Christian academy undergoes growth spurt Vision to start it simmered 40 years SOUTHEAST--Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber

September 30, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Donald W. Fisher can still hear his public school teacher, Mrs. Haslup, reading the "love chapter" from the New Testament.

It was nearly a quarter century later, in 1951 and before public school prayer was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, that he received his charge to build a Christian school.

"The pastor then said, 'Don, we've got to go to work on a school,' " he recalled hearing in his church, Chapel Gate Presbyterian in West Baltimore

"The vision was there, but the Lord's timing wasn't right," Mr. Fisher says.

The timing wasn't right, in fact, until 1985, when a generous Howard County landowner offered to sell 63 acres to the church at the bargain price of $5,000 an acre.

A developer later said he could offer eight times as much for the land, but the church turned him down, "because that property belongs to the Lord, not to us, and we can't sell it," Mr. Fisher says.

Since Chapel Gate Christian Academy opened in Marriottsville in 1991, it has seemed to be trying to make up for its slow birth.

Starting with an enrollment of 75 students, the school doubled its enrollment last year, hired a headmaster and is now beginning its third year with 188 students.

The unexpected growth has speeded plans for a 44,000-square-foot addition that will expand the school 80 percent this fall. Beginning next year, the school will have enough space for a full set of sixth- through 12th-grade classes.

On the way to show the site of the new addition, Headmaster Rob Van Ness points out a computer lab, where rows of desktops have spilled into the hallway.

The growth, says parent Jim Stuart of Columbia's Owen Brown village, can be attributed to many devout Christians' belief that even in the best public schools, such as Howard's, there is something missing.

Mr. Stuart had his son, Jimmy, now 13, take a battery of tests so he could skip fifth grade to enroll in Chapel Gate's inaugural sixth-grade class.

Although pleased at the time with his son's academic instruction at Dasher Green Elementary School, "we felt that he needed an added influence in his life to what he might receive at home and in church," Mr. Stuart says.

Nancy Barlow, a Clarksville resident who runs a women's prayer group in the church, felt even more strongly that her children, Josh, 14, and Becky, 11, needed to get out of public schools.

"I believe that the public school system is getting further and further from the truth," she says. "There's a real dependence on God, for instruction and wisdom here. . . . The Bible is not a separate subject. Biblical truth is taught in every academic discipline."

For $3,000 to $3,600, parents from Manchester in Carroll County to Lanham in Prince George's County send their children to a school where faculty believe and teach "that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant and only infallible authoritative Word of God," according to the "Statement of Faith" that must be signed by parents.

About a third of the nondenominational school's students are members of the 97-year-old Chapel Gate Presbyterian Church, which shares the red-brick school building and is part of the Presbyterian Church in America.

The remainder come from families attending a range of churches from Roman Catholic to Episcopal to Baptist.

Bill Greenwalt, a 15-year-old Roman Catholic from Randallstown, said the atmosphere is much friendlier than the local middle school he transferred from after eighth grade.

"It was like, a lot of kids were rude up there. If you looked at them the wrong way they'd want to pick a fight with you," he says. "No one was really Christian up there; it was really hard to get along."

Now starting his second year at Chapel Gate, Bill says he has found his new classmates "more willing to get along with you. Say you have a problem in school, you can talk to them."

Mrs. Barlow says students can also talk to their teachers about things that normally have nothing to do with school.

Unaware that Mrs. Barlow was "struggling with some of the music our son was listening to," which contained "a real negative message," his math teachers got the youth interested in Christian-oriented music.

Mrs. Barlow didn't discover the change until her son came home with a box of cassette tapes provided by the teacher.

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