Faith-Based Schools: Offering Strong Academics and a Focus on Values
By Everett Catts
Parents searching for a school for their child have a variety ofeducation options to choose from, including public schools, charter schools, magnet schools and independent schools. Among those, one of the more popular options is faith-based schools. Of the more than 32,000 independent schools in the United States, 84% are religious, according to the website of the Noah Webster Educational Foundation.
Faith-based schools, or religious schools, are independent schools that are supported by or affiliated with a particular church or religious organization, and incorporate elements of that religious faith into their curriculum.
Examples of local faith-based schools include The Westminster Schools and Mount Paran Christian School (Christian); St. Pius X (Catholic); The Davis Academy (Reform Jewish); St. Martin’s and Holy Innocents’ (Episcopal); The Mount Vernon School (Presbyterian); The Friends School (Quaker); and Dar un Noor Academy (Islamic).
Parents who choose a faith-based school for their child may do so for a number of reasons.
One big advantage of faith-based schooling, of course, is that students receive a strong foundation in the teachings of their religion.Parents who prioritize a religious education for their child take comfort from knowing that he or she will learn and grow surrounded by friends, teachers and clergy who share their same faith and sense of morality.
At Mount Paran Christian School, a K-12 school located in Kennesaw, “we approach everything with a Christian worldview, in the classrooms and also through chapel, through Bible classes, through prayer in small groups,” says Tiffany Westbrook, the school’s director of marketing and communications. “It’s in everything we do.” Chris Cleveland, head of school at Wesleyan School, a K-12 college-preparatory Christian school in Peachtree Corners, says theschool encourages its teachers to “inject their faith into their daily lesson plans.”
The Davis Academy, which serves Reform Jewish students from pre-K through eighth grade on two Atlanta campuses, “provides an immersive Jewish environment where children are invited to explore the many facets of Jewish faith, culture and tradition,” says Rabbi Micah Lapidus, director of Jewish and Hebrew studies.
“Reform Judaism believes that all aspects of Jewish religion, culture and heritage have the potential to imbue our lives with spirituality and meaning,” he continues, “but that each person ultimately makes choices about which Jewish practices are most personally relevant to them at different stages of their life.”
One essential element of a faith-based curriculum is an emphasis on morals and values that help to establish character.
“At the heart of The Davis Academy are our Menschlichkeit values of community, respect, wisdom, spirit and righteousness,” says Lapidus. “In addition to a welcoming and inclusive spirit, Reform Judaism is deeply committed to the concept of Tikkun Olam: repairing the world. Good faith-based education draws on the richness of religion and spirituality so that children develop not only physically, emotionally and intellectually, but also ethically, morally, spiritually and religiously.”
At Mount Paran, students and their parents have the opportunity to serve their community during Serve Saturdays, which is a monthly volunteer program.
This focus on developing a strong sense of values and character is a component of faith-based education that even non-religious parents find attractive.
“There are people who come to our school who aren’t Christians but want those Christian values ingrained in their children,” Cleveland says. “The value of a faith-based education is really creating a culture in which the values of
the school reflect the values of the home.”
An Academic Edge
In addition to religious and moral instruction, many faith-based schools offer high-quality academic programs that give their students an advantage when applying to colleges. Mount Paran, for instance, offers 56 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, and applies the principles of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) beginning in preschool.
“We have a pretty rigorous curriculum,” says Brian Dooling, director of marketing and enrollment at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Office of Catholic Schools, which oversees 18 Catholic schools under the umbrella of the Archdiocese in the metro area, Athens and Rome.
According to Dooling, the Archdiocese’s schools benefit from a 100 percent graduation rate, and its students achieve better test scores than their peers in public and independent schools. “We have excellent results with regard to getting our kids into the colleges of their choice,” he says.
Choosing a School
Parents whose children aren’t part of a school’s particular religion may worry that a faith-based school won’t welcome their child. But while some local religious schools, like Catholic schools, remain steeped in a particular faith, others have evolved into nondenominational schools, serving multiple denominations within their faith.
While The Davis Academy is recognized as the nation’s largest Reform Jewish day school, it welcomes students of all Jewish backgrounds. “Reform Judaism embraces all different types of Jewish families, including families where one or more parents may identify with a religion other than Judaism,” Lapidus says. Mount Paran’s student body represents 120 different churches, says Westbrook. And some schools, like Wesleyan, welcome students from outside their faith.
So how can a parent narrow down their options to find the right fit for their child? Taking a tour or attending a school’s open house event can help both parents and their children get a feel for the school. Talking with faculty, staff and other students can help them get a sense of the school’s academic curriculum, its approach to teaching its faith and its overall atmosphere. Is there a strong roster of extracurricular activities? Do the teachers and administrators seem warm and welcoming? Do the students seem happy to be there?
Just as important, can you and your child envision him or her thriving at a particular school, not just academically and morally but as a fully balanced, multifaceted citizen of the world?
“Faith-based education can be one of the most profound and influential gifts a family can provide to their child,” says Lapidus.
“Only faith-based schools can help children develop in all areas of their lives, as opposed to just some areas. Well-rounded development is in the best interest of every child.”