Enrollment in the Protestant-sponsored private schools of Prince George's County, popularly called Christian schools, has increased more than 400 percent in the past decade.
According to Maryland Department of Education statistics, enrollment rose from 2,795 in 1969 to 8,142 in 1978. Mickey Creed, executive director of the Maryland Association of Christian Schools, estimates that nearly 7,000 students are now enrolled in Prince George's Christian schools.
The growth of the county's nearly 15 Christian schools is especially notable because it comes at a time when Catholic and public schools are adjusting to the decline in the school-age population as the nation hits the bottom of the 1950s baby boom.
While much of the initial growth at the Christian schools is explained by white flight from the public schools because of racial integration and court-ordered busing that began in 1973, their continued popularity is not as easily explained.
Many of the largest Christian schools in Prince George's bus students over long distances, and quite a few now boast black enrollments of 10 percent or more.
For example, Riverdale Baptist, the largest Christian school in the county with 1,350 students, claims to have 195 black students. A walk-through tour of Camp Springs Christian Schools revealed that black enrollment came close to 15 percent.
"At one time, busing was a factor in a lot of parents' decision to send their kids to Christian schools, but I don't think many of them kept their kids in them for that reason," said Creed, who is also principal of the Independent Baptist Academy in Clinton. "People who come to Christian schools for emotional reasons don't stay for very long."
"I think parents send their children to Christian schools because they want them to get a good quality education and solid training in moral and spiritual values," added Creed.
Christian school administrators and parents interviewed echoed Creed's views.
"There are fewer discipline problems in the Christian schools than there are in the public schools," said Mike Rice of Clinton, whose three sons attend Camp Springs Christian Schools. "Teachers have to have the attention of students before they teach.
"Anyway, it stands to reason that since we're Christians and we want our children to be good Christians, we'd send them to Christian schools," Rice added.
"I was brought up in a Christian atmosphere, and I want my daughter to grow up in one," said Ella Holloway of Morningside."They don't even allow prayer in the public schools anymore. Do you call that a Christian atmosphere?"
Holloway's daughter attends Camp Springs Christian Schools and her two sons attend public school.
"If it wasn't for the finances, my two fourth graders would be going to Christian school too," she added.
Tuition at most Christian schools hovers around $1,000 a year. At Camp Springs, student must abide by a strict dress and discipline code. Moreover, parents must sign a form that allows school authorities to use corporal punishment.
For the most part, the curriculum resembles that of a public school, the only major differences being that fewer electives are allowed and a religion course is required each year. In addition, it is not unusual for references to the Bible to be made in courses like social studies.
"We teach students to glorify God in every thing they do," said Jon Hoey, principal of Camp Springs Christian Schools. "That's why the Bible is so central to our curriculum."
According to Hoey, his school is largely financed through tuition. The school rents its property from the Camp Springs Community Church, which sits at the entrance to the school parking lot.
Hoey and other Christian principals interviewed said the schools do very little recruiting.
"Our best advertising comes by word-of-mouth from parents," said Ellsworth McIntyre, principal of Capitol Christian Academy in Upper Marlboro.
"There's a real need in ths country for religious training in the schools," said Creed. "I think everyone knows that real religious training begins in the home, but the schools can definitely help to nurture religious growth.
"The public schools can't fulfill that role since they no longer allow prayer or other religious training, so Christian schools will take their place."