Michelle West can still locate her old classrooms at Woodley Knoll Elementary. But today, what was once a public school for West and a generation of black students is now a private Christian school that her daughter attends.
"They put God in math; they put God in science. Everything is spiritually focused," said West, 32, a program assistant for the U.S. courts system. West, a widow, has enrolled her 12-year-old daughter at Renaissance Christian Academy in Suitland since the girl was in kindergarten.
At a time when many parents question the quality of the public schools in Prince George's, a growing number of middle-class parents such as West are choosing private parochial schools with the expectation that their children will become better grounded both spiritually and academically.
"Many parents are looking for a moral foundation for their children," said Lisa Weathers, principal of Renaissance. "Many black parents feel disconnected from the public schools because there is less accountability. They are looking for a safe, nurturing place for their children."
Children at Renaissance have "Prayer and Praise" devotionals every day. There also is a chapel service every Wednesday, and the Bible is part of the curriculum at every grade level. "We also look for staff people who not only know God's word," Weathers said, "but model the word in their behavior."
Galilee Baptist Church opened Renaissance in 1991 with only 13 preschool students. Today the school has more than 200 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. Classes are held in a school building that was closed in the 1980s when the county built a newer building next door to house Edgar Allan Poe Elementary.
Galilee, under the leadership of its former pastor, the Rev. Eugene Weathers, was founded in the District in 1954. In the fall of 1990, the 2,500-member church purchased the school building for $1 million and became one of the first big churches from the District to move into Maryland. Lisa Weathers, the minister's ex-wife, said, "It was always part of the church's vision to have the religious community provide a unique educational experience for children."
In a county with many large African American houses of worship, several have opened elementary schools in recent years, and more are being planned. Jericho City of Praise, First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Church of the Great Commission and National Church of God all operate schools. Most offer classes from prekindergarten to junior high.
Catholic schools also are thriving. Vincent Clark, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said there are 9,500 students enrolled for the fall in county Catholic schools, and enrollment numbers have been going up during the last decade.
"The enrollment for 1991-1992 school year was 8,618," Clark said. "The enrollment this past school year was just over 9,300 students, and that is an increase of nearly 9 percent."
In the Catholic school system, there are 20 elementary schools, five high schools and two early childhood programs. Clark said 43 percent of the students in the elementary schools and 55 percent of those in the high schools are members of minority groups.
There are 15 private high schools in Prince George's County, 17 middle schools, 30 elementary schools and 42 prekindergarten programs. Most of the schools are run by religious institutions. Annual tuition at most parochial schools in the county is $4,000 to $6,000.
With 850 students, Riverdale Baptist, near Upper Marlboro, is one of the largest Christian schools in the county. In the last three decades, the school has gone from being predominantly white to having a large minority enrollment, according to church officials.
"When it comes to the issue of race, that is a church issue," said the Rev. Brian Mentzer, Riverdale Baptist's pastor. "The Bible says there is neither Jew nor Greek; we are all one in Christ." Mentzer said that his school has attracted families of all races because of its "emphasis is on excellence" and that it has "a proven track record."
Rhonda Jolly, 33, of Temple Hills, had two children enrolled at Riverdale Baptist last year. Jolly, who is black, said she enrolled her children there because the school doesn't compromise when it comes to Christian values. "As a believer in Christ, this is important."
When Lanham Christian School opened its doors in the late 1970s, the school, which has students in kindergarten through grade 12, was predominantly white, but today the majority of students at the school are black.
"There is a common bond here at the school that transcends race," said Linda Benjamin, principal of the elementary school division of Lanham Christian. Benjamin, who is white, is a member of Grace Brethren Church, which operates the school.
Benjamin said that although the students score one grade higher than those in public schools and the classes are smaller, the most frequent reason parents give for wanting their children there is for them to have Christian values instilled in their education.
Etrulia Lee, administrator of Shabach Christian Academy, operated by First Baptist Church of Glenarden, said, "If you look at Renaissance, Shabach and Jericho, there is a trend.
"You have parents putting their children into African American Christian schools who not only want moral underpinnings for their children, but they want a sense of their heritage," Lee said.
In the African American community, Lee said, "we have always been taught that white people's sugar is sweeter and their ice is colder, but there's a new breed of parents who know that integration hurt and want their children in an environment of excellence."
Prince George's County school board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) acknowledged that some black parents increasingly are attracted to Christian education. But, he said, this trend might not be the best thing for the community in the long run.
"There is a certain amount of Christian revivalism taking place in the black community," Thornton said. "The second thing is you have more economic affluency in the black community, which gives people an opportunity to build institutions like large churches, schools and financial institutions."
Thornton said the black middle class shouldn't leave the public school system so quickly. "What you are doing is moving away from what you have paid for. You build communities around public schools, not private schools."
Thornton said even families who have children in private schools still need to support public education. "We have to be smart and economically wise. If you sell your house in Kettering, they are going to ask, 'How is Largo High School?' "
CAPTION: Lisa Weathers is principal at Suitland's Renaissance Christian Academy, which has prayer devotionals every day for its more than 200 students.