The first private schools in the U.S. were founded in the earliest years by missionaries or churches for the purpose of teaching children to be godly, respectable citizens. At that time, education was primarily reserved for the religious-minded or wealthy. With the advent of organized public education in the 1840s, however, civic leaders began to see that if the relatively new nation were to prosper, rigorous education enabling the elite to rise to their capabilities — educationally and morally — was necessary.
One of the first private institutions in the U.S. — Andover Academy — stated the goal was to prepare students to understand that “goodness without knowledge is weak … yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous” and to teach students not only English and Latin, math, and the like, but to teach them “the great end and real business of living.”
Since that time, private schools have continued to evolve. Today, more than 30,000 private schools comprise 24 percent of all K-12 schools in the country, educating 10 percent of the nation’s pre-college students. Of those 30,000 schools, 80 percent are religiously affiliated.
In Bladen County, two such schools exist — Elizabethtown Christian Academy in Elizabethtown and Community Baptist Academy in Bladenboro. Together, they educate 115, or approximately 2.3 percent, of Bladen County school-age children.
“The world’s changing,” said Barbara Pait, teacher and interim principal at Community Baptist Academy. “Some parents are trying to instill morals and Christian character in their children, and they’re not able to do that in public schools without being targeted. Here, we try to balance that out academically with spiritually to help students and provide them with a foundation building on what parents do at home.”
Beverly Bridgers, headmaster at Elizabethtown Christian Academy, sees the benefit of Christian education extending beyond the student.
Speaking of her former 26 years as a teacher, she said “I don’t know that I understood or appreciated what it meant to teach in a Christian school when I initially began teaching,” she said. “Over the years, I began to see the effect teachers around me had on the students when they prayed with them or looked at scripture. This helped me to become more grounded in my own life.
“More, now than ever, I see how being able to pray, to read scripture, to sing praise songs, to offer Christian advice helps not only the students, but the families of students and the teachers.”
Only naiveté would birth the claim all parents who elect to send their children to Christian school do so for religious purposes. Some make the decision for behavioral or emotional reasons.
“We have fewer students, so we can work one on one,” said Pait. “We have a lot of students come who have shut down coming from another educational setting, and when they get individual attention, we see them start coming around and asking questions and getting interested, because they don’t feel the outside pressure.”
With 43 students enrolled K-12, Community Baptist’s average class size is 3.3. Even with the low student / teacher ratio, the academy maintains the lowest tuition of K-12 institutions in the state, according to Pait.
“I received a good education at private school,” said Carol Edge, who graduated from Community Baptist in 1986, sent her own three children there, and currently has a grandchild enrolled. “Aside from that, it gave me a sense of importance and confidence. Having one-on-one attention, the teachers get to know you and how you learn and who you are, and you sense you’re important to them. That carries a lot of weight in terms of confidence and a sense of well-being.”
Pait added, “I see a real difference in those who have had Christian education and those who haven’t.”
Perhaps that difference has to do with having purpose. According to Christians, mankind’s purpose on earth is to serve the Lord and to serve others in order to make Him known. To that end, ECA is undertaking a new venture this year.
“I’m very excited about our Missions Week, which will be the first week in March,” said Bridgers. “Our children will be doing age-appropriate mission work within the Bladen County community. Our PTO… is extremely active, and they are already busy helping us plan mission week activities.
“I have also booked Feeding Children Everywhere to come onto our campus. We are going to reach out into the community to take part in packaging meals. We’re setting a pretty lofty goal, but I feel confident we will meet our numbers.”
Far from religion and individual attention being the only positives to Christian education, supporters also say academics are a draw as well. Bridgers said ECA is implementing IXL math and language arts, Science Olympiad, and a Junior Beta Club to their challenging academic lineup. Pait said Community Baptist has higher-than-average numbers of students graduate and go on to college, and the majority of their students are on or above grade level.
The choice to educate children privately is not without detractors. Edge said she has regularly heard over the years from people who object to Christian education because they claim its composition doesn’t reflect society.
“My mother always said that the rarest orchids are kept in the greenhouse until they’re mature enough to be brought out for the world to enjoy,” Edge said. “Our children are moldable when they’re young, and our best opportunity to bring them up with the values we want established is to do it while they’re young, and let them grow and mature and then go out and make a difference in the world.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.