Schools That Are Making a Difference

By Wilson, Ron | The Saturday Evening Post, July-August 1985 | Go to article overview
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Schools That Are Making a Difference


Wilson, Ron, The Saturday Evening Post


The issue of prayer in schools has no bearing on the children at the little white schoolhouse in Newton, Iowa. After a boisterous Pledge of Allegiance, the first-and second-graders burst into a hearty verse or two of "Jesus Loves Me." Following that, several volunteers offer prayers, and on this particular morning their teacher has a special request. She asks them to pray for her grandmother, who is going to surgery that day in a hospital in nearby Des Moines.

The school is Newton Christian and it is one of some 13,000 private, Protestant, evangelical schools now operating in America. No more than several hundred such schools existed 20 years ago, but no, as the trend toward private education increases, the Christian schools are the fastest growing in the country, and they're shaping the minds and lives of nearly one million young Americans.

Almost one-fourth of the nation's schools are now non-public--a number up considerably from 1950. The reason for the trend is no mystery. Parents perceive that private schools have more to offer. A study done in 1981 by James Coleman for the National Center for Education Statistics reinforces those beliefs. Its finding: "Private schools produce better cognitive outcomes than do public schools with comparable students." They also "provide better character and personality development and a more disciplined and orderly environment...are more successful in creating an interest in higher education and lead more of their students to attend college." Finally, the report showed, they "are more efficient, accomplishing their educational task at a lower cost."

Not all private schools are flourishing, however. Many years ago, Roman Catholics recognized the need for establishing their own schools. Centered heavily in urban areas, the last 15 or 20 years. But as American Catholics moved out of the city to the suburbs, parochial schools fell on hard times. Catholic-school enrollment has actually dropped from 5.5 million students in 1965 to 3 million in 1984.

Jewish schools have taken an opposite turn. Begun during the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, these schools have recently seen an upsurge in enrollment. Jewish families who once relied on weekend classes for religious education now see Jewish schools as a way to strengthen identity.

As parental dismay with the public-school system mounted in the 1960s and '70s, parents began looking for options for their children. But most private schools couldn't accommodate the influx or were too parochial for outsiders.

That brought local churches into the scene. They had facilities that stood empty all week. Why not use them for day schools? In some places, concerned parents met and formed their own nondemoninational schools, and in time, all these banded together.

The biggest and probably the most aggressive of the new groups is the Association of Christian Schools International, which serves nearly 400,000 students and is headquartered in California. Its director, a California educator named Paul Kienel, calls the current rise in Christian schools a "rebirth." The Puritans started the first schools in the New World, he notes, and they were private and Christian. Public schools came along later as a result of needed social reform.

"Bible-centered, Protestant Christian schools existed in America 217 years before public schools were established," Kienel says. "From the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620 to state-controlled public schools established by Horace Mann in 1837, America's schools were Christ centered and committed to a high level of literacy."

But some view the endorsement of Christian schools as an anti-American abandonment of the public schools. "The reestablishment of Protestant Christian schools in America is indeed threatening to some people in the public-school community," says Kienel, "but our first concern as parents is to do what we know is best for our children.

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