Published Online:

Students Self-Taught in Me. Christian Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Hartland, Me--When Jason Butler, 10, comes to school in the morning in this small town, population 1,500, he enters a world very different from that of most U.S. schoolchildren.

In the early morning light, colored red and yellow by stained-glass church windows, he sings religious songs ("It's a grand thing to be a Christian, it's the best thing I know") with 41 schoolmates who range from kindergarten to high-school age.

In a room in the annex of his church, The First Baptist Church of Hartland, he sits down to work at a desk with a red headboard, blue sides, a white chair, and two tiny Christian and U.S. flags propped beside his books.

It is a classroom where no teachers tell him what to do and no bells clang to mark the ends of study periods. Instead, Jason's day is controlled by a series of booklets, each with recurring pictures of a small girl drawn in comic-strip style who tells him what to do and when.

On the first page, the figure reminds him to "Ask Jesus to help" him define his goals and learn a Bible verse. Several pages of reading and exercises follow, and then the smiling face announces it is time for Jason to "score" himself at the "scoring station."

The school, Hartland Christian Academy, is one of nearly 70 fundamentalist schools that have been established in rural Maine in the last 10 years. Most are located in church basements or annexes and most lack the approval of state officials.

In the past five years, an "explosion" of these small church schools has taken place across the country, and they are now opening at a rate of roughly two per day, says James C. Carper, an assistant professor of education at Mississippi State University who specializes in the study of church-affiliated schools. He estimates that there are now about 10,000 such schools, most established within the last 10 years.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1981 there were about 10,000 parochial schools nationwide and an additional 10,000 denominational and independent private schools.

Movement Unprecedented

The growth of the so-called fundamentalist Christian school movement is unprecedented in the history of American education, according to Mr. Carper.

"In the past, Evangelical Protestant churches have been some of the strongest supporters of the public schools," he says. "But in the last 20 years they've seen the [public] schools as increasingly indifferent, if not hostile, to their world view."

The church groups that sponsor the fundamentalist schools are not members of the largest Protestant denominations such as the American Baptist Church or the United Methodist Church, but many are former members who left to establish their own independent local congregations.

Low-Cost Curriculum

Many of the schools are using a low-cost curriculum that eliminates the need for traditional classroom teachers. Instead of teachers, the system relies on a series of workbooks that sell for about $1.25 each and that employ drills and multiple-choice questions to teach the lessons. The student works through them alone at his or her own speed.

This week, about 20 of Maine's Christian schools and their parent churches and pastors began arguments in federal court in their suit to win the right to operate their schools without state certification.

They claim that the private schools are integral parts of their churches, just as their Sunday schools are, and that they are therefore insulated from state control by the First Amendment.

"We not only have Sunday school, but we have Monday school, Tuesday school, Wednesday school," declares the Rev. Herman C. Frankland, leader of the Maine Association of Christian Schools, which is spearheading the legal fight. "There's no way I can let the state tell me how to run my Sunday school. There's no way I can give away the authority that belongs to God."

The proliferation of Christian schools caught Maine education officials by surprise, they say. State regulations require that private schools offer a state-approved curriculum, have certified teachers, and comply with health, safety, and attendance regulations. But officials admit they have little idea what is going on in many of the schools.

"They just became!" exclaims Wallace La Fountain, a department spokesman. "And we're not able to determine the nature of their curriculum."

The regulatory conflict arose in 1979, when some of the Christian schools informed Maine's commissioner of education that they would no longer attempt to comply with state rules.

In 1981, the state sent out letters to the schools warning them they would be closed unless they conformed to the various state regulations. The schools, led by Mr. Frankland, countered by filing suit against the state, charging that the requirements violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Since the Maine case, Bangor Baptist Church v. State of Maine, is the first federal suit of its kind, it is being watched both by evangelical church groups throughout the country that now run, or would like to run, similar schools, and by those who back the state's right to regulate education.

Because the state plans to offer testimony on the necessity of having trained teachers and an approved course of study in all schools, the trial may also be a crucial test for the new self-teaching curricula being used by the thousands of fundamentalist-Christian schools already in existence.

Self-Teaching Method

The self-teaching method is characterized by a detailed set of procedures for the student to follow and a pedagogical language of its own.

Everywhere, a vistor hears about "pace's," "the scoring station," and "score keys." The originator of these terms is Accelerated Christian Education Inc. (ace) of Lewisville, Tex., the company that sells its curriculum to the Hartland school and to the Sebec Corner Christian Academy, a school about 20 miles north of Hartland.

Widely-Used System

ace is the most widely used teaching system in fundamentalist schools. Started in 1970 by a graduate of Bob Jones University, the Southern Baptist institution in South Carolina, the company now sells its curriculum to about 4,600 schools around the country, a spokesman for the company says, including 43 of Maine's Christian schools. In addition to the study materials, it also markets equipment such as flags, pens, and uniforms to fundamentalist schools and other customers.

ace sells its curriculum in booklets of about 40 pages each, called pace's (short for Packets of Accelerated Christian Education). For each grade level, starting with kindergarten, there are 12 pace's, offered in a wide range of subjects--mathematics, social studies, science, Bible studies, English, and word building, for example.

One Week of Training

No traditional classroom teachers are needed in the ace system. It requires only that the church pastor, a school "administrator," and a "supervisor" each take one week of training in how to use the ace booklets, says Ronald E. Johnson, vice president for development at the Texas publishing firm. No other educational background is required, he says.

At the Maine schools, most administrators are salaried, but supervisors and other volunteers are usually unpaid, officials at several of the schools say. Chester L. Dana Jr., administrator of the Sebec school, says he receives a salary of $10,000; the church charges a $650 tuition fee.

Because the system is so inexpensive, it "brings about a way that any Christian church can open up its own school," says Mr. Dana.

Each child completes an average of 60 pace's a year (about 12 in each selected subject), he says. An ace contract also costs a school an initial $950 fee and dues of $6 per student, paid over a three-year period, says Mr. Johnson.

Details of Learning

The structured ace method dictates the details of the learning situation, including what a child may have on his desk, what type of pencil he may use, and when he may leave his seat. These procedures are taught at ace training sessions and are reinforced by annual school visits from ace personnel, Mr. Dana explains.

When Jason Butler sits down at his desk in the Hartland school and has carefully stored his Bible away in its navy-blue leather case, his first task is to fill in his ace goal card. Setting goals in each subject for each day is a basic tenet of the curriculum.

Jason fills out his index-size goal card with great care: mathematics, page 4 ("That's my worst subject"); science, page 27, and so on. He tacks the card up on his red bulletin board under two photos of his best friends. If he completes his goals, he has a chance to win a "privilege," he says.

Jason starts with his science pace. He studies five words and then draws lines connecting them with a list of definitions that are in mixed-up order: "Chest" connects with "the lung place"; "Respirator" with "tube for breathing."

After that, he matches pictures with words and then fills in sentences with missing words. The sentences contain information he has read on earlier pages in the booklet: "Your heart will not stop (beating, blood, beeting) all your life long"; "We are born with an evil disease called (blank space)."

Jason underlines the word "beating" and fills in the word "sin" in the blank space. As he works, his small foot beats on his chair leg. He seldom looks up.

'Scoring Station'

At this point, the little cartoon figure in his booklet tells him it is time to score his work. He jumps up and goes to the "scoring station," a long table with slanting sides, and pulls a tattered "score key" from the shelf underneath. He checks his answers against those in the key and marks the wrong ones in red ink.

Moments later he is back at his desk, has crossed off science from his goal card, and is starting on mathematics.

The administrator, supervisors, and monitors move about the rooms answering questions when a child signals for help by propping up a flag in his flagstand. Hour after hour, the room is quiet except for the rustling of pages and the muffled

thumping of score keys at the scoring station.

Melissa Berry, 14, a student at Hartland who moved from a nearby public school last fall, says she can concentrate better on her work using the ace system than she could in traditional classrooms, where she was always "distracted."

"The responsibility rests on the student," explains Mr. Dana, who is a graduate of a business college in Bangor, Me., and who taught in public schools for 10 years before he joined the Christian school. "Everything is their responsibility. We can only enrich the work in areas where they are low."

Plans To Supplement Program

One such area is handwriting, he says. He comments that he is not satisfied with the ace program for that and plans to supplement it.

The Sebec students are tested regularly with the California Achievement Test and on average they score above their grade level, Mr. Dana says. At present, the Sebec and Hartland schools do not offer courses in music, art, or foreign languages, although the last two are available on pace's, he notes. For older children, ace offers outside reading and writing excercises to supplement the pace's.

At the Sebec school, one staff member besides Mr. Dana has a college degree. The four others have high-school diplomas. Administrators and supervisors answer academic questions for all students, Mr. Dana says, but monitors only answer academic questions for the younger children. At the Hartland school, the administrator and one supervisor are college graduates.

A third school in the area, the Athens Christian Academy, located about 20 miles west of Hartland, has had staffing problems, staff members there acknowledge. The 28-student school has been operating since late November without any staff member educated beyond the high-school level. Both the administrator and the pastor of the parent church, The Church of the Open Bible, left their posts at the same time, says the Rev. Vondel M. Allen, who visits the school daily to help out.

Mr. Allen, the graduate of a Bible college, says the crisis has not affected students: "We're doing an A-1 job on the education. There's been real cooperation from everyone."

On this day, however, some children are sitting idle at their desks; a visiting grandparent explains that is because their new pace's are on order and have not arrived.

Uniforms Required

In Sebec, population 525, the church school requires uniforms. The boys wear blue trousers and white shirts (red shirts on alternating days), and striped red, white, and blue ties. The girls wear blue jumpers with red and white insets in the pleats of their skirts.

Mr. Dana wears a red vest and red socks with his gray trousers; all other school staff members and the church pastor wear uniforms, too.

Patriotism is a concept that church and school members say they want to revive in their schools. "Remember the way it was when we were in school?" asks Albert H. Martin, deacon of the Church of the Open Bible in Athens.

As his grandson studies at one of the red and blue desks that he spent one summer building in his church's new school, Mr. Martin says, "We're trying to bring that patriotism back."

The importance of the religious context of education is also emphasized by the schools' officials. And in all levels of pace booklets, religious references are woven into the informational paragraphs and exercises. They appear in the form of Bible verses that must be copied and recopied many times in each pace. They also appear in such questions as, "What do we as Christians believe about Creation?" and such passages as, "God gave lungs to the reptiles."

The schools are more closely linked to their sponsoring churches than are many denominational schools. ace requires that the pastors of churches attend the week-long ace preparation course and stay closely involved in classroom details. In Maine's rural communities, where many of its Christian schools have been founded, church members, in fact, usually build the school annex themselves.

Community Help

In communities like Hartland and Sebec, this job is made easier because many of the members are lumberers, factory machinists, and mill workers. The Rev. Isaiah Hill, the pastor at Sebec Corner Christian Church, has worked since the age of 14 in lumbering and related jobs.

When his church decided in the summer of 1980 to build an annex to house a school, Mr. Hill and his colleagues had the structure up and operating within three months. Among the students are two of his children.

Not all of the Maine schools involved in the federal-court trial that began this week are small and rural, or use ace One large school that uses a traditional classroom system is the Bangor Christian School, whose parent church is Mr. Frankland's Bangor Baptist Church.

Here, the 325 students choose their own clothes, sit at ordinary desks, have snack-food machines, and play sports in their own gymnasium. But textbooks at the school come from Christian-oriented publishers and the school uses ace as a supplementary system in some cases.

Mr. Frankland and other proponents of the ace system point out that the first group of ace graduates to reach the college level are do-ing well. "They've learned to wing it on their own. They've learned how to study," Mr. Frankland says.

Advocates of the system also argue that extra-curriculuar activities such as Bible-discussion groups and sports outings make up for the absence of interaction between students in class. They add that intense classroom debates in social studies, for example, could not really occur in their schools because in Christian teaching there are no controversies or "gray areas."

'We Have the Truth'

"There isn't any difference of opinion," says Mr. Dana. "We believe we have the truth." The Bible is absolutely clear, he says. "Things are black and white. We don't have all that play on words."

Outside observers of the growth in the use of ace tend to agree that thus far the students test well. Although no studies of nationwide ace test results are yet available, Allen Peshkin, a professor of education at the University of Illinois who is making an in-depth study of an Illinois fundamentalist school, says that based on the small samples he knows of, he believes this is true. "The children are being tested at and above grade level throughout the country."

The ace method is unprecedented in American education, in Mr. Peshkin's view; no other system he knows of puts students so completely on their own. "ace schools are in a class by themselves," he says.

"The system does not allow them to extrapolate, to synthesize, to go on to all sorts of other levels that other kids do," he says. "But as yet, there is no proof that their minds are frozen."

An important reason for the system's testing success may be the unusually high level of parent involvement in fundamentalist schools, says Mr. Carper of Mississippi State University. "The very fact that parents will put their kids in schools with those costs shows high parent concern," he says.

To Mr. Frankland, there is no doubt about the verdict on Christian education. "If we win [the trial], you are going to see quality education. I believe we're going to excel. I believe we're going to surpass.''

Students learn on their own at fundamentalist schools.

The merits of self-teaching curricula like those used in Maine's fundamentalist Christian schools (above) are likely to be debated in federal court this week.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories