Amid pandemic unrest and struggles for programs, Christian schools boom

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MONETA, Virginia – On a sunny Thursday morning in September, a few dozen high school students gathered for a weekly church service at what was once the Bottom’s Up Bar & Grill and is now the Smith Mountain Chapel and Cafeteria Lake Christian Academy.

Five years ago, the Southwest Virginia school had just 88 students between Kindergarten and Grade 12. His finances were in trouble, the quality was inconsistent by his own admission, and classes were meeting at a local Baptist church.

Today, there are 420, others being turned away for lack of space. It has grown to occupy a former 21,000 square foot mini-mall, which it moved into in 2020, as well as two other buildings further away.

Smith Mountain Lake is benefiting from a boom in conservative Christian education, driven nationwide by a combination of pandemic frustrations and growing parental anxiety about how schools are handling education on issues such as race and the rights of transgender students.

“This is a unique time every 100 years for the growth of Christian education,” said E. Ray Moore, founder of the Conservative Christian Education Initiative.

In the 2019-2020 school year, 3.5 million of America’s 54 million schoolchildren attended religious schools, including nearly 600,000 in “conservative Christian” schools, according to the latest tally from the Department of Education. .

These numbers are increasing now.

The middle member school of the Association of Christian Schools International, one of the largest networks of evangelical schools in the country, increased its K-12 enrollment by 12% between 2019-2020 and 2020-21 . The Association of Classical Christian Schools, another conservative network, has expanded to educate about 59,200 students this year, up from about 50,500 in the 2018-19 school year. (Catholic schools, on the other hand, are continue a long downtrend.)

When the pandemic swept across the country in the spring of 2020, many parents turned to home schooling.

Others wanted or needed to have their children in physical classes. In many parts of the country, private schools remained open even as public schools moved largely online. Because many parents worked from home, they got a historically intimate glimpse into their children’s online classes, which has led to what some advocates of evangelical schools call “the Zoom Factor.”

“It’s not necessarily a thing,” said Melanie Cassady, director of academy relations at Christian Heritage Academy in Rocky Mount, Va., About 25 miles southwest of Smith Mountain Lake Academy. “It is this global awareness that the pandemic has really brought to light for families about what is going on inside schools, inside the classroom and what teachers are teaching. They have come to the point where they have to make a decision: do I agree? “

Christian Heritage Academy had 185 students at the end of the last school year and 323 this fall. Plans for a $ 10 million expansion project are now hanging in the entrance to the school.

“It was absolutely shocking,” said Jeff Keaton, founder and president of RenewaNation, a conservative evangelical organization based in Virginia whose work includes starting and consulting evangelical schools. One of his brothers, Troy Keaton, is pastor and chairman of the Smith Mountain Lake board of directors.

In Virginia, much of the recent controversy has focused on new standards for teaching history, including strengthening black history offerings. Starting next summer, teachers in the state’s public schools will also be assessed on their “cultural competence,” which includes factors such as the use of educational materials that “represent and validate diversity.” School districts also looked into new state guidelines this fall on transgender students’ access to washrooms and locker rooms of their choice, and the right to use their preferred names and pronouns.

“Of course we don’t teach CRT,” said Jon Atchue, a member of the Franklin County, Va., School board, adding that teaching about historical injustices is not the same as Marxism or theory. criticism of the breed, which is an academic framework. to analyze historical patterns of racism and their persistence. “It’s a windmill that people fight with.” Mr. Atchue stressed that he was only speaking for himself and not for the board.

Jeff Keaton has called this period the “second Great Awakening of Christian education in the United States since the 1960s and 1970s”.

This earlier “Great Awakening” was spurred on by a number of factors, starting with the time when southern white parents founded “segregation academies” in response to the racial integration created by the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Other Supreme Court rulings on prayer and school development in the 1960s, debates over sex education, bus desegregation and fears of “secular humanism” in the 1970s contributed to the alienation of many white conservatives.

Prior to the pandemic, private school enrollment overall had gradually declined since the turn of the millennium, while the subset of non-Catholic religious schools remained stable, suggesting that the recent growth of conservative evangelical schools is a separate phenomenon rather than part of a general withdrawal. public schools.

Today, some schools – usually newer and smaller – advertise themselves directly as hindering history. “Critical race theory will not be included in our curriculum or in our teaching,” promises a new school opened by a large church in Lawrence, Kan. another new school in Maricopa, Arizona, writes on her school’s website.

But most schools do not make such overt references. “They use words like alternative or Christian or traditional,Said Adam Laats, historian at Binghamton University.

Academic quality and costs vary widely, with some schools run by people without a degree and others boasting higher standards than public schools. Smith Mountain Lake uses the program from Bob Jones University Press, which says it offers “Christian educational material with academic excellence from a biblical worldview.”

More significant, said Mr Laats, are words that conservative schools do not use, such as “inclusion” and “diversity,” unlike a growing number of public and private schools. About 68 percent of students in conservative Christian private schools are white, according to the Education Department, a figure comparable to other categories of private schools but significantly higher than public schools.

Conservatives reject comparisons between their opposition to critical race theory and the aftermath of desegregation of the last century. “I don’t know of a single school that comes close to promoting this kind of concept,” said Jeff Keaton. “What they don’t like is critical theory, where they pit children against each other in oppressed and oppressive groups. “

If many conservative Protestant schools in the 1960s and 1970s were founded to alienate white children from certain people, then the goal today is to alienate children from certain ideas, said J. Russell Hawkins, professor of humanities and history at Indiana Wesleyan University. “But the ideas avoided are always race-related,” he said.

Skepticism of public education has been a long-standing theme of American conservatism. But the specter of critical race theory is now a constant topic in conservative television and radio news. In a speech in May, former attorney general William P. Barr called public schools “progressive secular government madrasas.”

Like many Christian schools across the country, Smith Mountain Lake has benefited not only from national controversies, but also intense local battles. A July school board meeting in Franklin County, Va., From which the school draws large numbers of students, drew around 180 community members for a lively discussion of critical race theory and masking in schools. Smith Mountain Lake does not require masks.

In Franklin County, public school enrollment fell to 6,125 this year from 7,270 in 2017-18. During the same period, the number of homeschooled students in the district nearly doubled to 1,010, including 32 students who withdrew after a new mask mandate was put in place in mid-September. .

Although the district does not count the number of students in other schools, Kara Bernard, the district’s home school coordinator, said, “We are losing students to private Christian schools.

Deana Wright enrolled her children in Smith Mountain Lake in July, shortly after speaking at a school board meeting in Franklin County. She and her husband didn’t want their children to continue wearing masks at school, and she had also started reading what her district was teaching about race. She was “shocked” to come across terms like “cultural competence” and “educational equity” – euphemisms, she said, for critical race theory.

“We are so grateful that the Christian academy is here,” she said.

Some teachers are also grateful.

Shelley Kist, who is in her first year of teaching Spanish at Smith Mountain Lake, suffered a pay cut to come to school after 17 years in public schools.

In her classes at the Christian school, she leads students in prayers in Spanish, assigns Bible verses for them to memorize in Spanish, and discusses career opportunities in missionary work abroad. And she is comfortable incorporating cultural commentary into her lessons. She recently made a connection in class between the fact that each Spanish name is assigned a gender and the concept of “God-assigned genders” for men and women.

The question for private schools is whether growth in response to a pandemic and a culture war is sustainable once concerns about the two dissipate. “It will be an incident in some places,” conceded Troy Keaton, chairman of the Smith Mountain Lake board of directors, as he sat at a conference table in his church. “But it’s a long-term opportunity for people who know how to love, care, teach and do high quality things.”

At school, just across the hill from his church, a group of students led a contemporary worship song at the chapel service that morning: “I will not bow to the idols, ”the students sang. “I will stay strong and worship you.”


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