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Illustration by David Busby
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Though it's an Episcopalian institution, St. Christopher's School teaches students about various faith traditions.
Parents seeking a faith-based education for their children turn to private schools, where religious instruction varies from informal classroom discussions to mandatory chapel attendance and daily religion classes.
Religious and nonsectarian private schools can address the hot-button topic of religion in ways that would not be possible in public schools, say area private school leaders. Even at a nondenominational independent school such as Collegiate, religious instruction is integrated into the curriculum, although to a lesser extent than at religious private schools.
At St. Christopher's School, a college preparatory school for boys, students attend chapel, where they receive instruction in the Episcopal tradition. But the school's mission is far from evangelical.
"Our job is not to create Episcopalians," says Headmaster Charley Stillwell. The school views spiritual life "as a very important medium through which you can help all the students learn to take the concept of faith seriously, no matter what their particular faith tradition and .... to help share the story about important values. Representatives of various religions explain their faith traditions to students during chapel programs. Lower and middle school students attend chapel three times a week, while upper school students start their day with morning chapel.
The school's religion curriculum teaches students about various faiths from around the world, and religion is also covered in social studies. In the upper school, the religion curriculum offers a mandatory course on Old and New Testament issues, as well as an array of electives.
About 25 percent of the student body is Episcopalian, which provides an opportunity for students from other faiths to see how a particular tradition functions while respecting and appreciating other religions, Stillwell says. "We think it strengthens our community to bring together children and adults from a variety of faith traditions to share their perspectives."
A similar dynamic can be found at All Saints Catholic School, where about 40 percent of the nearly 200 students are Catholic. Students attend a daily religion class ranging from 30 to 55 minutes, depending on grade level, says Principal Kenneth Soistman. Students begin learning about religion in pre-kindergarten at the Ginter Park-area school.
"The teaching of religion compared to 30 years ago is a lot different," he says. "It's obviously Catholic faith and Catholic beliefs, but it's much more generic, and it's teaching more Scriptures. Thirty years ago, there were more complaints from non-Catholics because of an emphasis on memorization."
Now, more emphasis is placed on aspects that are fairly common in all religions, such as values and morals, and certain interpretations of Scripture. "We have Baptist ministers here who praise the religion classes," Soistman says.
As students move up grades, they learn more about Catholic history, prayers and holy days. Beginning in fourth grade, students discuss different faiths. Until recently, fewer than 20 percent of the school's students were Catholic. Richmond's growing Latino community, traditionally devout Catholics, have boosted Catholic enrollment at the school.
Soistman says he has not heard one complaint from parents about the school's religious instruction in his 16 years at the school. Most of the non-Catholic students are Baptist and active in their churches. Still, he says, "We have a Mass usually once a month, and all of our students go, and there are no exceptions. We invite our parents, and a number do come for the Mass, too."
Unlike All Saints, the Collegiate School is not church-affiliated. But the philosophy statement for the nondenominational college preparatory school notes its Judeo-Christian roots and its welcoming environment for all faiths, says Head of School Keith A. Evans.
Starting in kindergarten, youngsters begin an orientation to different faith traditions with the help of guest speakers. Students also learn about religion in a broad sense in social studies. "When students get to fifth grade, [religion] really is built into the curriculum, and they get a strong orientation to Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism and their historical roots and what they meant to art, architecture and culture," among other subjects, Evans says.
That religious strand is addressed through the middle school in various places in the curriculum. At the upper school, students are required to take either a comparative religions class or a course that examines Jewish and Christian faiths.
Evans says most parents value religion as part of the curriculum. "They know how important it is to understand a wide variety of faiths."
The Steward School, an independent, nondenominational school with no religious ties, was founded as an alternative to the sectarian schools in the area. Still, the role of religion is valued. When the school was founded, it was decided that its core value, which is embraced in the name Steward, is the ethic of care, says Headmaster Kenneth H. Seward. All monotheistic religions have care for oneself, others and community as central obligations. Caring serves as a guide for how to live a good life, Seward says.
"If you come to Steward you will see crosses all over the campus," he says. "If you look at the school's seal, you will see a cross on it, except the cross is equilateral. Our cross is really an intersection. Our sense is the people who come here come from all sorts of different directions and denominations, ethnicities and countries of origin, and they all come to Steward to meet in the middle."
At Steward, students discover how their differences can enrich each other and what they have in common. Because the school's mission is to educate the whole person, "you can't leave your religion at the door, so we want everyone to bring their core beliefs to school with them so we can learn about them in a community of care," Seward says.
In history classes, students learn about religion, but no formal course is offered on religion or comparative religions for the school's 630 students, he says. "The common theme is that religion is the family's obligation. Parents want to make sure the [school's] values and attitudes are in sync, but they aren't looking for us to teach their children what comes from their religious practice. This is a churchgoing community; this is not secular humanism out here, I tell you that," Seward says, chuckling.
Over at Iqra Academy of Virginia, an Islamic school on the South Side, parents enroll their children for the school's high moral and spiritual values, says Principal Feras Abuzayda. The school, which has 102 students in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, is open to other faiths. Daily, every student has an Islamic studies class and one on the Quran.
"A very important part of our faith in Islam is believing in other monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, and to treat them with respect," Abuzayda says. "A good portion of these faiths are taught in Islamic studies."
Exposing students to peers of other faiths and emphasizing the importance of tolerance and respect are other top priorities.
Students from St. Michael's Episcopal School visited the academy last year to learn more about Islam. Muslim students also do interfaith community projects. One activity allowed students to work with St. Christopher's School students to help comfort younger patients at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU. The students worked together to read books and give patients stuffed animals.
"We expose students to the fact that people are different from you, and you have to be tolerant," Abuzayda says. "It's OK to be different. Even in these differences, we have one common core. We are human and we strive for the betterment of the individual and the community."
At Luther Memorial School, the focus is on providing an excellent education that is grounded in the Christian faith. All 160 children enrolled from pre-K through eighth grade have religious instruction daily except on Wednesdays, when the entire school has worship.
"We believe and teach that the Bible is the inerrant word of God," says Karen Olson, a third-grade teacher at the school started by the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in 1856. "Although formal Bible study is done each day, students learn of the love of Jesus their savior throughinteractions with their teachers, peers and school staff throughout the course of the day. Christian values, good moral character, and virtues of respect, kindness and forgiveness are emphasized and modeled as well."
All faiths and denominations are welcome, but as a Lutheran school, "we are very clear that we are teaching Christian values and education," Olson says. "Children do come to our school with other backgrounds. All children are treated with respect — never ridiculed — but we do not compromise our teaching. It is important to present a complete picture of the Christian faith but leave the decision about faith up to the individual."
At Rudlin Torah Academy in Henrico County, "promoting educational excellence, teaching the beauty of Jewish heritage and imbuing in the students a respect for all mankind" is part of the mission statement. The Orthodox Jewish school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade has 120 students.
The curriculum and school day are divided by general studies and Jewish studies, which includes Hebrew and Arabic, and the study of the Torah and commentaries. Jewish studies are also academically demanding, says Rabbi Hal Klestzick, principal of the school.
"Part of the day they have prayers, and you can call that religion, but even then prayer is a study, an academic experience. When we take the text out of the Bible and they read it in Hebrew and translate it ... what they are doing, one may call it religious study, but it essentially for the child is an educational process that is academically rigorous."
In a general history class, different religions are covered, but "in our religious part of the school, we don't teach other religions," Klestzick says.
The school is religious "in terms of our teaching and orientation but not in terms of our expectations for kids and their parents," Klestzick says. The school recognizes that everyone has a different level of observance and a different relationship to religion.
"We don't want people to feel uncomfortable," he adds. "We want to expose it to them and then people can make choices."