The Monroe Saunders School in Baltimore and the Sheenway School and Culture Center in Los Angeles are separated by more than just 3,000 miles and three time zones. Located on a 22-acre campus of grassy, rolling hills in the suburban outskirts of Baltimore, Monroe Saunders School inhabits a stately, multi-story brick building that once housed a preppy boarding school for girls. Its 80 K-3 students wear uniforms, come from primarily middle- or upper middleclass professional families, and attend a school with a clear and undeniable religious setting. The school’s parent church, the worldwide First United Church of Jesus Christ-Apostolic, absorbs some of the school’s costs.
Sheenway inhabits a small complex of single-story units on the outskirts of Watts. The carpet in its reception area is held together with gray duct tape. Its 80 students come from both working- and middle-class families, some intact with two parents, some with only a mother. Its teachers use the Montessori and Socratic methods, and students progress without rigid class times or grade categories. With no sponsoring church for support, Sheenway must supplement tuition income with donation drives, car washes, bake sales, and many volunteer instructors.
But there are important similarities between Saunders and Sheenway. Both charge under $3,000 a year in tuition, less than what is spent per pupil at nearby public schools. Both produce students who attend college or professional schools in significant numbers. Both began as the vision of a single, entrepreneurial family. Both eschew government aid. And both are operated by and for black Americans.
It is the differences between Saunders and Sheenwayaetermined by their communities, their founders, and their philosophies- that suggest a solution to the nation’s education crisis. In America’s successful black private schools, no single approach seems to work best. Autonomous schools, diverse in program and personnel, meet the varying needs of students and parents. If the experience at Saunders, Sheenway, and other schools is any guide, education-reform efforts that rely on state mandates and higher spending are doomed. Diversity is the key to quality.
Black private schooling is a widespread but relatively little-known phenomenon. Joan Davis Ratteray-whose Insti- tute for Independent Education in Washington, D.C., has identified, studied, and publicized black and other minority private schools for half a decade-speaks of an “Underground Railroad in minority education” that allows the “slaves” of failed public schools to “escape to freedom.” Like its Underground Railroad precursor, America’s network of black private schools can offer services to only a small percentage of the population, but news of the network’s success, spread by family - ties and word of mouth, inspires many other blacks. And just 0 5 as the Harriet Tubmans of the Underground Railroad pursued 2 their visions of freedom with tireless effort and personal devo-tion, so do black schools usually reflect the personality, character, and ideals of a single person or family, frequently the school’s namesake. These founders and educators immerse themselves in their schools, so much so that person and institution become almost indistinguishable.
While the charisma of its leaders and the reputation of its learning environment have brought acclaim to many a school exemplified by the nationwide and even worldwide fame of Chicago educator and school founder Marva Collins-some education scholars, public officials, and even civil rights groups question the black independent school mystique. Some contend that the schools’ high levels of student achievement, low dropout rates, and impressive college completion rates reflect not superior instruction but simply students already destined for success, because of family background or natural talents.
Others question the much-vaunted cost savings posted by these schools, saying that their hefty church subsidies and abysmal teacher salaries cannot or should not be duplicated elsewhere. Still other critics contend that private schools with predominantly black or other minority student populations foster racial segregation and separatism, interfering with comprehensive integration efforts in the public schools and depriving students of what these critics view as a crucial role of public education: socialization of minorities into the mainstream culture of the United States.
These criticisms must sting. And many schools seem reluctant, at least initially, to discuss their programs and principles with the media or other outside observers. Will straightforward talk, they must ask themselves, about education, religion, and race hurt or help the cause? But once reassured, their enthusiasm becomes immediately apparent. As far as they’re concerned, the success of their schools demonstrates the fundamental shortcomings of public education-and refutes the still-lingering suspicion among some Americans that black children can’t learn and black parents don’t care.
In 1965, Bishop Monroe Saunders founded the United IC hurch of Jesus Christ-Apostolic and quickly located a church in Baltimore. The area, he told family members, also needed a school to provide “the best education possible within a spiritual atmosphere,” says his son and current school administrator, Bishop Monroe Saunders, Jr. “The idea was not to teach Bible,” he says, “but to allow children to grow up without feeling that there is a necessary separation of God and life.”
In 1977 the church bought another private school’s former campus and buildings, and in 1978 it opened the Center for Creative Learning, with six kindergarten students. The next year, the school added day care. Eventually the pre-kindergarten operation took the name Center for Creative Learning, while the kindergarten and higher grades became known as the Monroe Saunders School. Over the years, the number of grades and students has fluctuated widely, ranging as high as 200 students. The school currently teaches 80 students, grades K through 3, and another 80 preschoolers. Fourth grade will reappear in 1991.
Monroe Saunders, Sr., his family, and the staff members he recruited-often from the Baltimore public schools determined the school’s philosophy, curriculum, texts, and materials. But “to be certain our education program was applicable” to the middle and high schools that students would eventually attend, the younger Saunders says, the school sought and received accreditation from the state of Maryland.
The school retains a very clear religious and philosophical orientation. Its Christian setting “was an answer to a prayer,” says the school’s new principal, Brenda Sewell, who started her job in September. Outside her office, a large bulletin board proclaims, “We Are Proud Of Our Heritage,” with pictures and biographical descriptions of Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, and other black figures in American history.
Sewell came to the Saunders school from the Baltimore city system, having served 12 years in administration and more than 20 years as a teacher. She’s enthusiastic about the change. “In the city, I could spend only about 15 minutes a day in the classroom,” Sewell says of her tenure as an elementary school principal. “Here I have the prospect of having more time to spend with the children.” Indeed, while I interviewed one of her teachers, Sewell stepped into the third-grade classroom and led the students in counting to 10 in Spanish. She says she often helps teachers in the classroom, getting to know the students and keeping in constant contact with her instructors.
Other advantages the school has over its public counterparts, Sewell says, are smaller class sizes (ranging from about 15 to 20 students); ease and speed in obtaining textbooks and other supplies; a religious atmosphere that, in her view, promotes discipline and encourages learning; and a lack of administrative or bureaucratic barriers between teacher and child. “The first impression I had is that you as a teacher don’t feel the pressure of satisfying so many opinions or supervisors,” she says. Her staff consists of 10 full- and part-time teachers: two for kindergarten, one for each grade, a Spanish teacher, a computer teacher, a music teacher, and a couple of other consultants. Of the five grade-level teachers, two are white, though the student body 1s 100-percent black. “I think that kids need to see all races in authority and as followers,” Sewell says. In a pattern often duplicated among black private schools, parents volunteer in the classroom. The school maintains an open-door policy so parents can visit anytime.
“It’s lovely to teach here,” says Beonia Jeter, who teaches first grade. A retired public-school teacher, she praises the school’s small size, supportive parents, and eager students (whose uniforms “calm them down because they aren’t competing to wear the best clothes”). Jeter also likes having greater control over curriculum. The salary, of course, is significantly lower than what she earned before, but her public-school pension eases the financial pressure. Ultimately, she confides, “you can’t think about the money. That’s not the point.”