership among principals in high-performing Christian schools. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 27(2), 157-182.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Private school universe survey.

Roegman, R., Perkins-Williams, R., Maeda, Y., & Greenan, K. A. (2018). Developing data leadership: Contextual influences on administrators’ data use. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 13(4), 348-374.

Roegman, R. & Woulfin, S. (2019). Got theory? Reconceptualizing the nature of the theory-practice gap in K-12 educational leadership. Journal of Educational Administration, 57(1), 2-20.

Vaisben, E. (2018). Ready to lead? A look into Jewish religious school principal leadership and management training. Journal of Jewish Education, 84(1), 79-106.

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