A Visit to a Religious Elementary School

By Priscilla Pardini

Private and religious schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have almost complete autonomy when it comes to how they spend their money, what they teach their students, and how well they measure what those students learn. What’s more, they are under almost no obligation to share any of that information with the public.

As Rethinking Schools recently discovered, even getting in the door to informally observe and report on a typical school day in a religious school participating in the voucher program can be close to impossible.

In a series of calls to 11 such schools, a reporter for Rethinking Schools was given any number of reasons why such a visit was out of the question. Several principals said they and their teachers were simply too busy to accommodate a reporter. Others said a visit would be too disruptive. Still others – including three Catholic school principals – said they could not agree to such a request without approval from higher-level church officials. One school never returned phone calls from a reporter.

In the end, Parklawn Christian School, 3725 N. Sherman Blvd., was the only one of the 11 schools that agreed to a reporter’s request for a tour. Rev. Larry Orr, Parklawn principal, said the decision was made against the advice of Daniel McKinley, executive director of Partners Advancing Values in Education, a private scholarship program for voucher students. “But we thought if you visited, your story might show people what a good job we’re doing,” Orr said. “We don’t have anything to hide.”

There are 91 schools in the Milwau-kee voucher program, serving 8,100 students. While it is impossible to draw any conclusions from one visit to one school, what follows is a snapshot of school life at one religious school receiving public vouchers in Milwaukee.

Like many schools, both public and private, Milwaukee’s Parklawn Christ-ian School tries to ensure that its students will receive an excellent education. Its instructional program features “active learning” and stresses the importance of higher-level thinking skills; its curriculum is designed to be developmentally appropriate, emphasizes reading, and is geared to students’ individual interests. Its classes are small – a teacher and teaching assistant for every 18 pupils.

As a religious school, Parklawn also prides itself on offering its students an education steeped in the teachings of Scripture. “We believe in integrating faith in Jesus Christ with the content and process of all learning,” states its philosophy of education. Thanks to its participation in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, Parklawn is in the position of being able to fulfill both its educational and religious missions with the help of public tax dollars.

Parklawn officials say that participating in the voucher program hasn’t changed the way they do business. “We’re not going to change what we do for the sake of the choice program,” said Rev. Orr. “We’re participating because it’s a way of making our program available to parents who couldn’t afford it otherwise.” Annual tuition at the school is $3,750.

The school is run by Parklawn Assembly of God Church, also at 3725 N. Sherman Blvd. Like many voucher schools, it concentrates on young children, serving 75 children in four-year-old kindergarten through third grade, and 22 children in a pre-school program for two- and three-year olds. A fourth-grade class will be added next year. Now in its fourth year of operation, the school offers a year-round academic program as well as before- and after-school day-care programs particularly attractive to working parents.

The school is housed in a wing of the church. The classrooms are bright and cheerful, and full of books and other learning materials. Walls are lined with learning “centers” at which children can explore a variety of topics. Most classrooms include several computers; kindergarten and preschool classrooms are loaded with toys. Children also have access to a gymnasium. Their tuition covers the cost of a hot lunch program.

Bernice Towns, vice principal at Parklawn School and children’s minister at Parklawn Church, said she was particularly pleased with the school’s success in reading. While Parklawn, like many schools, does not formally test young students, Towns said half of the children enrolled in the school’s four-year-old kindergarten program last year began five-year-old kindergarten this fall already reading. By November, they were reading at the first-grade level.

Every bit as important as its reading program, however, is Parklawn’s religious mission, summarized by the school motto, “Passing on God’s Promises to the Next Generation.” Students and staff participate in daily Bible study classes and a weekly chapel service, and religion permeates all facets of the school day. In a second-grade classroom, daily “choice time” is more than an opportunity for children to explore an interest in science or pursue a passion for art. “It also allows children to use the unique gifts God has given them, so they can fulfill God’s purpose for them in life,” Towns explains. “Our faith is woven into everything we do. If a child falls down on the playground, we pray for him.”

Orr and Towns agreed that Parklawn’s Bible-based learning environment appears to be incompatible with a state regulation requiring religious schools in the voucher program to allow students to “opt out” of religious activity during the school day. But they said the issue had not yet come up.

Nor has the school been forced to deal with other curriculum, personnel or labor issues that could pose church/state conflicts. For example, because the oldest pupils in the school, to date, have been third graders, school officials have not yet had to confront questions around the teaching of evolution. A requirement that all faculty and staff be not only licensed by the State of Wisconsin, but also practicing Christians who meet “stringent spiritual qualifications,” has never been challenged. In fact, Orr said Parklawn had received no directives regarding hiring in connection with its participation in the voucher program.

Orr said the only change he had noticed in the day-to-day operation of Parklawn, as a voucher school, was “a lot more paperwork.” Should substantive conflicts arise, he said it was likely Parklawn would drop out of the program. “We’re not doing this for the money, to build a kingdom here,” he said. “If they asked us to not be who we are, we couldn’t participate. We’re not going to change for the choice program.”