During recess at Spires Integrated Primary School in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, students ricochet around the parking lot like a handful of scattered marbles. There are no swings or play equipment - the school grounds are still under construction.
For now, the children are content with a few hula-hoops and a hopscotch board painted into the asphalt. Converted mobile homes serve as classrooms.
Despite the austere facilities, eight-year-old Janelle McGurk says she prefers Spires to the modern school she left. "It's nice," she says. "Because it's great fun being with new people and being that the school is built in front of ye."
Spires is the latest addition to Northern Ireland's integrated education system, which instructs Catholics and Protestants together. The program was inaugurated in 1981 when 28 pupils enrolled at Lagan College, Belfast. In the past 18 years, 43 more schools have been added to educate more than 13,000 pupils (4 percent of Northern Ireland's student population).
Most students are still part of the traditional education system - Catholics attend church-maintained schools, while Protestants attend state-controlled schools. And the fact that the new minister of education, Martin McGuinness, is a member of Sinn Fein, the political party allied with the IRA, has prompted protests and walkouts at some schools.
But integrated education seems to be taking hold, and it holds out hope that with a peace process recently invigorated by a self-rule government that shares power between Protestants and Catholics, some enduring steps toward reconciliation are being taken.
Paul Trainor has been involved with integrated education since his son, Garrid, attended Lagan College. The existing segregated system was always unsatisfactory to Mr. Trainor. His search for an alternative drew him to the integrated-education movement, where he was pleased to see other parents shared his vision of a school religiously balanced among students, faculty, and administrators. In the face of government indifference, parents drew on their own passion to raise the capital and operating costs for Lagan College.
"It was what you wanted for your children," Trainor says. "The standard of education was excellent and the parents just all rallied around and helped."
As the principal of Spires, Trainor heads the latest satellite school in the system he helped establish. Like Lagan College, parents provided the impetus for Spires but - after years of successful lobbying - the government has changed its attitude from indifference to modest support. According to legislation, the Northern Ireland Department of Education has a duty to "encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education."
But integrated schools are not issued a blank check. Much of that support is filtered through the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) - a troubleshooter and advocate for new integrated schools. NICIE guides parents through the maze of regulations and what can often be years of administrative delays. If a proposed school is deemed viable, the government covers operating costs and repays construction loans.
Since integrated schools are maintained through the existing education budget, they effectively compete against traditional schools for resources. Funding follows the students, so pupils transferring to integrated schools take a share of the education budget with them.
"If we can start an integrated school, we will," says Frances Donnelly, NICIE development officer. "But the children who go to an integrated school come from other schools. When children move, [those standing schools] lose money.... That is the concern of the existing sector."
Other critics of integrated education are more dogmatic. The Catholic Church has long cherished its pedagogical role in Ireland. Through centuries of English occupation, it was one of the only sources of education for Catholics. When Northern Ireland was formed in 1921, the Church successfully defended the right to maintain its own school system.
NICIE insists that "the integrated school is essentially Christian in character," but Msgr. Denis Faul, former headmaster of St. Patrick's Boys' Academy and an outspoken critic of integrated education calls that the "lowest common denominator."
"Parents have a solemn duty and obligation, where they exist and where they are reasonably good, to educate their children in a Catholic School," says Monsignor Faul. "Knowledge is not enough. We are not just instructing; we are forming and transforming young people by the grace of God."
But it was partly to avoid the rigid Catholic training Faul endorses that Patricia Browne sends her daughter, Rebecca, to Spires. In Catholic schools "you are only ever taught one view," Ms. Browne says. "The whole ethos of [Spires] is respect and understanding for everybody."
Spires's religious education syllabus is agreed on by all the major churches. As part of that program, local clergy are invited to address the students and arrangements are made for Catholic pupils who are preparing to receive the sacraments.
The neutral religious training offered at Spires is just what Robert McNulty, a Catholic, and his Protestant wife, Doris, were looking for when their daughter was nearing school age. Like many "mixed marriages," the couple decided early on in favor of an integrated school.
"It was the only option for us." Mr. McNulty says. "Even if we had to drive [the children] 60 miles away."
NICIE expects the integrated education movement will continue to grow, both through new schools and a program of "transforming" traditional schools.
As for Spires, if construction stays on schedule, students will return from their Christmas break to a brand new building. Until then, Trainor says students and parents must remember, "It's not the building, but what goes on inside that counts."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society