Why more children are going to fundamentalist schools

Music class begins with prayer at the Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, Conn.: "We make this music for your benefit, Lord," intones the teacher. On one cinder-block wall, words cut from construction paper support that prayer: "God made music." Down the hall, first-grader Kelly Stevens tells a visitor why public schools are not for her. "They don't teach you about God," she says.

At the South Shore Christian School in Brockton, Mass., the day begins with the 162 students dressed in red, white, and blue uniforms pledging allegiance to the American Flag. They also pay tribute to the Christian flag, as well as the Bible. "Our most important task is not academics," says school supervisor Sidney Akerblom, "But the molding of Christian character."

Religion is ringing throughout more and more classrooms across the country.

Concerned about everything from drugs to discipline, increasing numbers of parents are pulling their children out of public schools -- and even out of some traditional private schools -- and enrolling them in fundamentalist Christian schools.

Some observers see the trend as a result of Moral Majority's recent influence or, in areas of renewed busing troubles, a resurgence of "white flight."

Not so, say leaders within the fundamentalist movement. The real cuprit is the lack of "values education" -- specifically Judeo-Christian values. The increased violence, drug use, and immorality within public schools are simply the most obvious effects of the decline in values instruction, they say.

As a result, they charge, public education has become so secular as to be harmful.

Philip Frost, dean of education at CBN University, an affliate of the Christian Broadcasting Network in virginia, explains: "We don't believe that children leave their spiritual side at the schoolhouse door."

The "exodus of God- and christ-loving people" from public to private schools represents a search for an educational system with a "core of values," he says.

Thus, the rush by churches and concerned parents to establish private Christian schools in their communities. Indeed, Protestant day schools are said to be springing up at the rate of three a day -- some 800 to 1,000 a year, although some consist of only four or five pupils being taught in church basements.

Exact figures are difficult to determine, as the schools often choose not to register with state boards of education. But estimates based upon information supplied by the three main organizations within the movement cite anywhere from 6,500 to 7,500 schools with an estimated total enrollment of more than 700,000 students. Tuitions vary from several hundred to several thousand dollars. And many of the schools have long waiting lists.

South Shore Christian School in Brockton is typical of those schools directly sponsored by local churches. Some 162 students from kindergarten to 12th grade attend school in the basement of the North Baptist Church. There are no classes as such; students study individually from a programmed series of workbooks. Pupils remain in separate study carrels for much of the day, working at their own pace and according to independently set goals. When a question arises, a student will place a small American flag atop his desk, signaling a supervisor for help. Grading of workbooks is the child's responsibility. The students weekly goal charts glitter with gold and silver stars earned for work satisfactorily completed.

Mr. akerblom, who sports a tie emblazoned with American flags, supervises 34 such schools in the southern New england area. He describes the curriculm as one that encourages "the kids to become their own motivators. A former teacher in a public school, Akerblom credits pupils in his schools with surpassing their public school counterparts in nearly every grade. California Achievement Tests are periodically given to measure the students progress.

South Shore Christian School is sponsored by the church, but its curriculum comes from Accerlated Christian Education (ACE) of Lewisville, Texas -- a for-profit organization that publishes and distributes its unusual workbook curriculum. ACE calls its approach a "total church education package." It is meant to "program the mind of the child in Biblical education."

Supporters say ACE would like a school in every fundamentalist church.The organization currently boasts some 4,000 member schools with estimated enrollments totaling 300,000 children.

But not all fundamentalist schools follow the ACE approach of in-church schooling. The two other chief organizers of fundamentalist schools are the Illinois-based American Association of Christian Schools (AACS) and the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) of La Habra, Calif. The two are separate service organizations that supply schools with teacher certification, school accreditation, administrative and legal assistance. They do not provide ready-made curriculums.

The Christian Heritage School, a modern brick and glass building in Trumbull, an affluent connecticut suburb, is a typical ACSI member. Open since 1977, the school enrolls 260 pupils in grades K through 9. An additional grade is promised for each for the next three years until the high school is complete. Run by an independent board of directors, the school follows a traditional curriculum. Some textbooks are those found in regular public schools, but many, such as reading and social studies texts, are purchased from Christian publishers other than ACE.

As in ACE programs, the day begins and ends with prayer, and weekly chapel attendance is compulsory. Students are required to wear uniforms and discipline is a must. One sixth grader was paddled recently for not completing his homework.

But the students readily admit to liking such an atmosphere. "It gives you a positive attitude," says one sixth grader. "You learn not to get in fights," he added.

Slogans like "Do the very best you can and leave the rest to God" are written in purple crayon and adorn the wall above sixth-grade teacher Linda Jonassen's desk. "Working here gives me the opportunity to serve the God I love and the country I love," she says. It is an attitude that is typical among fundamentalist teachers.

Parents say they are impressed with the devotion to scripture and discipline. Carol Laycock is one such mother. Not only are her two children enrolled in the South Shore Christian School, but she works at the school five times a week herself."The peer pressure on kids regarding drugs, alcohol, and sex is so great ," she says, "that I want my kids to have a Christian education to enable them to make the right decisions."

But other observers are not so persuaded.

John Esty, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, doesn't hesitate to express his reservations about such educational systems. While he remains sympathetic to the "moral context of education," he fears that the fundamentalists' approach is too "simplistic."

The need for values is something Mr. Esty sees as important to all educators, but he adds that it does not fit his "definition of education."

Edd Doerr of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State disagrees most with ACE's approach. Religious considerations aside, he questions the viability of a school that consists of "six kids in the basement of a church." He also voices concern over the ability to "teach someone who stays in a carrel all day long," adding, "that the social skills of these kids are sorely neglected."

Some traditional private school educators also express reservations. Steven Kurtz, the headmaster of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., says that the sudden rise of fundamentalist schools "leads one to question the quality of education being offered." He is especially wary of the "ostrich-like approach" to evolution.

Public school educators, including state superintendents, are more cautious in their criticisms. A National Education Association spokesman recently affirmed the organization's support of the separation of church and state, but added that "any widespread effort to take public school students out the mainstream" would be opposed.

Few national regulations or standards, other than those affecting tax-exempt status, apply to these schools. State regulation varies widely.Kentucky's Supreme Court ruled in 1979 against state control over private schools by upholding two Christian academies' objections to teacher certification and accreditation requirements. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 1981 in favor of state involvement by upholding the Nebraska's compulsory attendance laws over objections by parents of children who were enrolled in a church-related school that refused accreditation.

Many states insist only upon health and safety standards. But others, such as Michigan, insist that private-school teachers be certified. Russ Vlaandern, director of the Information Clearing House of the Education Commission of the States, says the issue is "confusing right now and will likely wind up in the Supreme Court." The Christian Law Association of Cleveland admits to cases of state involvement with fundamentalist schools pending in some 30 states.

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