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Published in Print: October 9, 1996, as Today, Private Schools Span Diverse Range

Today, Private Schools Span Diverse Range

Christian Education is Fast-Growing Segment

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Outsiders might think parents in Marriottsville, Md., would be happy enough with their options in public education. After all, test scores in the Howard County schools ranked the highest last year among all of Maryland's 24 districts.

But the suburban district's strong record of student achievement isn't enough for Kathy Durant and a cluster of families from the Chapelgate Presbyterian Church, a member of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. With Ms. Durant spearheading the effort, the group opened its own school, the Chapelgate Christian Academy, in fall 1991 with about 75 students in grades 6-9.

Since then, Chapelgate has added grades 10 through 12. The school now enrolls about 340 students, only about half of whom are members of the church's congregation.

"The motive varies from family to family," said Ms. Durant, now a teacher at the school. "There are many parents who are very concerned that their children get a Christian worldview."

In fact, parents who send their children to private school are finding that nonpublic education reflects an increasing diversity of religious and other worldviews.

In 1964, when a record 6.3 million students were in the nation's private schools, nine out of every 10 nonpublic school students attended an institution associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Now, only about half of the 5.77 million students in nonpublic schools attend Catholic institutions.

Conservative Christian schools such as Chapelgate represent by far the fastest-growing segment of nonpublic schools. But several other types of religious schools--including Jewish, Lutheran, Islamic, and Episcopal--have all seen enrollment growth that far outpaces the overall increase in the number of school-age children in the United States over the past 25 years.

And though Catholic schools have shown a long-term decline in enrollment, they began a turnaround in the early 1990s.

A growing number of secular-minded parents are also shopping around for schools. For officials at independent schools, that has meant serving many more first-generation users of private education, as well as taking on more students from the middle class.

"I think there are many more options for parents now," said Charles J. O'Malley, the executive director of the National Council for Private School Accreditation in Washington. "Before, there were just Catholic schools, independent schools, and maybe Lutheran schools along with the public schools."

Experts in private school enrollment attribute the trend to a general resurgence of religion in the United States and to a greater willingness among parents to assert themselves when it comes to their children's education.

Many parents who attended public schools themselves are turning to private institutions because they fear the nation's public schools have lost their sense of values, discipline, and academic rigor.

"Private schools are a good litmus test for what society thinks," said Bruce S. Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University in New York City who studies private school enrollment.

Overall, about 11 percent of the nation's precollegiate students attend nonpublic schools, compared with 15 percent in 1964. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that private school enrollment will reach 6.1 million in 2006, the same year the number of school-age children in the United States is expected to hit a high-water mark of 54.6 million.

Tracking Diversification

But the story of private education isn't one well told merely by the number of youngsters in nonpublic schools.

While the portion of students in private schools has hovered around 12 percent for more than a decade, the types of schools available have become far more varied.

In its most recent breakdown, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the 4.8 million students in private schools in the 1993-94 school year included about 2.5 million in Catholic schools, 618,000 in nonsectarian schools, 611,000 in what could be called conservative Christian schools, about 171,000 in Jewish schools, 45,000 in Montessori schools, and 7,500 in Islamic schools.

Because such diversification is a relatively new phenomenon, scant data are available on how fast the rise in new schools has been. For years, many national surveys only reported such broad categories as "nonsectarian," "Catholic," and "other religious."

Mr. Cooper tracks private school enrollment through state records and head counts from school associations. His studies show that between 1965 and 1989, enrollment in non-Catholic religious schools grew 213 percent.

"What I see happening in nonpublic schools is the same as I see in business in America in general, and that is that businesses are splitting off and going into little niches," said Lyndon G. Furst, the editor of the Private School Monitor, an academic journal focusing on issues affecting nonpublic education. Mr. Furst also is an education professor at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich.

Catholics' Comeback

In recent years, bulldozers and backhoes have feverishly turned the farmland around Lakeville, Minn., into a sprawling suburb as waves of families transplant there from nearby St. Paul and Minneapolis.

This year, the construction included work on an expansion to the school facility of All Saints Catholic Church. With 220 students in its K-6 program, the school is at capacity, but there are more than 60 children on a waiting list, said the Rev. Eugene Tiffany, the church's pastor.

"We've seen many parents who are making their choice of where to live based on the availability of Catholic schools," he said.

Lakeville is just one of many communities where the comeback of Catholic education is playing out.

According to a recent study by Meitler Consultants Inc., dioceses and archdioceses across the country opened about 140 new schools between 1985 and 1995. Many of these schools have opened in suburban areas like Lakeville.

After three decades of declining school enrollment, Catholic schools are beginning to follow the parishioners whose moves from the cities in the 1960s and 1970s nearly cut in half Catholic school enrollment.

That nosedive, deepened by rising operating and tuition costs, ended in the 1992-93 school year. Last year's Catholic school enrollment of 2.6 million represented the fourth consecutive annual increase.

A few inner city Catholic schools continue to consolidate, merge, or close each year, but the slack is now being taken up by those that expand facilities, add prekindergarten programs, and build schools in the suburbs.

A Protestant Revival

In another sector of church-affiliated education, the 110 students at the Loganville First Baptist Church's preschool program in Georgia learn a new Bible verse each month.

It's the kind of instruction Christy Monda felt was missing when she worked as a public school teacher, and the biblical approach has attracted enough parents that the program's enrollment has more than doubled in just four years.

The success has so encouraged Ms. Monda, the main force behind starting the preschool, that she's now planning a new elementary school to begin serving about 150 students next fall.

"It's not so much an anti-public-school thing," she said. "It's just that a Christian education can offer so much more."

Like the Chapelgate school in Maryland, the soon-to-open Loganville Christian Academy is part of the biggest trend in nonpublic education: the increase in conservative Christian schools. In the past decade and a half, thousands of churchgoers across the country--many of whom grew up in an era when public schools started their day with prayers--are starting their own schools.

Many of the first Christian schools were born in response to public school desegregation in the 1950s.

But scholars of religion and education believe they got an even bigger boost following U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s that ended prayer in public classrooms and made many teachers skittish about even discussing religion in schools.

In the eyes of many Christian families, public schools seemed to be adopting not just a neutral stance on religion, but an anti-theist philosophy.

"Education, by its very nature, is a value-laden enterprise," said James Carper, a professor of American education history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "It will, either implicitly or explicitly, express some worldview."

But for parents like Ms. Monda, the change was a mistake.

"We went through a period when we were not allowed to teach values," she said. "And now we're seeing what kind of mistake that was because kids are crying out for it."

National counts of Christian school enrollment are difficult because many resist any form of government scrutiny or even involvement with national Christian organizations.

The Association of Christian Schools International, the world's largest Christian school organization, reports a membership of 3,447 schools in the United States, representing 544,562 students.

Mr. Cooper estimates that the number of students in evangelical Christian schools grew 793 percent from 1965 to 1989, and by all accounts the extremely rapid growth continues in every region of the country.

"The evangelical Protestant community has really gotten serious about training their children in a place where they'll get the values that are in line with their values," said Glen Schultz of the ASCI's Southern regional office.

But Mr. Cooper points out that conservative Christians aren't the only group of religious Americans expanding and opening schools in record numbers. From 1965 to 1989--a time when the total number of public school students fell by about 1 million--Episcopal school enrollment grew 232 percent, Lutheran enrollment grew 44 percent, and Jewish schools grew about 57 percent, his research shows.

Parents Take Charge

The St. Thomas School in Medina, Wash., does little to flaunt its religious roots.

The school's 190 students attend chapel each morning, but religious instruction stops there. Evolution is taught in science class, and the school observes Jewish holidays. St. Thomas broke off financially and administratively from the Episcopal Church nearly 30 years ago.

Nonetheless, parents are drawn there by a fervently held belief--that academic excellence is the way to success.

"They are not so much committed to private schools as they are committed to education for their child," said Joan Beauregard, the head of schools at St. Thomas. "Many of them are the products of public schools themselves.

"The old myth that if you're rich, you go to an independent school is not true," Ms. Beauregard said of her school, where annual tuition now runs about $7,350. "Most of our parents do not have a second home. We have people that rent their homes."

Many schools have started offering bigger financial-aid packages to those who need assistance to afford tuition. A recent report by the National Association of Independent Schools showed that while the number of aid recipients rose 85 percent from 1981 to 1991, the value of the awards increased 160 percent in constant dollars over the same period.

Growing Independents

The number of students enrolled in schools represented by the Washington-based NAIS has jumped from about 349,000 in the 1985-86 school year to about 428,125 in 1995-96.

While these figures include schools that may have been founded long before joining the NAIS, the typical independent school now is bigger than it used to be, with median enrollment increasing from 320 to 350 students over the past decade.

During that time, the minority student representation in NAIS schools increased from about 11 percent to 17 percent, with African-Americans accounting for about 5.5 percent of the students last year.

Today's parents, like savvy customers, are demanding hard data on what the schools can offer, NAIS officials say. Even though St. Thomas is only an elementary school, Ms. Beauregard regularly has prospective parents ask her what colleges her students go to.

"You're dealing with the products of the '60s," she said. "They're questioners, and they ask good questions. ... They don't take anything presented to them at face value."

Experts in home schooling suspect that this assertiveness has also contributed to a significant growth in the popularity of home schooling in recent years.

Since 1983, the number of home schoolers in the United States has leaped from 92,000 to more than 900,000, estimates Brian D. Ray, the president of the National Home Education Research Institute. Based in Salem, Ore., the institute conducts its own studies and acts as a clearinghouse for academic work on home schooling.

'Something Wrong'

The rapid growth also has coincided with what Mr. Ray sees as a change in the makeup of parents who opt to home school.

"People who were home schoolers used to be more zealous about things, be it ideology or pedagogy," he said. "What's happened in the past five years is that your average mom and dad with no zealous pedagogy or rationale is saying, 'For the past 100 years there have been public schools, but we know deep in our guts there's something wrong with the public schools.'" ("Staying Home From School," June 12, 1996.)

Private school experts disagree on whether this spirit of entrepreneurialism and assertiveness among parents foreshadows an imminent wave of parents abandoning the nation's public schools.

Mr. Furst of the Private School Monitor believes a renewed emphasis on raising standards in public schools may put private schools on the defensive in a few years.

"The biggest threat right now is the resurgence of the public schools in both academics and safe environments," he said. "Public school administrators have their eyes on that, and they're going to deliver. And they have the price advantage."

"Knocking at the Doors" was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Vol. 16, Issue 06, Pages 1,12-15

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