ATLANTA — Young Ryan Bridges goes to school in a former strip mall on a busy highway in southwest Atlanta. His mother wouldn't send him anywhere else.
Ryan attends Believers' Bible Christian Academy, a school started by a black church whose sanctuary is in the same building. The cream-colored facade may be stark, but inside children say prayers, learn the three R's, and attend a chapel service in renovated classrooms and halls decorated in soft pastels.
From Atlanta to Los Angeles, a growing number of parents are shunning public schools for Christian institutions started by black churches and organizations.
Though many of these schools began cropping up in the 1980s, their numbers have grown dramatically in the past five years. Called by some "black flight academies" or "new Christian day schools," their popularity underscores the growing dissatisfaction many black parents have with public education and their desire to have their children learn traditional Christian values.
"I taught public school for five years, and I won't go back," says Ryan's mother, Kim Bridges. "They're so restrictive in what you can do. A Christian facility can give what Congress can't restrict, like prayer in school and more parental involvement."
There are between 200 and 300 Christian schools across the country, according to Jack Layman, a professor of Bible, history, and education at Columbia International University in Columbia, S.C.
Most don't enroll large numbers of students and are often known only by word of mouth. They are housed in buildings that range from modern facilities with many amenities to abandoned restaurants in seedy sections of cities.
"Many are very much theologically conservative and look like the predominantly white evangelical Christian day schools established by the thousands in the 1960s and '70s," says James Carper, an education professor at the University of South Carolina, who has collaborated on an essay about the trend with Mr. Layman.
What is drawing the students is many black parents' discontent with public education. "The irony or paradox is that blacks - the group that was so vociferous in the support of public education - are now among the most vocal critics," Mr. Carper says. "They've started seeing some of their numbers defect to the nonpublic sector primarily because of a perceived weakness in terms of academics and a spiritual climate they find objectionable or wanting."
The trend is not restricted to Christian schools. Black enrollment at private schools in general is up, and independent secular institutions created by blacks are increasing as well.
"We're nearly 400 strong in terms of the [independent black] schools we have identified, and a little more than half are religiously affiliated or sponsored by a church," says Joan Davis Ratteray, president of the Institute for Independent Education in Washington, which tracks the schools. "There is clearly an independent school movement coming from various perspectives in the community - Christian, pan-African, Muslim."
Many experts believe the movement will continue. "Every day I'm hearing about someone else who wants to start a school," says Gail Foster, founder of the Toussaint Institute Fund, which helps place African-American males in black independent schools in the New York area. "The numbers of parents who come to us are growing at a rate we can't manage."
Believers' Bible Christian Academy, for example, opened five years ago with 19 children in its nursery and preschool. Today, it has about 250 students from nursery to Grade 6. Most come from middle-income black families in the area.
Academy board members say interest in their school is strong, and they hope to add a grade a year in the future. "Our mission is to provide an environment of love and protection for children," says Sam West, a board member. "We just wanted to have an outlet for those who want to be brought up in a Christian environment."
Children who attend are instructed using A Beka books, a Christian curriculum that the majority of Christian schools use. Subjects like science, math, and geography are all taught with a Christian bent. Reading books, for example, include many Bible stories and Scriptures. Students also have Bible class and attend chapel once a week. They deviate from the curriculum on Fridays with a separate lesson that focuses on black history, which the school believes the Christian books don't cover comprehensively.
The school charges $2,650 a year for K-6, a fee that includes piano lessons. Activities such as dance, computer literacy, and foreign languages cost extra. Most teachers come from the church, which has a congregation of about 1,100. A large percentage of students, however, are not affiliated with the church.
Mr. West says the school has been successful in preparing students academically and spiritually. He refers to a boy who recently moved to South Carolina and now attends public school, where he is at the top of his class.
The school works for most students, West says, because it combines a family environment, individual attention, good academics, and prayer: "We're just here to influence, motivate, and inspire."