School Choice & Charters

School of Faith

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 06, 2005 12 min read
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Jacy Langlois admits that she is nervous as she shares the story of her faith with students and teachers during a recent chapel service at Fredericksburg Christian High School. Conviction motivates the 16-year-old to continue: “I know some of you don’t know a lot about God and don’t care about what I’m going to say. But others of you do.”

Eleventh grader Jacy Langlois, left, walks down a hallway with a friend at Fredericksburg Christian High School in Virginia. Enrollment in evangelical private schools is thriving nationwide, as parents opt to expose their children to faith-based instruction designed to help them develop a lifelong Christian worldview.

For the sake of those who do care, she plunges into her prepared testimony.

“I used to feel alone and depressed and afraid,” says the brown-haired junior. “I used to think that things like guys and friends would take my loneliness away. I wasn’t right.”

For several years, Jacy says, she challenged God to appear physically or speak audibly to her so she could be sure God was real. But then she realized that God hadn’t appeared in such a way even to Joseph, the boy with a coat of many colors who became an important official in Egypt after being sold into slavery by his brothers, according to the Book of Genesis. Yet Joseph believed.

Jacy decided to believe in God as well. God took her loneliness away, she tells her peers. “He’s there and he’s waiting for you. Don’t give your heart to the world.”

As Jacy returns to her seat, her schoolmates cheer and clap in support.

Some of the adults at the school comment later that they, too, are moved by the girl’s testimony, which is in line with the school’s stated mission of helping young people develop a lifelong Christian worldview.

Jacy Langlois, right, wears a shirt that says "I am weak" on the front and "He is strong" on the back during a Sunday Church service while her father plays a guitar onstage.

And it is a mission that is appealing to more parents and their children.

Schools, like Fredericksburg Christian, that are run by evangelical Christians have been growing in number, total enrollment, and proportion of the private school market, according to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The most recent statistics available from the NCES show that the enrollment at “conservative Christian” schools—a category that covers those schools that have joined four national school associations espousing evangelical Christianity—increased from 12 percent of U.S. private school enrollment in the 1991-92 school year to 15.4 percent in 2001-02. The number of students in those schools grew by 41 percent, from 585,217 to 823,500, during that time. (“Evangelical Christian Schools See Growth,” Dec. 8, 2004.)

While the 3.4-percentage-point rise in such Christian schools’ share of the private school sector may seem relatively small, the increase represents the largest growth in the sector over that period.

For example, while children at Roman Catholic schools make up nearly half of the nation’s 5.3 million private school students, their share of private school students fell from 53 percent in the 1991-92 school year to 47.1 percent in 2001-02, according to the NCES data.

Private School Enrollment

The 1990s saw schools categorized as “Conservative Christian” capture a bigger share of enrollment in private schools.


Nonsectarian schools
Roman Catholic schools
Conservative Christian schools
*Numbers represent % of private school student enrollment

Note: Because this chart doesn’t include all types of private schools, percentages don’t add up to 100.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Evangelical Christians generally are distinguished by their emphasis on the necessity of making an adult commitment to Jesus Christ and of actively striving to convert others to faith in him.

The growth in evangelical Christian schools can be explained, in part, by the increasing number of evangelicals overall in the United States, says John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. He says the percentage of such Christians has grown from about 20 percent of the U.S. population in the 1960s to 25 percent. They include Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and members of other denominations. Some belong to nondenominational churches. The country’s overall population is growing, so the percentage increase represents millions of people, he says.

The other reason for the growth of such schools, Green says, is the increasing dissatisfaction with public schools among evangelicals.

Controversies about the teaching of evolution and sex education play into the discontent. “Public schools have to be very inclusive,” he says. “The kinds of values taught might be considered the lowest common denominator. That’s not to say they’re bad values, but most evangelicals would like a more encompassing set of values to be taught.”

But the leaders of groups representing evangelical Christian schools say the growth may have slowed in the past few years because of the increasing costs of running private schools.

Students leave the chapel period, which is held in the gymnasium. High school students do not wear uniforms, but follow a dress code.

Any such slowdown is hardly evident here at Fredericksburg Christian High and the four sister campuses that make up Fredericksburg Christian Schools, where enrollment continues to rise. School officials are making plans to add another elementary school and expand the high school.

Gary and Andra “Andy” Foss, an evangelical couple now in their mid-60s, founded Fredericksburg Christian Schools in 1979 with 44 elementary school students. Gary Foss started the schools because in a previous job as a principal in a nearby public school, he says, “I wasn’t able to talk with people about the real need in their lives—the spiritual need.”

By the 1990-91 school year, Fredericksburg Christian Schools, located in this small city 65 miles south of Washington, had expanded to 538 students in pre-K through 12th grades. Enrollment has more than doubled since then, to 1,300 students, from more than 160 churches in the area.

Christian schools are popular, surmises Mary Bonzo, a math teacher at Fredericksburg Christian High, because “[people] have an inborn hunger for God, and when that was all removed from the public schools, there was a vacuum.”

U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Doug Diehl, whose four children attend Fredericksburg Christian Schools, characterizes those schools as teaching “the truth,” which he believes public schools are hindered from doing because of court rulings reflecting a strict interpretation of separation of church and state.

Along with his parents, who are retired public school teachers, Diehl, who graduated from a public school, is struck by how events at Fredericksburg Christian Schools open with prayer as well as the Pledge of Allegiance.

Gary Foss, in necktie, and his wife, Andra, founded Fredericksburg Christian Schools, a group of nondenominational evangelical schools.

“I don’t think what they do there is anything new, but it’s just that they still do it,” he says.

Fredericksburg Christian Schools also have a good academic reputation among local parents and students.

Sixteen-year-old Katherine Jones, a high school junior, chose to stay at Fredericksburg Christian even though she was accepted in 8th grade to the prestigious Virginia Governor’s School Program for gifted students. She decided not to participate because she would have had to switch to a public school. “I like the small class size,” she says about Fredericksburg Christian High. “Teachers are more able to help you.”

Most classes at the 340-student high school have 15 or fewer students.

Katherine is taking calculus and Advanced Placement U.S. history and chemistry this year. Eighty percent of Fredericksburg Christian graduates continue on to four-year colleges; 18 percent go on to two-year colleges.

Overall, the school environment supports her faith, she says, though some of the high school students are not Christians and have a lot of sway over the school’s student culture, in her view. “There are parties,” she adds, and notes that some students drink alcohol, even though it’s against school rules.

The school’s Christian culture means that everything stops for a weekly chapel service, and that teachers open each class with student- or teacher-led prayers. In the lower grades particularly, teachers use textbooks published by Christian publishing companies. At every grade level, students take a daily Bible class.

The conservative Christian philosophy of the school has a great deal of influence in one particular area of study: science.

The Fosses and other school administrators interpret the Bible literally and require the teaching of creationism in their schools. One middle-school science teacher says he teaches students that God created the world in six 24-hour days.

Students often leave their lockers open and unguarded during the school day.

But Rick Yost, the superintendent for Fredericksburg Christian Schools, said official school policy encourages teachers to convey to students that not all Christians agree that a day as described in Genesis really means a 24-hour day.

The administration takes the stand that students should be taught the theory of evolution, but should be told that it contradicts biblical truths about creation.

Otherwise, much of what is taught in classes here is not strikingly different from what is taught at a public school.

On a recent day, for example, Kathy Meier led her 8th graders at Fredericksburg Christian Middle School in a lesson on the American Industrial Revolution. Aside from opening the class with a prayer, she mentioned God only once, when she defined natural resources as “those things God has put on the earth for man to use.”

Jacy Langlois’ mother, Penelope Langlois, feels she helped save her daughter’s life by having her transfer from nearby Spotsylvania High School to Fredericksburg Christian High.

She was happy with Jacy’s experience at Spotsylvania Middle School. Her daughter got good grades, she says, and some of her teachers had a strong Christian faith. “But when she got to the high school, she was starting to withdraw,” Penelope Langlois says. “Her smile and happiness—she was losing that.”

Jacob Diehl, in red jacket, prays with classmates at the start of his high school class. Students and teachers lead prayers at the beginning of each class at the Fredericksburg Christian Schools.

She and her husband, Thomas “Tim” Langlois, say that in the public high school, their daughter fell in with a group of teenagers who were a bad influence on her.

One of Jacy’s friends was a “cutter.” The friend inflicted wounds on herself and showed the marks to others, according to Jacy. Another friend, she says, started smoking marijuana.

Jacy says: “I told my friends I wouldn’t do drugs or have sex before marriage. They called me ‘Bible hugger.’ ”

Jacy recalls she had a lot of anger toward her parents, though to this day she can’t say why. She told them she hated them. She painted her fingernails black. She experimented with self-mutilation. She broke open the skin on her wrists by rubbing them with a pencil eraser.

When she finally told her parents that she had done that, they were really sad, Jacy says. She recalls: “They said, ‘This is the last straw.’ ”

Her dad says, “It was a dark time.”

During the weekly chapel period, students watch a skit that uses dumbells to illustrate that sin is a burden too heavy to carry alone.

He is a full-time pastor who started a nondenominational church, Christian Chapel of Spotsylvania, nearly two years ago. His flock rents the auditorium of Spotsylvania Middle School for its services. On a recent Sunday, Langlois preached a sermon laden with biblical quotations that portrayed God as redemptive.

In his teens, Tim Langlois used illegal drugs. He converted to Christianity when he was 21. Penelope Langlois, a federal worker, was raised Roman Catholic but became an evangelical Christian when she responded to an altar call at a Christian revival meeting in the 1970s.

Tim Langlois doesn’t blame public schools for all of Jacy’s troubles in 9th grade, but he believes the culture of public schools is one of “moral relativism,” meaning that whatever anyone feels like doing is considered OK, he says.

Jacy’s parents forced her to transfer to Fredericksburg Christian High School in 2003. Jacy says a series of chapel services during which she felt the speaker was addressing her personal issues helped her accept her new school. Her two closest school friends are Christians. Her bubbly personality has returned, her parents say. The darkest she paints her fingernails now is bright red.

The Fredericksburg Christian Schools are not anything-goes kinds of places.

In the middle school, rules are posted in every classroom telling students, for example, they should not speak until they are recognized by a teacher. The schools’ dress code says girls can’t bare their midriffs, and boys must tuck in their shirts and wear belts. Students can’t swear.

“There are naughty children here, but it’s dealt with,” says Joan Geisler, who has four children at Fredericksburg Christian Schools. “In the public schools, [educators’] hands are tied on what they teach and on the discipline.”

The Fosses say they prefer to admit children to the schools who are from Christian families. Occasionally, a Buddhist or a Muslim family has enrolled a child. School officials sometimes turn away a youth who is rebellious or dead set against going to a Christian school, even though his or her parents think it’s a good idea.

In addition, Gary Foss says, because he and other school administrators believe the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, they wouldn’t enroll a child of a gay couple. So far, he says, no gay couples have sought to enroll a child.

Parents sign an agreement with the school saying they won’t share a home with “live-in sexual partners to whom we are not married” and will not engage in homosexual relationships. The agreement also says they’ll support the school’s rules for their children; students can’t drink alcohol or have premarital sex.

Steve Dornbusch, the director of youth ministries at Grace Church of Fredericksburg, talks to students after chapel.

Tuition ranges from $3,633 to $6,030 a year, depending on the grade. Most students attending Fredericksburg Christian Schools are white; 15 percent are from racial or ethnic minority groups. Catholic students provide some religious diversity.

Fifteen-year-old Jessie Paradis, a 10th grader, is the third person in her family to attend Fredericksburg Christian High School. Sitting with friends at lunch recently, she compares her Catholic faith with that of evangelical Christians by saying, “They believe different things, but most of the stuff is the same.”

Her mother, Suzie Paradis, says she and her husband have sent their children to Fredericksburg Christian because there’s no local Catholic high school. She appreciates how the teachers at Fredericksburg Christian pray with their students and live out their faith.

On one occasion, however, she marched into the school to complain about how one of her children’s textbooks depicted the Catholic faith when describing the Protestant Reformation. “They said we worship the saints. They talked about it being a mistake,” she says. “We don’t worship saints. We pray to them.”

She added that the teacher agreed with her that the textbook’s explanation was inaccurate.

When speaking about Fredericksburg Christian Schools, parents focus on the schools’ solid academics, the teachers’ ability to encourage talk about God and to pray with students, and the teaching of academic content according to a conservative Christian point of view.

“I want my kids to be taught what I believe,” says Geisler, the mother of four. “The world didn’t explode and come into being. God made it. In biology, God made you.”

Penelope Langlois says Fredericksburg Christian High School reinforces what she and her husband teach Jacy.

“As much as we teach her at home,” she says, “she wasn’t ready to be thrown into the secular-humanistic world of adults and have to defend herself.”


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