Strength in Diversity

How do you get kids to learn and parents to care? The success of black private schools underscores the need for choice.


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 middle-class 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 Sheenway—determined 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 Institute 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 as the Harriet Tubmans of the Underground Railroad pursued their visions of freedom with tireless effort and personal devotion, 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 Church 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 is 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."

The school does use a screening process for student admission. "We want children to come to Monroe Saunders who are going to be prepared for success," Sewell says. But about 94 percent of applicants are admitted. Sewell notes that the school doesn't have the resources to handle some learning disabilities or other problems.

On average, Saunders students test at least a grade level above public-school students in reading or math skills. In a nationwide testing program for day-care institutions, Center for Creative Learning students scored in the 90th percentile.

The students come from all around the Baltimore area. Parents drop off about half the kids, while the rest come by bus. (The school maintains a long-term contract with a private bus company.) Only about a third of the students and their families belong to the Saunders church. Formal religious education consists mainly of nondenominational morning devotions, frequently revolving around examples of the monthly "principle," such as patience, love, thanksgiving, or self-control. Students learn Bible verses that reflect the monthly principle.

The younger Bishop Saunders pegs the school's per-pupil expenditure at around $4,000—considerably more than its $2,800 annual tuition. The church absorbs utility and capital costs, and its members—along with a school parents' association—conduct frequent fundraising drives.

Saunders says that other Baltimore-area private schools spend about $5,000 to $6,000 per student, while the Baltimore City School System reports yearly per-pupil expenditure of almost $4,500. "We're trying to be competitive," Saunders says. "The school is our mission, but it is still a business."

A visit to the Monroe Saunders School is illuminating. Physically and structurally, the school resembles many other private and even public schools, though the former boarding school's building lends an academic, scholarly aura not common at the elementary school level. The difference is a subtle one, one of atmosphere. A visitor is left with an impression of both calm reserve and infectious enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm, but little calm, abounds at Los Angeles's Sheenway School and Culture Center. Near the end of the school day, parents pick up their children and receive motherly advice from director Delores Sheen, as volunteer instructors arrive to teach their afternoon classes. "Aunt Dolores," as the Sheenway community calls her, is always accessible. "She's not just the school," says one mother, flashing a sly smile at Sheen, "she's also our nurse and our doctor and everything."

All sorts of pictures, paintings, posters, and portraits of JFK, MLK, and other historical figures cover the school's walls. The emphasis is clearly on stimulation, not orderliness. "All Unattended Children Will Be Sold Into Slavery," proclaims one note on the bulletin board. Above the door, a computer-printed banner announces, "Sheenway Loves Mandela."

Sheen, tearing herself away from a group of parents, relates the story of how her father, a physician, decided to found the school. After moving to California from Texas, Dr. Herbert Sheen built a medical clinic in Watts—"which was unheard of," his daughter says—and saw firsthand the many challenges facing families in the neighborhood. The Watts riots brought many problems out into the open. Dr. Sheen tried to help black entrepreneurs start and maintain businesses in Watts, but numerous enterprises failed. Eventually he decided that the community first needed a center of learning.

"He pooled his own resources, cashed in life insurance, and combined that with community resources" to start Sheenway School and Culture Center, Delores Sheen explains, "and that's probably why we're still standing." In addition to the school itself, the complex includes a preschool, a martial arts academy and a theater arts academy. "We wanted to give [neighborhood kids] a complete and wholesome approach to learning," Sheen says.

Five years after founding the school, Dr. Sheen died. It was a difficult time for Sheenway, both inspirationally and financially. "During the first five years, we didn't have to worry much about money," Sheen remembers, since her father's medical practice had generated funds to subsidize the school.

The school now charges $2,600 in annual tuition but couldn't survive without donations and fundraisers. Parents must volunteer to perform some task—aiding instructors, teaching their own classes, helping with maintenance—at least once a month, or else pay an extra $35. Parents of scholarship students must volunteer even more. Even factoring in parents' "sweat equity," however, it's hard to believe Sheenway spends anywhere near the $6,000 or so spent per pupil by Los Angeles's public schools—"and you get more bang for the buck," Sheen adds.

The "bang" is supplied in an open, or progressive, atmosphere. Sheenway operates without rigid class times or official grade levels. Sheen doesn't believe in standardized testing, and she keeps teachers focused on whether students can apply what they learn. "Learning by rote is not enough," she frequently tells them.

The faculty includes 6 paid teachers and 10 volunteers, who teach once or twice a week. The volunteers enrich Sheenway's curriculum with courses in history (taught by an L.A. policeman), dance, Chinese, architecture, and computers. Up to 80 students attend the school every year, with 12 to 15 children per teacher the usual ratio. Sheenway's school day is longer than most, and the school is closed for only two weeks during the summer.

Sheen measures the school's success in part by the success of its graduates. One girl started at Sheenway in elementary school. Soon after her arrival, she attacked Sheen with a pair of scissors. Now the student is finishing her business degree at the University of California at Santa Barbara and has told Sheen that she'd like to return as Sheenway's business manager—another role that the already overburdened Sheen currently fills.

The school has never received government funds, not because it fears regulation but because of the bad example it would set. "The community is already in a syndrome of welfare, of dependency," Sheen says. "Charity must begin at home."

The differences between Sheenway and Saunders reflect the diversity typical of black private schools. In 1987, Ratteray surveyed more than 200 schools around the country. Her resulting study, Dare to Choose, reported that about half were secular schools and half religious. Their average size was about 49 students at elementary or middle schools, 110 at secondary schools. Their average annual tuition was $1,700, although five boarding schools skewed that average a little high. Less than 20 percent received any money from government, foundations, or corporations.

Some schools, like Xavier Prep High School in New Orleans, are Catholic schools with long and celebrated traditions. An all-girls school teaching up to 500 students a year, Xavier was founded in 1915 to provide Catholic education to black children. Eventually, it grew to include a college of arts and sciences, a pharmacy school, and a teachers college as well as secondary education. In 1932, Xavier Prep and Xavier University were separated. Graduates of Xavier Prep include a Xavier University president, a New Orleans mayor, and the first black person to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. About 90 percent of Xavier Prep students go on to college.

Other schools range from progressive-ed schools to strictly religious ones, in which denominational doctrine suffuses the curriculum. Some cater to wealthier families, others focus on blighted inner cities, and still others try to integrate poor and rich kids in the same place with aggressive recruitment and scholarship strategies.

Schools pop up and close down with great frequency. Sometimes a group of parents with like-aged children either found a school or form the majority of a new school's student body. When those children graduate, the school can't replace them all, and it folds.

Many schools exist on a shoestring, unable to generate enough donations or other outside income to set a tuition price parents can afford. Two schools I had heard of and planned to visit no longer existed when I tried to call them. And most black private schools were, like Sheenway and Monroe Saunders, started over the last 15 to 20 years.

But not all. The Laurinburg Institute in Laurinburg, North Carolina, has one of the most interesting backgrounds of any private school. It was founded in 1904 by Emmanuel and Tinny McDuffie, two graduates of an Alabama teachers college under the aegis of Tuskegee Institute. The McDuffies, ages 16 and 17, answered the invitation of black farm workers in south-central North Carolina who wanted to educate their young children. Arriving in Laurinburg, the McDuffies turned for help to a successful white businessman (and ex-colonel in the Confederate Army) who employed many blacks. He gave them a piece of swamp land. They turned it into one of the most prestigious black prep schools in the nation.

Once, more than 1,500 students attended the school, from across the country and from many countries around the world—the current premier and governor of Bermuda, Sir John Swann, is a Laurinburg graduate. The school served as a gateway for students going on to traditionally black colleges across the South. In addition to academics, the school became known for music and athletics. Graduates include Dizzy Gillespie (school offices are now located in the "Gillespie Center") and basketball standouts like Sam Jones and Charlie Scott, the first black person to receive an athletic scholarship to a Southern university (he attended UNC-Chapel Hill, after being snubbed by a white restaurant owner during a recruiting visit to Davidson College near Charlotte).

After the Brown desegregation case of 1954, things changed. Some black families could finally send their children to better public schools. In 1955, the state of North Carolina—emboldened by and perhaps a little disgruntled about the Brown decision—declared that the Laurinburg Institute would have to close. Its buildings, the state claimed, were "dilapidated." Frank McDuffie, Sr., the founders' son, simply mobilized volunteers to move the school, brick by brick, to a new location. A candy sale raised the money to buy cement to reconstruct the buildings. After the state saw how much support Laurinburg had, it decided to leave the school alone.

Today, 60 boarding students and 15 day students attend the school, which has a ratio of 12 students to one teacher. Since 1954,87 percent of Laurinburg graduates have completed four years of college. Boarding students pay $6,500 for tuition, room, and board; 90 percent receive some form of financial aid. The Laurinburg Institute has never received government or church funds, though its program does include vespers and nondenominational chapel services. While a majority of the staff and many students are Southern Baptists, the diverse student body includes Catholics, Muslims, and others.

The school's current director is Frank McDuffie, Jr., the founders' grandson. He says that his teachers, many of whom could earn far more money as public-school teachers or university professors, choose to remain at Laurinburg because "it is a perfect laboratory setting to teach a group of people that public schools haven't been teaching well: black people."

Are the school's academic successes due to a careful process of selecting only likely achievers? No. Everyone who applies gets into Laurinburg. "I think that any screening process is a denial process," McDuffie says.

The Laurinburg Institute, McDuffie says, is a survivor, a remnant of the black private education that used to thrive throughout the South. In 1954, the school's athletic conference included 50 white private schools and eight black ones. In 1989, there were 300 white schools and one black—Laurinburg. "Integration didn't work," McDuffie contends, "it just decimated our institutions."

Critics, as a matter of fact, point to the racial exclusivity of some black private schools as one of their main drawbacks—or at least, a reason why the model should not be duplicated. This comes at a time when there is an undeniable revisionism among black scholars, educators, and parents about the importance and success of school integration.

The Committee on Policy for Racial Justice, a panel of prominent black scholars chaired by Duke University historian John Hope Franklin, recently released a report that called for a focus on educational quality, rather than simply desegregation. "We must fight for a decent education for black children wherever they are, whether in desegregated, integrated, or all-black schools," the report concluded.

Some longtime integration advocates are clearly distressed by such a shifting focus. Reacting to the increasing skepticism among blacks about education reforms to date, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial writer John Head wrote that "near-nostalgia for segregation schools has increased among blacks in recent years" but that "integrated schools offer the best hope that our children…will learn to accept people who are different from themselves "

Many black private schools not only have almost 100-percent minority enrollment but consider that homogeneity crucial to their educational program. Some tout a "non-Eurocentric" approach that places greater emphasis on African history and the contributions of blacks to American history, culture, and literature than do the public schools. It is one of their selling points.

Ratteray, writing in Dare to Choose, reports that "some [parents] have responded to the theme of Africanness by embracing it wholeheartedly, feeling a need to return to their roots. Others have approached it with ambivalence, while some have rejected it completely." Diversity on this point, as on many questions of school curricula and organization, seems to be the rule among black schools and their clients.

By far the most common argument made against the claims of black private schools—or of private schools in general—is that their academic successes are due to the quality of the students they admit, not to the schools' curricula or teachers. If private schools attract students from relatively wealthy families or families that encourage learning, the argument goes, then these schools will obviously produce high-achieving students regardless of their instructional quality.

University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman, whose research in the early 1980s indicated that private schools are more successful academically than public schools, notes that critics originally questioned the existence of a private-school advantage at all. Now they debate whether the advantage is large—as he suggests—or small. "All the evidence is against it being purely a matter of selection," he says.

Coleman's research centered on Catholic schools, which account for approximately 40 percent of American private schools. More than two-thirds of black private-school students attend Catholic schools. Even after adjusting for family background, Coleman found, Catholic students had higher scores on standardized achievement tests and lower dropout rates than did public-school students. From grades 10 to 12, his research found, the gap between black and white student achievement narrowed in Catholic schools but widened in public ones.

How these results apply to non-Catholic, black-operated schools is unclear. Some researchers have tried investigating what types of families send their children to such schools. In 1989, Robert T. Carter of Southern Illinois University and Faustine C. Jones-Wilson and Nancy L. Arnez of Howard University studied the makeup of Washington, D.C.-area black families who send their children to private schools. Fifty-seven percent were two-parent families. About 65 percent of the families were middle-income or higher, while only 4 percent could be formally classified as "poor." And about 46 percent of survey respondents—and 43 percent of their spouses—were college graduates.

While this study seems to indicate that black parents who choose private schools are relatively wealthy and educated, the Washington case may not be typical of black private-school markets. Black families in Washington, whether they patronize private or public schools, are more likely than those in other cities to be professionals or to have middle-class incomes.

By contrast, a study of 54 inner-city Catholic schools by Marquette University researchers found that only 28 percent of families with children in those schools had incomes above $15,000. Since both religious and nonreligious black schools appear to have higher levels of achievement than public schools, the data probably demonstrate an understandable tendency for inner-city, lower-income black families to choose low-tuition Catholic schools instead of more expensive independent schools. This is one case in which averages may misrepresent reality: There are black independent schools that teach rich, well-adjusted kids, and there are others that do an equally good job teaching predominantly poor, at-risk kids.

Many experts—including Ratteray, Coleman, and Brookings Institution scholar John Chubb—attribute the success of black private schools to some of the factors common to Sheenway, Monroe Saunders, and other institutions: a clear, inspirational mission; fewer bureaucratic barriers and more teacher autonomy; community support; and the undeniably crucial role of parents. Without parents' fundraising and volunteer time, many of the schools couldn't survive financially. That is a powerful motivator for parental involvement, one that does not exist in public education.

Researchers, reporters, even politicians may come and go at these black private schools—but their founders and teachers remain at the job, focusing not on regression analyses and political debates but instead on math tests and scraped knees. To these educators, the reason for their success is obvious: They determine what and how they will teach, and parents back up school classwork, discipline, and philosophy at home.

Frankly, people who support or oppose private education by and for minorities are likely to do so regardless of research trends. "I would be interested in seeing…how many parents have changed their minds about public and private schooling as a result of any studies," concludes one Phi Beta Kappan reviewer. "I'd like to know how many parents even know that the studies exist."

At Los Angeles's Sheenway, Dolores Sheen has spent more than an hour discussing her school and her approach to learning. She sums up: "It's not a good school just because you pass a test or meet a certain rule. It's what kind of students leave you. It's what parents think about it."

Passing parents, looking a bit harried as they lead their children out the door, nod in assent. They chose the school, and they believe in it. If parental support is as important as everyone—researchers, teachers, principals—says it is, then Sheen has already won half the battle.

Contributing Editor John Hood is publications and research director for the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a columnist for the Spectator (N.C.) magazine.

Choosing Choice? In the wake of Polly Williams's pioneering school choice plan in Milwaukee, many minority-run private schools are considering the very real possibility that their states or localities may consider a similar idea. The Milwaukee plan gives a $2,500-per-student voucher to 1,000 low-income families, mostly black, who choose to send their children to one of the city's independent schools. At this writing, the plan has survived legal challenge from the state's education establishment, but the controversy convinced some private schools that participation in the voucher program could be dangerous. As a result, private schools did not offer enough voucher slots to accommodate all families seeking them.

As on many other issues, administrators and teachers at black private schools express a diversity of opinions on pro-posed choice reforms. Dolores Sheen of L.A.'s Sheenway School and Culture Center enthusiastically supports choice plans that would include private or religious schools. "I approve because I like the concept of parents making choices," she says, indicating that such a process would set a good example in inner-city communities.

Brenda Sewell, principal of the Monroe Saunders School in Baltimore, is more cautious. "It's hard for me to support that," she says, "because I believe that the public schools need to be supported:" Bishop Monroe Saunders, Jr., shares her concern. "We don't want to be public-school bashers," he says. Still, he would support a carefully constructed plan and says his school would participate in one.

Frank McDuffie, Jr., director of the Laurinburg Institute, says that he probably wouldn't want to participate in a voucher-type program because of the prospect of increased government regulation. "If you dance to the music, then you've got to pay the piper," he says. "If you received aid, it would be hard to avoid their control."

Saunders shares McDuffie's concern, if not his conclusion. He says several years ago his school applied for, state funds to help finance construction of a new building for its day-care operation. When Saunders found that getting state money meant the day-care center could not teach religion, he canceled the application. "That would have defeated our purpose," he says. Still, he doesn't think increased regulation is a necessary result of a choice plan.

It need not be, says University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman, if choice plans merely use current laws reg-ulating private schools to determine their eligibility for government vouchers. But if further restrictions are placed on them, Coleman says, private and especially religious schools will be less likely to participate. "Public choice alone would not post nearly as significant educational gains," he warns.

— John Hood