Christian schools find rapid growth Education grounded in the Bible wins a faithful following

February 16, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Chapelgate Christian Academy began in the middle and never looked back.

Nor has it had any need to.

In just five years, the Howard County school that started with 75 students in grades six through nine has become a flourishing middle and high school of 340 students, newly accredited and ready to show its third graduating class the way to the world.

Chapelgate's growth -- though more rapid than many -- reflects what is happening in conservative Christian schools around the Baltimore area, the state and the nation.

New schools are starting and surviving. Established schools that had seen enrollment fall off are returning to peak levels -- with many turning away applicants to maintain the small classes that are part of their appeal. And the greatest growth area seems to be secondary schools such as Chapelgate.

Christian schools, like all private schools, are reaping the fruits of an increase in the number of school-age children and a widespread frustration with public schools.

They also appeal to parents who consider values a crucial part of a child's upbringing -- and who say Christianity is being shortchanged in the secular world.

"We don't operate in a culture that has absolutes," said Robin L. VanNess, Chapelgate's headmaster. "Christian schools provide that. A belief in God -- that's an absolute. This is a place for parents to place their children where there are absolutes."

The growth of Christian schools has been substantial. Nationwide, more than 611,000 students were enrolled in 4,530 schools in the 1993-1994 academic year, the last year for which the National Center for Education Statistics published data. That's up from 528,000 students in 4,060 schools in 1989-1990.

Maryland's numbers are difficult to gauge because such schools often eschew accreditation, state approval and even association membership to preserve their independence. The Rev. Roger Salomon, executive director of the Maryland Association of Christian Schools, estimates that there are about 200 in the state, nearly a third of all the nonpublic elementary and secondary schools.

And monitoring progress is tough because church schools are required only to register with the state and to report enrollment annually. They do not have to follow state education regulations, nor are they accountable to the state for curriculum or instruction.

Still, change is evident. With age and growth has come stability.

Some go mainstream

Many Christian schools have moved more into the mainstream of education, emphasizing academics over proselytizing and turning away from corporal punishment, programmed curricula and woefully inexperienced teachers. They are establishing academic credentials through sound instruction, accreditation, competitive test scores and college placements.

"There are many Christian schools that are bona fide educational institutions," VanNess said. Schools that don't deliver a sound education "do a disservice to the parents."

Although many private schools have Christian connections, those commonly classified as conservative Christian are distinguished by a curriculum founded on Bible teachings. They also share a philosophy that stresses parents as the first and major teachers, and teachers as role models in the image of Jesus Christ.

They spring from a number of denominations -- Baptist, Assembly of God, Church of God, some Presbyterian sects and Seventh-day Adventist, among them -- but do not include Catholic, Episcopal or most Lutheran and Methodist schools. Many Christian schools are tied to a single congregation; some are run by boards independent of a specific church or denomination.

School and church

Chapelgate, established by Chapelgate Presbyterian Church just off Interstate 70 in Marriottsville, illustrates how such schools are intertwined with a church and biblical teachings.

The school, whose large windows and shining floors make it bright and open, has 24 classrooms, a library and a cafeteria. A chapel -- with a wooden cross in the ceiling beams -- is used for student prayer services and congregation members' weddings and funerals.

And the gym, which can be converted to a sanctuary for Sunday services, doubles as the congregation's main worship center.

Christian perspective

"The uniqueness of a Christian school is that everything is taught from a Christian perspective," said VanNess. "Scripture is clear that God is in control. History is all part of God's plan. [In history classes] you would hear God's movement in different time periods."

At Chapelgate -- whose students are affiliated with 79 churches -- regular Bible classes are offered, "and the same ideas get incorporated into other classes as well," said senior Rachel Wheeler.

In English, for instance, teachers use literature to convey moral truths, asking students to judge characters and circumstances from a Christian perspective, said Chris Paulis, a member of the Chapelgate school board and a reading supervisor for the Howard County public schools.

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