Some parents ponder sending their children to faith-based schools because of their own religious practices, while other parents research these schools in an effort to explore every option available. Often this second group is surprised to find faith-based schools at the top of their choice list for education.
“I was kind of dead-set against it, as I felt excluded as a non-practicing student back when I attended Catholic grade school and high school. But at the open house for the Catholic K–8 school some of my children now attend, the principal said that they wanted to encompass everybody,” says Briget Spear, whose three sons attend St. John Catholic School and Bishop Blanchet High School, although their family is not currently part of a faith community.
The parents who send their children to faith-based school do so for many reasons, says Seattle education consultant Anoo Padte:
- They seek a spiritual grounding for their children alongside the academic.
- They want academics to be informed by the religious or spiritual beliefs of a school.
- They want a more-affordable private education: A faith-based school can cost 25–50 percent less than other independent schools.
- They seek community with other families who share their faith, coming together for celebrations, rituals and ceremonies.
Whether or not you envision yourself on this list, examining why other families enroll in religious elementary, middle and high schools can help you make the best choice for your own child. Every faith-based school — whether it follows the doctrines of Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism or Islam — is unique, says Padte, founder of Art of Education.
“That said, most faith-based schools are structured and organized and follow a strong set of rules around behavior, curriculum delivery and student-teacher relationships. Students who need or respond well to a structured, rule-based learning environment where what is expected and what is required is clear and laid out tend to thrive in faith-based schools.”
Devorah Signer Hill wasn’t motivated to look at faith-based school until she needed a smaller class size for her oldest son. Her non-religious husband suggested the Seattle Jewish Community School (SJCS) in North Seattle. “What drew us was the fact that SJCS gives such an overall good education. It offers a top-notch private school education,” says Signer Hill, who considers herself more culturally Jewish and doesn’t practice at an area synagogue.
Of course, all faith-based schools teach from a religious point of view, and parents sign on for this upon enrollment. Although Signer Hill used to be apprehensive of this aspect, her children’s blossoming religious identities connects her to what she learned as a kid.
“When you are a minority religion — even if you are a really secular person — the more you can know how that identity suits you, this knowledge inoculates you if you are the only Jew in a room. And you have the foundation to go out into the world and be proud of this identity.”
While growing up in Latvia, then part of the former Soviet Union, Katya Turnbow believed being Jewish was an ethnicity, because her family wasn’t allowed to practice religion. “To me, Judaism is more than just a faith. It’s thousands of years of rich cultural traditions, history and wisdom. So much of that knowledge was taken away from generations in our family; I wanted to give that back to my children and continue the education that skipped several generations. We wanted a school where Jewish values and identity would be an integral part of education and everyday activities. We also wanted a school that viewed education with the “whole-child” approach — focusing not only on the academic accomplishments but developing emotional intelligence, leadership and good citizenship, in other words, raising a mensch (Yiddish expression for a good person),” says Turnbow, whose family is also an SJCS one.
Even parents who don’t find affinity within any religious group often want their children to obtain an education steeped in spiritual grounding and religion lessons. This part of Briget Spear’s sons’ education enriches their family discussions.
She and her husband wanted their sons to learn about religion, grow spiritually, and question faith from that vantage point. “It gives you an avenue to talk to your kids about a very complex thing that often they won’t be really questioning until they are older,” says Spear. “Especially in somewhat agnostic Seattle, this was an avenue to explore these issues. We have to learn about different religions in order to learn the politics of the world.”
This idea that religion is a clear window to understand the broader world is yet another reason parents choose religious education. “When there is a religious connection, there is an existing framework for discussions and grounding in a common set of values that helps this exploration,” says Mike Downs, who was interim head of the Jewish Day School in Bellevue until June 2014 (he is currently a director at a school in Israel).
Schools with faith-based school curriculums and philosophy also help fill a gap in an era where character education and morals and ethics modeling is so important. “Morals, ethics, and character development inform some of the fundamental beliefs and values of a faith-based school,” says Padte, who helps parents find their just-right school. “This is not to say that there are not other independent schools and public schools that are also strongly focused on character development. Still, it is almost guaranteed that a faith-based school will have beliefs related to character development.”
Whether or not your family practices the religion taught at the school, parents at faith-based schools recommend that people pondering this choice look intently at their values while making a decision. “Examine how the school’s environment and values fit their family and their children. Both parents have to be on the same page about the values that kids are learning and be comfortable with it,” Turnbow says.