Educating With Faith

Private schools with religious missions are thriving in Georgia. There are Catholic schools, Jewish schools, Muslim schools and a host of Christian schools. Some teach doctrine, some emphasize values. Some teach evolution, some teach creation theory

In researching private schools five years ago, Tina Young found several she believed would challenge her two children in the classroom. But the Duluth mother wanted more.

“I was looking for a spiritual school, one that taught family values,” she says. “One that taught the Bible.”

Young settled on Greater Atlanta Christian School, a 1,900-student academy for preschool through high school sprawled over 74 acres in Norcross. The school’s Christian mission is evident throughout the campus’ 17 buildings, where paintings with faith themes adorn the walls and artwork is imbedded with scripture.

For Young, the school’s Christian focus comes out in the conversations she has with Patrick, 14, and Perry, 10. Patrick can’t wait to go on a mission trip to China. When his mother asked him why, he said, “Because everyone needs a Bible,” Young recalls. “They have Bible every day at school,” she says. “It’s a part of their lives.”

Georgia parents who want their children exposed to religion at school have many options, especially in Metro Atlanta. Evangelical Christian schools such as Greater Atlanta Christian co-exist with Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, which teaches religion more broadly and displays a menorah alongside the Christmas tree during the holidays.

Metro Atlanta is home to 16 Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese of Atlanta, as well as five independent Catholic schools. The city offers Jewish day schools, Seventh Day Adventist schools and Muslim schools. Elsewhere in Georgia, choices are more limited, but most families can find a private school that teaches religious values.

Public schools may not sponsor prayer or religious services, though students observe a “moment of silence” and are allowed to form religious clubs and pray on their own. The Legislature approved Bible courses as electives last year, but few districts are offering them for fear of lawsuits if parents believe teachers are straying from the literary curriculum and instead proselytizing.

The freedom to teach religion and express faith openly leads many to independent schools. Parents also cite their belief that private schools are safer than public schools, are less tolerant of unruly students, offer more personalized instruction and challenge students academically.

The price tag for a private-school education is high. Greater Atlanta Christian School costs more than $12,000 a year for high school students, and the Weber School, a Jewish high school, costs almost $20,000 a year. Tuition for elementary schools is generally less, and parochial and smaller Christian schools are usually more affordable. Religious schools typically offer some financial aid.

The Georgia Independent School Association’s 150 members reflect the diversity of religious schools statewide. The roster includes four Jewish schools, about 30 Catholic parochial schools, Christian schools of all denominations and “a whole slew of nonsectarian schools,” says Executive Director Michael Drake. “We’re kind of all over the map.”

Drake notes there are differences among Christian schools, with some emphasizing values over Biblical teachings and others encouraging students to tell others about their beliefs. “There are some, if you’re not Christian, you’re not going to feel at home,” he says.

Some schools are housed in churches, have Christian-sounding names or have historical ties to religion, and yet do not have religious missions. At Trinity School in North Atlanta, for example, there are no chapel services and no Bible classes. Students in preschool through sixth grade learn about values, but their school is not religious, despite the cross that is part Trinity’s crest. The school got its name because it was founded at Trinity Presbyterian Church, says Anna Glaser, the school’s director of communications.

In Atlanta, parents who do not want their children exposed to religious teachings at school have many private-school options, such as Pace Academy, Paideia School, Woodward Academy and Atlanta International School. In rural Georgia, where the vast majority of families at most private schools are Christian, non-Christian families may have a harder time finding acceptance.

Inside religious schools, the mission is often woven in throughout the day, from lesson plans that make Biblical references to prayer before basketball games.

Some schools, such as Hopewell Christian Academy in Norcross, use the A Beka curriculum, which teaches academic subjects from a Christian perspective, often merging Bible stories and reading lessons. Other schools separate religious and academic instruction for the benefit of students of different faiths.

At Savannah Christian Preparatory School, teachers impart the school’s values in every class. But in academic subjects, “It’s not Johnny had 10 Bibles and he sold five, how many does he have left,” says headmaster Roger Yancey, whose nondenominational school has 1,600 students in pre-kindergarten through high school.

When kids have questions about faith issues specific to a denomination, such as baptism, teachers refer them to their parents. “We’re not the church,” Yancey says. “We want to partner with the home and the church.”

Yet the school would never be mistaken for secular. “In the lower school, our students study the names of God in the Bible, and they put banners up in the hall,” Yancey says. “We had a student go down with a serious injury, and the kids started praying for him right on the athletics field.”

Admissions, Tuition

At St. Mary’s Catholic School in Rome, “The Catholic faith is represented throughout our curriculum,” says Principal Alex Porto. “I tell our teachers, you teach by example … . It goes beyond the religion classes, it’s the way teachers interact with each other, with the students and with their parents.”

About 60 percent of the students and teachers at St. Mary’s are Catholic, Porto says. The school, overseen by the Archdiocese of Atlanta, has about 350 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grades, some of whom travel from as far as Summerville, Calhoun, Cartersville and even Alabama for a Catholic education.

Students in any Archdiocese of Atlanta school can expect to encounter religion all day long, says Diane Starkovich, superintendent of schools. “In our primary classes, students may add angels and saints, not just apples and oranges,” she says. “All students in all grades have religion taught daily. Many of our students attend Mass weekly. When they attend Mass, religion instruction occurs during the celebration of the service.”

Overall, 84 percent of students in Archdiocese of Atlanta schools are Catholic, she says. Students of other faiths are welcome as long as they “abide by our expectations, show a respect for our faith, and [are] reverent as we practice it throughout the day.”

Students who are not Catholic still must take religion courses and attend Mass. Catholic families are given priority in admissions, and at some schools non-Catholic families pay higher tuition.

“Since our Catholic parishes financially support the operations of our schools, we believe that lower tuition rates are appropriate for Catholic families who in turn financially support their parishes,” Starko-vich says.

At Marist School, an independent Roman Catholic high school in North Atlanta, about 75 percent of the school’s 1,080 students are Catholic. A former military school, Marist does not receive church funding. The admissions process gives preference to Catholic students. Admissions criteria are the same for Catholic and non-Catholic students. “However, all families must be participating members in their church or house of worship,” says Father Joel Konzen, Marist’s principal. Tuition at Marist is the same for Catholic and non-Catholic students.

Private schools can favor students who practice the religion endorsed at school. But they cannot discriminate based on race, ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic background. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits public and private schools, prohibits such bias or prejudice.

Varied Approaches To Evolution

Private and parochial schools vary in how they teach biology, depending on their religious roots. Conservative Christian schools, such as Greater Atlanta Christian, present evolution as a theory alongside intelligent design, a theory compatible with the creation story in Genesis, though it does not specify God as the creator.

“We believe the Christian school provides the ideal environment in which to learn about evolutionary theory, intelligent design and the many hybrid theories that fall between the two,” says Dr. David Fincher, the school’s president.

Some schools, such as Marist, teach evolution in science classes and creation in religion classes. At Marist, “A few parents have provided alternative ideas at in-home meetings in the past, but they have never interfered with the teaching of evolution in the classroom,” Konzen says.

Many private schools with Christ-ian ties emphasize evolution as a ma-jor theme in biology, because they want to prepare students for college. At the Westminster Schools, a large Christian school in Buckhead with 1,800 students in preschool through high school, science instructors teach evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life.

“Evolution is covered in our life science courses as the prevailing scientific explanation of species differentiation,” says Jere Wells, assistant head for academic affairs.

Wells adds that religion is a formal part of the academic curriculum only in Bible classes. In addition to Protestants, Westminster has Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu students.

Promoting Service

A common thread in schools with religious missions is a commitment to making the community a better place. Private schools tend to have organized community service programs, and schools with religious themes often frame their service programs as a spiritual calling.

At the Weber School in Sandy Springs, a Jewish community high school with about 200 students ranging from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform, social action is a way to bring students together, regardless of their individual Jewish practices.

Students pick a social-justice theme every month such as hunger or children. “They plaster the school with educational information,” says Rabbi Pamela Gottfried.

“I don’t know if the kids would say, ‘This is how I express my Judaism,’ but the school sets that up,” Gottfried says.

Weber, just a decade old, encourages students to have a pioneer spirit, and that extends from student-led service projects to how students practice their faith. Some students came to Gottfried recently dissatisfied with the school’s nine different prayer options. They said they wanted to write their own prayer book and create their own service. Gottfried encouraged them.

“That’s my job, to be the Judaic cheerleader,” she says. “It was completely kid-driven. I feel like we’re really embodying our mission. You can be a complainer or you can make something happen.”

All Weber students are Jewish, but Gottfried says the school would welcome non-Jewish students, though she isn’t sure whether those students would study Hebrew, because the subject has never come up. “We’re so new,” she says. “We’re still introducing ourselves to the Jewish community.”

At Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, which has Jewish and Muslim students as well as Protestants, students learn to face tragedy with prayer and action. In times of tsunamis and Katrinas, “Prayer becomes such a large part in the outreach of doing for others,” says parent Dana Aldridge.

“In the case of Katrina, our students have physically traveled each year to the sites of devastation,” she says. “From preschool on, our students are donating earnings from chores or fund raisers, and they are also simply learning that prayer matters.”

The Rev. Jeff Reichmann, one of four chaplains on the school’s Sandy Springs campus, says the school purposefully does not place a crucifix in every classroom because leaders want students to feel welcome, regardless of their religious beliefs. “It’s a lifestyle of people in harmony,” he says. “We are not looking to convert them to Episcopalian.”

At Holy Innocents’, which has 1,390 students in preschool through high school, the Bible is not interpreted literally. Younger students learn Bible stories like Noah and the ark, while high school students are free to discuss whether a flood literally covered the Earth, Reichmann says, adding that students study comparative religion as well as the Bible from a historical and literary perspective.

Faith-based Counseling

Holy Innocents’ strong faith mission is especially comforting in times of disaster. “If we have a crisis, we have the resources of spirituality to support our students,” Reichmann says, recalling that just after the planes struck the World Trade Center, “We had everyone in the chapel praying for people around the world.”

When students are struggling with academics or problems at home or at school, they have college counselors, emotional counselors and chaplains to turn to. “All are available when they experience difficulty and disappointment in their lives,” Reichmann says.

More than 30 miles south of Holy Innocents’, Landmark Christian School takes a more conservative view on teaching the Bible as the word of God. The nondenominational school requires one parent to be a professed “follower of Christ” in an evangelical church, says its Headmaster Matt Skinner.

The school has 760 students in pre-kindergarten through high school and maintains a main campus in Fairburn and a satellite campus in Peachtree City.

School leaders rely on their religious beliefs when counseling students, encouraging them to pray for strength during trying times, such as when a hardworking student does not get into a favored college. It’s a disappointment faced at all high schools, private and public, religious and nonreligious.

“It’s prayer, our dependence upon our faith that we turn to,” Skinner says. “We remind students, God is going to open doors and close others.”

He is quick to add: “But that doesn’t prevent the stress.”

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