Soon after Dan Jarmon began forming friendships with pregnant teenagers and other so-called "problem kids," his parents pulled him out of public school and enrolled him at Wake Christian Academy.
Recently, when the Jarmons took their seats at Dan's graduation, they congratulated themselves for making the right decision. In the past two years, Dan has befriended a more responsible crowd. He received a school award for his progress in English grammar. In August, he will begin studying at N.C. State University."We knew that the values and the philosophy of education taught here would be more in line with what we teach at home," said Jane Jarmon, Dan's mother. "He's improved a lot."
The conclusions drawn by the Jarmons are shared by a growing number of parents whose disenchantment with the public schools is driving a boom in religious school enrollment. They say public schools have grown so large and impersonal that their children will be cast adrift in a system that offers tenuous values and negative peer pressure.
Unlike the dramatic increase in religious schools that occurred across the South when schools first integrated, this boom reflects a desire for smaller classrooms, safer hallways and an education rooted in sacred traditions.
Sister Mary Therese Grady, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic elementary school in Raleigh, N.C., takes three calls a day from parents who want to enroll their kids. Although the school just broke ground for a $3.5 million expansion, more than 100 students already are on the waiting list. The area's five other Catholic schools also are at capacity.
"We can't accommodate them," Grady said, "so we discourage them from applying."
In part, the surge in religious education in the region is due to the growing number of people moving to the Raleigh area.. Many parents are turned off by massive 2,000-student public high schools, and look elsewhere.
Jeffrey and Christine Gredvig moved to the area four years ago. Their son Matt had done well in the public schools in the small Iowa town where the family lived. But two years after moving, Matt still felt lost. His grades were average and he seemed bored.
"He wasn't having problems, but I felt he wasn't involved," said Christine Gredvig. "He didn't have a sense of community. Nobody noticed him."
After the Gredvigs transferred Matt to Cardinal Gibbons Catholic high school in Raleigh, his grades shot up, he made friends, he began tutoring a football player in math.
"I don't feel left out," said Matt, 18, who graduated and now plans to attend Wake Forest University. "Since it's a smaller school, everyone sticks together. You meet people quicker and they open up more."
Small, intimate school settings are the hallmarks of private schools. A 1995 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that private schools averaged 20 students per class while public schools averaged 25. Better discipline is a key result. Teachers in religious schools say they spend far less time dealing with unruly students. Students report fewer fights in the hallways. Both say the environment is more trusting.
At Wake Christian, high school teachers often hug their students and pray together.
"We can minister to these children on a deeper level," said teacher Becky Lycan. "We can pray with them. We can encourage them. We can tell them that the Lord has a plan for their life."
Academically, religious schools run the gamut. In North Carolina, some schools perform at state averages. Others do better. At Wake Christian, students scored 980 on the combined math and verbal SAT in 1995. At Cardinal Gibbons, students scored a combined 1,104. The state average was 865.
Parochial schools also have their drawbacks. They typically don't offer vocational courses and their list of electives is thin.
Compared to brand-new public high schools with tennis courts, television studios and state-of-the-art computer technology, religious schools are modest if not bare-boned.
To top it off, they charge tuition. Although far less than at private, independent academies, religious schools in the Raleigh area charge between $2,000 and $4,500 a year.
Still, backers say religious schools offer something public schools can't: a sense of the sacred.
At first glance, Susan Swanson's fourth-grade classroom at Wake Christian looks like any public counterpart. A cursive alphabet chart sits above the chalkboard.
The bulletin board posts facts about the Tar Heel State, and under the headline "Our Math Superstars" hangs a list of student names.
But beside the door, a quote reads: "Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God," I Corinthians, 10:31.
Here, students have twice-weekly chapel services, daily Bible classes, and God lives in every classroom - including Mary Ann Martin's seventh-grade science class. In a chapter on diving beetles, Martin tells students: "God also gave these animals 60 strokes a second."
"We teach that God is relevant in everything we do and learn," said Richard Tippett, administrator at Raleigh Christian Academy. "It's not just about teaching good morals."
While Catholic schools were established nearly 200 years ago in response to a Protestant-dominated public school system, Protestant Christian schools are a relatively new phenomenon.
Most were formed in the 1970s after the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer and Bible readings from public schools. By 1990, there were more than 4,000 conservative Christian schools in the nation, more than 80 percent of which were established after 1970.
The South has more Christian schools than any other region. They first opened about the time that public schools began integrating. Some, such as Goldsboro Christian Schools, refused admission to blacks. Although the Goldsboro schools began admitting African-Americans in 1983, critics continued to see these schools' popularity as segregation continuing in another form.
But supports say even these schools are increasingly appealing to blacks. According to Tom Scott, the vice president of the American Association of Christian Schools International, inner-city parochial schools with a predominantly black enrollment are among the fastest growing of the association's 3,800 affiliated schools.
Parents like the fact that they're biblically based and traditional. That desks are arranged in rows, reading is taught by phonics, and multiplication tables are drilled repeatedly. In Christian schools, evolution is taught as a theory.
Micah Sam, a senior at Cardinal Gibbons, said for the past three years he's questioned his faith, swinging back and forth between atheism and Catholicism. But he says he felt free to talk about his doubts.
"No one condemned me," he said. "Because people are coming from the same base religiously, there's a common ground. There's less fear that you have to watch what you say. It seemed like my beliefs were respected."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)