Archive for Monday, August 9, 2004

Private schools play vital role

August 9, 2004


Recent letters to the editor and op-ed pieces addressing concerns about funding and enrollment of the Lawrence public schools have suggested that the various private schools of Lawrence -- Bishop Seabury Academy, Century School, Lawrence Catholic School, Raintree Montessori School, and Veritas Christian School -- are damaging our community. Perhaps the growth of these five schools has affected enrollment in USD 497 somewhat, but the decline in public school enrollment cannot be attributed solely to the non-public schools. More importantly, I submit that the nonpublic schools add value to Lawrence and Douglas County.

Every nonpublic school has a distinct mission and distinctive curriculum. The non-public schools of Lawrence reflect various religious affiliations and distinctive pedagogical methods. These schools exist not to harm the public schools but rather to provide different approaches to education and to provide choices for parents.

Parents who feel that the school for which their student is zoned is too large to provide the individual attention they wish for their child may find what they are looking for in a non-public school. Parents of children who are experiencing difficulties in school may wish to explore other options. Our country was founded on principles of personal freedom and choice. In the sense that they provide options for parents in Lawrence and Douglas County, our nonpublic schools are quintessentially American, and to suggest that institutions that provide families with choices about how to educate their children damage our civic fabric reflects an inadequate understanding of our nation's history.

In addition to providing important choices for our existing families, nonpublic schools are an important force for economic development. Local Realtors often contact me or my colleagues at the other independent schools of Lawrence to arrange a visit for someone who is thinking of accepting a job in Lawrence and wants to learn about school options. In some cases, the presence of one of our nonpublic schools has made the difference in a family's deciding to move to Lawrence.

Likewise, companies seeking to relocate or develop new sites are interested in knowing about the choices presented by strong nonpublic schools. The existence of one of the nonpublic schools could be one of the reasons a top researcher chooses to accept a position at Kansas University or that a company from outside the Midwest considers opening a new facility here. In either case, the wider community benefits from our nonpublic schools.

Many people assume that nonpublic schools are socially exclusionary and serve a privileged elite. Perhaps this myth derives from the unfortunate connotations of the word "private." We are "private" in the sense that we are not owned or controlled by the state, but we are not "private" in the sense of "keep out." It is my experience that every nonpublic school in Lawrence values diversity and seeks to make attendance possible for any who are interested and qualified.

In its mission statement and bylaws, Bishop Seabury Academy clearly states its policy of non-discrimination and its desire for diversity. Our trustees dedicate 10 percent of revenues to financial aid, and 25 percent of our students receive financial aid. Twenty percent of our students are non-Caucasian, the same percentage of non-Caucasian students at Lawrence's two public high schools.

Seabury students come from all neighborhoods of Lawrence and all walks of life. While I cannot speak with authority of the percentages of the other nonpublic schools in Lawrence, I know that all of them have diverse student populations and always seek additional diversity.

More than 6 million American school children receive their educations in the approximately 27,000 nonpublic schools of our nation; some schools are centuries old, while others have just opened. The 158 schools in the Kansas Association of Independent and Religious Schools serve 39,000 Kansas children. nonpublic schools are and always have been an important part of the American educational landscape, and in this regard Lawrence resembles the rest of the country.

I agree that it is imperative that we adequately fund and maintain the public schools, but I also believe that the citizens of Lawrence should look upon the several nonpublic schools in Lawrence as resources that enrich our community. In our unique ways, we, too, attempt to serve the common good. I encourage all the citizens of Lawrence and Douglas County to view us as partners rather than competitors in the common goal of providing for the future of the children of our community and our world. Come visit Bishop Seabury Academy or the other fine nonpublic schools of Lawrence and learn how we strive to do this.

Chris Carter is the head of Bishop Seabury Academy, 4120 Clinton Parkway.

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