In the past, OFL has offered articles for Orthodox parents interested in making the most of their children's experience in the public school system, and for parents interested in home schooling. Many Orthodox parents, however, turn to non-Orthodox parochial schools for their children's academic education. Below, Popadia Donna Freude offers both her professional and personal advice on evaluating a parochial school and handling the potential conflicts between Orthodox beliefs and the religious beliefs taught by the school. - NTK

Why Choose a Parochial School?

by Donna M. Freude, M.A.Ed.

From the time of birth, we parents make thousands of decisions concerning our children. Should we use disposable diapers or cloth diapers? Bottle feed or breast feed? What pediatrician should we select? And of course, where will we send our child to school? The plethora of choices continue to develop as your child grows.

The decision to send your child - a baptized Orthodox Christian - to a non-Orthodox parochial school may be made for as many reasons as there are individual children.

What is a parochial school?

A parochial school is a parish school that is controlled and supported usually by a local church congregation. A parish is typically the financial backbone of the school along with some form of tuition for each child attending the school.

The most common parochial schools are Roman Catholic, but their numbers are now increasing in other denominations and religions. (Orthodox Christian parochial schools are becoming more common, too, and now exist in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Efforts to establish more are underway across the country, including the Cleveland-Akron area where we live.) The regional diocese - using the Roman Catholic model as an example - sets its philosophy and goals, has a superintendent, a curriculum department (including religion studies), teacher development programs, code of conduct, school calendar, grading policies, and a governing board that makes decisions for the diocesan schools. The local parish schools usually have the autonomy to make their own policies (or modify to the diocesan guidelines) in areas like setting tuition and hiring staff and teachers. They may even adopt the local public schools' yearly calendar, for convenience in sharing busses, etc.

Is a parochial school the right school?

So why would you as parents choose to send your Orthodox child to a parochial school? The reasons you develop will be based on your own unique situation - location, special academic needs, etc. - and your personal philosophy about education and the teaching of values.

I can only offer a list of areas to think about as you are making the choice and give some suggestions based on our personal experiences. I have one statement that is vital: no parochial school can substitute for your responsibility of instilling in your child the Faith of Holy Orthodoxy.

If you choose to enroll your child in a parochial school, it takes time and "foot work" in searching out different schools that can meet the needs of your child in the skills and subjects emphasized, teaching styles employed, opportunity for interaction with teachers, etc.

Write your questions down, then call the school office and set up an appointment with the principal.

Ask to see the school, the classrooms. (Remember that most parochial schools do not have the same type of budget as state-run public schools. You may not see as many amenities, or you may see more. Make sure the basics are available and well maintained.)

Inquire about the curriculum and the electives - such as art and music - that are offered.

Discuss the question of tuition, book fees, etc., for you as a non-parishioner. They are normally higher than those paid by parishioners.

Talk to a other parents who have a child/children attending the school. Do you sense from your visit and the parents you talked with that the school is a place where your child will not only receive the needed academics, but also be developmentally nurtured? Visiting as least three schools gives you a broader range of options - and a basis for comparison - before making your choice.

After you have done your homework, Mom and Dad, and have chosen a parochial school for your child, the next step is to have your child visit the school. This is a great time to begin pointing out simple differences about the parochial school's religious beliefs and our Faith in Holy Orthodoxy. As your child goes through the year - and future years - other areas can be discussed with your child, such as:

the difference of the interior church structure as compared to our own - like the placement of the Holy Altar and the division between the nave and sanctuary - and the use of icons versus statuary
the manner of worship
the difference in how and when the sacraments are given, especially Holy Communion, Confession, and Chrismation ("Confirmation" to Roman Catholics)
the use of leavened bread versus unleavened host
making the sign of the Cross
the difference in the Nicene Creed
the difference in when and how some of the fasts and feasts are celebrated, like Lent and Pascha and All Saints

Attending a parochial school

Set aside some time to review the religious textbook that your child will be using throughout the year. Most of the parochial schools I have dealt with are straightforward in informing parents that religion is an integral part of the school's philosophy, and that all children will attend the offered religion class. We Orthodox are both "paying customers" and "guests" in parochial schools, so this is to be expected. But, please, do not be mislead into believing that we all share the same theology and doctrine! If you have any questions about your child's religion text or curriculum, seek the advice of your Orthodox parish priest or refer to an Orthodox resource, such as the four-volume handbook by Fr. Thomas Hopko: The Faith, Volume 1: Doctrine; Volume 2: Worship; Volume 3: Bible and Church History; and Volume 4: Spirituality.

We have found that with any school, communication with the staff is a key element in helping your child feel successful in school. It is helpful to establish a rapport with the principle and teacher right from the get-go concerning religious participation in the school's church services. For example, our daughter does attend Mass with her class but does not participate in the service, and it is understood by all concerned that she will not take Communion, will not go to Confession, and will not be a part of the First Confession/Confirmation classes.

In the case of our daughter, other "accommodations" have been developed through open communication as well. A class assignment was given to memorize the Creed, and the teacher had her memorize the Nicene Creed used by the Orthodox Church (without the filioque). Several homework assignments had to do with making a report on a saint; our daughter chose an Orthodox saint to share with her class, even though her saint was not canonized by the Roman Catholic church.

This open communication resulted in a class trip involving the middle-school-age classes to our Orthodox Church. This tour was enjoyed by children, teachers, and parents. It was a positive learning experience for all the classes, and our daughter's peers gained a better understanding of her background and beliefs.

In conclusion, the choice of schools is an important step for the family. Being an informed "school shopper" - whether for a public, private, or parochial school - can make for a hopefully successful educational experience for your child. We have been blessed with having a favorable experience - in which the parochial school respects our child's Orthodox Faith and sees it as an integral part of her spiritual formation, life, and family.

Popadia Donna M. Freude is currently teaching in Early Childhood Special Education. She has three children, and is married to Fr. Don Freude, rector of St. Elia Orthodox Church, Akron, Ohio.

Editor's Notes

There are two additions in the "do your homework department" I'd like to make:

Talk to other parents in your parish to get the "Orthodox perspective" on a school, but don't neglect other sources. Some of your parishioners may be administrators, teachers, school psychologists, etc., and have great info on schools you are considering!
Finally, one family I know pre-arranged for their sons to be excused without penalty from classes for the major feasts and a good part of Holy Week, so they could attend and serve at their Orthodox Church. It turned out to be very convenient, because the school's religion classes were held in the morning, during the time Divine Liturgy was scheduled. - NTK

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