January 15, 2005
The Siteks were not trying to hide their children from the big, bad world when they enrolled them in a private sectarian school.
"Christian education is not a place for people to hide," said Sharon Sitek of Tempe.
"I am a proponent of a strong public education. Societies that are successful must have a strong public education system."
At the same time, Sitek and husband Jan, both with degrees in education, wanted to be very involved in their two children’s schooling. "A school-family atmosphere was important to us," Sharon said. They wanted to know that if a problem developed, Christ would be at the center of the solution. They wanted a place where values taught at home would be reinforced.
Not all parents, however, choose a religious-based school because of beliefs or values. According to a recent policy report on private schools in Arizona from the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative think tank, the vast majority of religious-based schools do not require adherence to the faith for admission. Some see such schools as setting higher academic standards and demanding greater discipline, according to Deacon Richard Areyzaga, principal of Queen of Peace Elementary School in Mesa. A smaller, more personal academic environment is another reason parents seek a religious-based school for their child.
"We are one big family," Areyzaga said of studentparent-teacher synergy.
For all the above reasons, and probably many more, 5 percent of the state’s K-12 students (roughly 44,060 children) attend private school, according to the Goldwater Institute’s policy report. Seventy-five percent of those students, or 33,045 children, are enrolled in religious-based institutions. The institute goes on to project Arizona public school enrollment increasing to over 1 million students by 2013, with private schools conceivably absorbing as much as 15 percent of that number. That would put religious school enrollment at 112,500 eight years from now.
The Sitek children — now 25 and 17 — attended Grace Community Christian School in Tempe from kindergarten through eighth grade. When the time came for high school, Alison and Alexander continued in the private religionbased school system, attending Valley Christian High School in Chandler. That meant Alison didn’t make the transition from private to public school until she attended Arizona State University on a full scholarship. She is currently working on a doctorate in bioengineering. Alexander soon will follow her to ASU, also on a full scholarship.
"The big difference for me was the size," Alison said. Going from a high school with 220 students to a university with a population over 50,000 was initially a bit overwhelming. However, in terms of "other things" that go on in public school, religious-based schools aren’t exempt from problems.
"The difference is they were dealt with differently," Alison said.
Beth and Ben Peterson also chose Grace Community for their children’s education. But when it came time for high school, the children — now 35 and 28 — went to a public school. A big reason for the switch was that the children’s friends were attending public high school. At the time, there also were concerns that the sectarian high school wouldn’t have some classes and interests that public schools had.
"When Kari graduated from Grace she was interested in marching band, and Valley (Christian High School in Chandler) had no marching band," Beth Peterson said. There was also no computer program. Now the secondary school has both, as well as the full range of academic and elective offerings found at public school.
"I felt they were strong enough in their faith that they could withstand the pressure" of the transition, Beth said.
According to Mesa Unified School District counselor Maria Collea, traditional breaks in academic progression — elementary to junior high, junior high to high school and high school to college — are natural transition times when switching from a sectarian school to a secular one. She has dealt with children in the first two scenarios and said, for the most part, the moves are positive and uneventful.
"Peers are essential in the transition," Collea said. "Kids that have friends (attending the public school) do better." That’s why she suggests youngsters attending private sectarian school be kept involved in neighborhood activities. Children seem to make the transition more smoothly if the move does not come as a surprise, she said. While divorce and economic downturns can force sudden changes, talking to youngsters as soon possible allows them to adjust psychologically.
"Usually these kids (attending sectarian school) come from environments where they know everyone’s name," Collea said. Size can be overwhelming. But for others, the anonymity is welcome.
"Make sure you find the right public school," she said. Like religion-based schools, all public schools are not alike. She suggests talking to school principals and counselors to get a feel for the institution and consider how well your child will fit in.
"The biggest drawback (to a religious-based school) can be cultural diversity," said Sharon Sitek.
And it’s up to the parents to plan activities to fill in that gap that will give their children a more rounded perspective of the world.