By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 24, 2008
Recommendations from other parents and a long-standing reputation as effective educators who also address a student’s moral development are key reasons why non-Catholic parents choose Catholic schools for their children.
Jamal Burt, who is Christian but not Catholic, is both a teacher and the parent of a student at St. Peter Claver School in Decatur.
“I’m a product of Catholic schools from first to eighth grade,” said the teacher who grew up in New Jersey. “My education received a jumpstart (in a Catholic elementary school), and when I went to a public high school I saw that I had an advantage.”
He described the experience of attending a Catholic school as “intense” and “exciting.”
“We’re able to talk about faith, to talk about God specifically. To me, it’s an important part of socializing a person. To have to take that component out is a huge detriment.”
He is happy that his son, Isaiah, a kindergartner, can “get the most out of his time here.”
“One of the best things is the small teacher-student ratio,” he said.
With order, learning can take place. “What wows me is when the children walk down the hall. You can tell the disciplining that goes on here. They’re taught to focus. … Kids can act crazy, but children out there need to learn to listen and pay attention, too.”
The middle school language arts teacher is currently reading “To Kill a Mocking Bird” with his eighth-grade students and discussing social issues prevalent in 1935.
“Reading unlocks doors in the brain. If you do that, you can escape anything,” Burt said.
Besides being very good with children, the Morehouse graduate confided that his mother taught for 29 years “so it runs in the family.” He appreciates the open communication between faculty and parents and believes the faculty and staff “really care about every kid that comes through here.”
Not many teaching candidates would choose to tackle middle school education.
“A lot are afraid of teaching middle school, but I think it’s the perfect age. They’re old enough to understand but still young enough to be molded,” Burt said, adding later, “I just want to make sure children avoid certain pitfalls when they’re older. I’m reaching a hand back and hoping they’ll avoid (the bad) things.”
Mawuli Davis, another St. Peter Claver School parent, sees the sad effects of poor judgment by youth in his work as a criminal defense attorney.
“A lot of young people are not learning what consequences are,” said Davis. “They haven’t come to understand the need for personal discipline. These two things are huge in the educational experience.”
He recalled his own high school days when he attended a Catholic high school in Chicago with “the Christian Brothers and coaches.”
“As a society, we’ve moved away from being accountable to a group of people to a focus on what’s best for me. What’s best for you might be detrimental to the community,” he said.
He and his wife, Jana Johnson-Davis, a schoolteacher, decided to consider St. Peter Claver for their two children—Khari, a second-grader, and Kobie, a fourth-grader—when another teacher spoke of the school’s strong academic program among other things. They looked at many schools, both private and public, before eventually settling on St. Peter Claver, which offers a “really good education both academically as well as socially,” said Mawuli, who also attended a Catholic elementary school.
He said they are comfortable with the student population and the sense that their fourth-grader and his classmates “can be 8- to 9-year-olds, not 14.”
He also remains impressed at how well-behaved the children are. “Our concern was that our children might come home saying and doing things we don’t approve of that were things they had learned at school. Last night my son was singing a Christian song. Had he had another experience (in a different school) he might have been singing a Top 40 song.”
The behavior of his peers was “a big factor” in their school decision.
“It’s more than achieving As and Bs in math; the fundamentals are important,” Davis said. “(Catholic schools) shape character and integrity. They communicate the need to do the right thing in the right way.”
Davis, who played college basketball at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., extends character building among St. Peter Claver students to the basketball court. He coaches two teams.
“We work with them and see their basketball skills coming along and continue to develop their character and how to do the right thing. All they’re learning at school we reinforce at practice. It all works hand in hand. There’s no disconnect from what they’re learning at school,” he said.
The experience continues to reinforce his appreciation for the school community. “What I see are good kids. Parents are committed not just academically but to shaping their children’s character and values. And I see how the children interact with each other.”
Faith is also something that isn’t “just in the background. You get comfortable saying, ‘I’m a follower of Christ,’ and aren’t afraid to show it through your actions.”
Amy Massey, who is Episcopalian, has taught for 14 years in both public and private schools. She returned to Rome, Georgia, with her husband and two children Megan, 4, and Max, 5, now a kindergartener at St. Mary’s School in Rome. They scouted out the other public and private schools in the area before making their choice.
“St. Mary’s had a strong reputation,” Massey recalled. “I was overwhelmed by the peaceful atmosphere, the discipline, the overall character of the students. … The kids were so calm and at peace. They impressed me so much I made up my mind that I wanted my son there.”
With years of experience in public schools, Massey was “really hit” when they first visited the school during Advent. “I was touched that the focus of the holiday wasn’t Santa everywhere. It spoke to my heart so much so that I wanted to teach there too.”
Massey now teaches fourth grade at St. Mary’s, where, she said, “boys and girls still play together.”
“They watch out for each other. Rarely do I have to discipline. Really, by this point, they’re like brother and sister.”
She remains “thankful” and “feels blessed” that there was an opening.
“Not only can I be with my child, but I can be part of the pleasant atmosphere. The stress isn’t there like in (other schools). … I’m so happy. It’s a different world.”
She finds reassurance in her decision when seeing the kindergarteners perform the Christmas Nativity program or witnessing the larger role religion now plays in her son’s life, evident when he recently chimed in from the car’s backseat, “God loves me so much,” an understanding she attributes partly to daily religion classes.
“That’s what’s neat,” she said. “And having religion promotes caring for others among their peers. It’s like a family. … In public schools you try to teach character without mentioning God. Here, you can tie it to religion.”
As a teacher she also appreciates the camaraderie of a faculty and staff always open to new ideas and working together. “Everyone is so tight. The teachers are like family. Everybody has the children’s best interests at heart and the administration fosters that, not competition.”
Word of mouth prompted Robbie Bishop-Monroe to consider sending her son, Matthew, to St. Peter Claver.
“I found the school because I knew someone who sent their child there and was satisfied. I also know the area.”
The school’s location close to I-20 and I-285 makes for a convenient stop to and from work, she said, adding that other factors that played into her decision were the general reputation of Catholic schools, the low student-teacher ratio and the Christian-based education. In the archdiocesan school system, about 12 percent of students—1,424 out of 11,669—are not Catholic.
“I’m not Catholic but I am Christian. … They reinforce the love of God and what Jesus Christ did for all of us. It enforces the knowledge he already has (from attending church on Sunday) … and there’s a constant reminder to do good to others.”
The school environment supports basic moral values on a daily basis. “In traditional public schools you can’t pray and they don’t really talk about religion; they’re not allowed to.”
She also likes the structure and activities available for her second-grade son, who most recently chose St. Peter for a school project on saints. “He learned a lot.”
Bishop-Monroe appreciates, too, the school’s open door attitude toward parents coming in throughout the school day and the numerous opportunities to volunteer. She is contributing to student development by organizing a Junior Achievement program for students at all levels.
“I definitely recommend parents consider Catholic schools.”
Ann Simpson, who is Presbyterian, credited a former co-worker raising her two grandchildren with bringing her family to Catholic education at St. Mary’s.
“She would come to work every day singing the praises of St. Mary’s saying, ‘you won’t believe what they’ve done with my grandkids.’ So I guess it was by word of mouth. It was strictly because of her.”
She knew of Catholic education’s “long tradition of having a good, sound foundation academically.”
“I also like the faith-based approach even though we’re not Catholic,” she said. “Every day they have religion.”
Her youngest, a son, Taylor, in the seventh grade, remains at the school and her daughter, Lera, is a junior at a public high school.
“I tell you, I wouldn’t trade her middle school years for anything,” Simpson said.
“What a good place it was. It was small enough that everyone knew each other, and teachers could keep track of what was going on. It’s also a safe place for trying things. They weren’t exposed to so much as they are in public schools. I love that.”
When she completed eighth grade, Lera was ready to move on from St. Mary’s, Simpson said. “Now she’s in the 11th grade looking back and realizing how much she loved it, how she misses wearing a uniform. She still wore her class ring until she bought her high school ring.”
In the close environment she explained that kids have an opportunity to “figure out what they like and don’t like, what they want to do and don’t want to do” without pressures that often exist in other schools. The experience has also sharpened their grasp of their own faith tradition. “It has given my kids a chance to compare and contrast.”
She noted the benefit of class retreats and the “touchy-feely things that make you feel good” when students graduate.
She and her husband, Tommy, served as co-chairs for the school’s major fund drive a few years ago. “It was rewarding because everybody pulled together and made our sad little school into a nice big one and the archbishop came to bless it. Even the non-Catholics got a kick out of that.”
These days Simpson contributes to the school by serving as its cross country coach. “One of the most rewarding things has been to watch them all change. It’s not all fun. We have to slog out the miles but the kids want to do it. They’re excited about it and they wear their cross country sweats all the time. It teaches them perseverance.”
Even though Marcia Shurley’s husband, John, had family members who attended the Marist School back when it was on Ivy Street in Atlanta, sending their three children there was not “Plan A.” Their oldest was in fifth grade at a nearby public school when they began to look at the next step—public middle school. Unhappy with what they saw, they opted to apply to Marist and found “the perfect fit.”
With only 25 percent of the Marist student body being non-Catholic, “We were happy we made it in the door,” said Shurley, who is Methodist.
With two of her children now in college and her youngest, daughter Claire, a junior at Marist, she calls herself “blessed” having experienced the results of Catholic education. She commented on Marist’s rich legacy and spirituality. “They are so interested in forming the whole person. Within Marist they develop accountability, which actually is not too easy to find these days.”
There’s something there for everyone, she added, saying that she has “three kids with different programming.”
Graham, a senior, and Preston, a freshman, attend the University of Georgia. Preston traveled “for a trip of a lifetime” to India while at Marist. Claire is scheduled to visit Japan.
“I love the people, the faculty and staff,” she said, commenting also that students often return to the school to visit teachers who have become mentors.
She also commended the school for its retreat program, truly a “spiritually enhancing experience,” she said. “The retreat program allows them to grow and mature, to understand their feelings and beliefs, where they are and want to go.”
Shurley and her family felt the support of the Marist community during a time of personal need. “It’s a family; you feel like part of the family and they take care of its members. I got to feel their love, warmth, their positive faith. It really changed my life.”
She also appreciates the parents who comprise the community.
“So many are on the same plane in their approach to parenting and discipline and how they want to raise their children.”
She admits that no place is perfect. “But every time I drive down that driveway, there’s such warmth and a feeling of belonging.”