The lights were off in a classroom at Mesa’s Pilgrim Lutheran School. An overhead projector hummed as principal Charlie Kuether read a lesson to his students after noon recess on a hot May day.
“Read First Corinthians 13, verses four to seven, just read that to yourself,” he told them, as the children quickly flipped through the thin pages of their Bibles.
After a few minutes, Kuether asked, “How is God’s definition of love different from that of our society?”
In the 30-plus parochial schools in the East Valley, religion is at the heart of every classroom decoration, activity and lesson. But many of these schools run only through eighth grade.
Afterward, families must decide whether to continue religious education or enroll their children in a public high school.
Families who see education as not only an academic, but also a spiritual endeavor, say it’s one of the toughest calls to make.
Pilgrim student Lauren Pennell, 14, decided to attend Arizona Lutheran Academy next year — even though the Phoenix school is about 20 miles away from the Pennells’ Gilbert home.
“There’s an advantage to both, and it was a hard decision to make,” said her mother, Brenda Pennell. “I think one of the main reasons we did it was the small class size.”
With fewer than 50 freshmen in Lauren’s class, she will get more one-on-one attention and have a better chance at making athletic teams, Pennell said, adding she also believes there’s a higher expectation for discipline at private schools.
Mike Berguin, a member of the Pilgrim Lutheran School board for years, said he’s still undecided about what to do next year when his son leaves eighth grade.
“It’s a really difficult decision,” he said. “It’s great for them to get the word of God every day.”
Right now, he said, he’s leaning toward his neighborhood school, Red Mountain High School in the Mesa Unified School District, because of its strong athletic programs.
Keather Healy, principal at Freedom Christian Academy in Queen Creek, said the issue of competitive sports often comes into play when parents decide to switch schools. In many of those cases, they transfer to public schools. But the other side of the equation — academics — often keeps them in private schools.
“They do not want to transition because ... academic mediocrity is just rampant right now in public school systems,” Healy said.
For many other parents, it is more a question of socialization, she said.
“They are afraid of sheltering their child to the point of not getting the experiences they need to live healthy lives in society,” Healy said.
“At the same time, there are so many negative and bad influences. They are afraid their children will get sucked into that kind of lifestyle ... they’ll start acting out or seeing rebellion, seeing the lower grades because they’ll want to look cool and cave to peer pressure.”
Educators say that many children who switch to public schools will experience some initial culture shock.
For some, it’s smaller things — for example, science classes that focus on evolution instead of creationism.
Alek Vutipadadorn, 14, expects to face that next fall when he attends Mesquite High School in the Gilbert Unified School District.
“(At Pilgrim) we learn about science from what God’s word says, and we kind of skip that evolution part,” he said.
The students also face more comprehensive changes, too. For many, it’s the first time they will be surrounded by classmates who have very different religious or cultural backgrounds.
That’s why Sandy Callahan was glad her five children made the transition in high school, when they were still at home with her. She felt her children’s Lutheran elementary school gave them a good foundation, but that it was time for them to experience a bigger school with more diversity.
“They are going to face a lot of things they didn’t see. Coming from a smaller school they are very secluded, with only their small group of friends who basically come from the same environment or same home family life,” said Callahan, whose youngest daughter, Calley, 15, started attending Higley High School last fall. “When they go to the public school they will see everything. ... When you’re faced with that in high school, you can still come to your parents and talk to them and work it out together.