Religious schools offer different opportunities

Posted: Friday, August 23, 2002

Prayer in school is a given, not a controversy, for the four private Christian-based schools in Juneau.

The teachers say the schools erase what is an unnatural separation of students' academic and spiritual growth.

"You have the freedom to talk about spiritual things," said Nickie Linder, the sole teacher and principal for the kindergarten through 8th grade Seventh Day Adventist Church School. "You have the freedom to guide them that way, to put their feet on a different kind of foundation."

That foundation is firmly biblical. At Thunder Mountain Academy, the health curriculum is the Ten Commandments.

"We start out the year in our health program with honor thy father and mother. The parents like that, that we're teaching respect," said Paul Berg, teacher and director of the middle school. "When you think about the Ten Commandments, they're just extraordinarily powerful health rules."

Berg, who is an evangelical Lutheran, started Thunder Mountain Academy because he was frustrated having to separate his spiritual life from his teaching. Working on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1970s, he felt certain many of the problems with violence in the community could be solved if he could just include God in the curriculum.

Seventh Day Adventist Church School


Grades K-8

Enrollment 16

Tuition - $240 month for church members, $290 for non-members, with some need-based scholarships available

Thunder Mountain Academy


Grades 5-8

Enrollment 15

Tuition $565 a month for 9 months

Valley Baptist Academy


Grades Pre-school to Kindergarten, mornings only

Enrollment 94, but they don't all come at the same time

Tuition $110 to $160 a month, depending on age.

Juneau Christian Center


Grades Kindergarten-8

Enrollment 130 students

Tuition $340 month for nine months

"There's a spiritual dimension to life," Berg said. "I feel one of the basic things one must do in life is develop a relationship with God."

A teacher for 34 years, he decided to start the private school in Juneau as his retirement career five years ago. Like the other Juneau Christian schools, Berg's students come from a variety of denominations and faith backgrounds. More than half the students at the Seventh Day Adventist Church School are from families that don't attend the church, Linder said.

Most of the denominations in Juneau are represented among the 130 students at Juneau Christian Center, said principal Richard Burns. The curriculum avoids areas that would be sensitive.

"We don't get into denominational issues and we don't get into a lot of controversial interdenominational stuff," Burns said.

Only 10 percent of the students at Valley Baptist Academy, a pre-school and kindergarten, are from the Baptist church. At that age denominational differences just don't matter, said director Sandy King.

"They just know God loves them," King said.

With 130 students, Juneau Christian Center is the largest of the private schools, but it keeps class sizes to around 16 students per teacher, the same as in the much smaller Seventh Day Adventist Church School and Thunder Mountain Academy.

"That teacher-to-student ratio is just so wonderful," said Linder. "You get to know the students. You get to challenge them in a way you just don't in a larger setting."

With such a small school, the students are able to all go to the Pioneers' Home on Fridays, to visit residents there and clean the bird cages.

"The residents really enjoy it and the kids then learn they're a part of a larger community and they have something to give back," Linder said.

Thunder Mountain Academy has been as big as 37 students, but Berg likes the flexibility of a small school so much he's limiting enrollment to 15 this year. That way the entire middle school can pile into the school van for frequent field trips. In past years he's done things like have the students take over a courtroom and hold a mock trial.

"There's so much in Juneau. The community should be the extension of the classroom," Berg said. "One of the keys of having a small school is making the smallness the advantage."

Curriculum at the Christian schools includes all the basics, from reading, writing and math to PE, art and computers.

"We address all the issues, whether it's academics, social, physical or spiritual. We're able to address the whole child there," said Burns at Juneau Christian Center.

There, the literature classes sometimes use religious texts, history is taught from a pointedly Christian perspective and students have a daily Bible class. At the same time, the curriculum presents modern scientific theories.

"Certainly we don't shy away from the theory of evolution," Burns said. "We don't want our students to be ignorant of those things either."

Private schools have the advantage that the parents are generally very involved. They are, after all, paying tuition, Berg points out. That makes the parents pay attention, and also puts pressure on the students to make good use of their parents investment.

"Because they're paying for education, they're very supportive," Burns said. "They want to make sure that they do what they need to do to help us as well."

The private schools get support from the public schools and general community too, Berg said.

"We're all working together for the benefit of kids," Berg said. "There's a recognition in town we are a mixed system, there's both public and private and we need both."

But in hard economic times, the private schools see their enrollment drop as families cut costs and send their kids back to public school.

"When you're running a private school it's an interesting business, because your competition is free," Berg said.

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