God plays a central role in the religious schools that some families choose as alternatives to public elementary and high schools.
Schools in Frederick County founded by Roman Catholics and several Protestant denominations, weave faith, character development and academics for about 1,650 students. They create a special environment that draws out the best from students, said parents and administrators.
Being a member of a school founder’s faith is not always a requirement. At New Life Christian School, which is associated with New Life Foursquare Church, families belong to about 80 churches, said Angela Phillips, development director. The school has approximately 250 students in kindergarten through high school. No particular church affiliation is necessary, Phillips said, but in order to be enrolled, at least one of a student’s parents must be a Bible-believing Christian.
At St. John Regional Catholic School, non-Catholics are welcome and enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, said Sheila Evers, director of development. All students have classes in religion, Bible study and time for prayers but do not have to attend Mass or receive holy sacraments on campus. The school has approximately 580 students. When it opened in the 1800s, it had a high school, but that segment split off to become today’s St. John’s Catholic Prep. The high school has about 260 students.
Families at all the schools said they looked for a combination of values-based education, small class sizes, personal attention and rigorous academics.
“It was the whole package,” at St. John Regional, said Dave Ziedelis, father of a sixth-grader.
Jody Gust said she noticed a positive difference in the circle of friends her children developed at New Life, compared to those they had in public school.
“We just find that it’s a very positive experience,” she said.
New Life’s chapel services give students a chance to pray with the school body about personal and broader concerns, Phillips said.
Faith-based values and a structured environment with few distractions are ideal at St. John Regional, Ziedelis said.
“It’s been a great educational experience,” he said.
“Here you get a little more sense of community,” Evers said. “Maybe it’s the praying together.”
Parents “like the fact that God is present,” she said.
“It kind of addresses every aspect of life,” said Mary Haley, a St. John alumna and mother of three current students.
Phillips, at New Life, said teachers use academics to “show the Lord in all creation, so we understand the creator and our relationship to him.”
Gust said New Life gave her children a foundation to succeed in college and beyond.
“We did ... it because the education is shaped around their faith in God,” she said.
At the Friends Meeting School, the Quaker approach softens how everyone interacts, said Wil Graham, head of school. The 90 students come from many different religious backgrounds.
Annette Breiling, school founder, said Friends’ students in pre-kindergarten through high school learn to apply Quaker values: “Live simply, be honest, speak truth and love.”
They look for the divine spark or inner light within each person, said Maria Dalton, Friends’ head of admissions. Students learn open-minded speaking and listening, Breiling said.
The religious schools have less of the big-crowd hustle and bustle that sometimes makes students in public schools anxious, parents and administrators said.
“If you’re a gentle soul, (public schools) can be overwhelming,” Dalton said.
Graham emotionally reflected on the success of a student who went from being miserable in public school and hating math, to finding a love of learning and writing computer programs after attending Friends.
Students who might not make a sports team in public schools get a chance to participate in all Friends’ sports. The emphasis is on inclusion, not aggressive competitiveness, Graham said.
This year, a group of students organized to help address hunger in the county, Breiling said. “They want to change the world,” she said.
That kind of initiative represents the school spirit, Graham said. They want to be the change that they see is needed in the world, he said.
“Our students are allowed to be tremendously creative,” he said, but added that they have not set aside rigor. “It’s not loosey, goosey.”
The price of private school may start around $6,000 and go up, with a variety of scholarships and financing options available.
The Ziedelis family found the tuition comparable to what they had paid for daycare, and a good investment, Ziedelis said. Haley and her husband appreciate scholarships from Friends of Catholic Education.
All the schools set high standards for behavior, but administrators acknowledged that their classrooms are not filled with angels. “We are not perfect,” said Graham. “It’s certainly not heaven here yet. … We have human beings.”
Once, a student’s relatively minor outburst caused a worried ripple throughout the whole Friends student body, he said. Everyone responded with concern for the student and reflected on how the student could have behaved instead, he said.
Outside school grounds, the world presents all students with trends and temptations that conflict with what they learn to model in school, Evers acknowledged.
“That’s part of living their faith,” she said.
Follow Patti S. Borda on Twitter: @FNP_Patti