Here where the remnants of Dallas' northwestern suburbs dwindle away sits the nondescript warehouse that has launched 4,000 schools.
By dusting off the 19th century concept of the one-room schoolhouse and marrying it to the marketing concepts of a fast food franchise, Accelerated Christian Education Inc. has planted schools among the suburbs and crossroads of fundamentalist America, fueling the proliferation of Christian schools.
According to one independent estimate -- by James S. Catterall, an education professor at UCLA -- more than 200,000 students are enrolled in schools in which the curriculum is based in whole or in part on ACE. In the Washington area alone, a dozen schools use some aspect of the curriculum.
For a $5,000 fee, ACE offers a philosophy built around the infallibility of the Bible, a two-week training course for pastors who wish to start their own schools, and a stack of stapled fill-in-the-blanks workbooks, or Packets of Accelerated Christian Education (PACEs) -- the distillation of founder Donald R. Howard's belief that schools do not need teachers, grades or classrooms.
ACE directs its newly minted school principals or "supervisors" to set students up in individual carrels, or "offices, where they study silently with their workbooks for three or four hours daily, letting a cartoon character named Ace and his friends teach them everything from elementary reading to high school history and "creation science."
"What's unique about ACE is that it's instant school . . . an instant remedy to something a number of pastors and laymen around the country perceived as a problem in the public schools," said James Carper, an education professor at Mississippi State University.
At Fairfax Baptist Academy in Fairfax County, for example, 55 students, grades seven through 12, work silently through their ACE workbooks in a single room. The students themselves set daily goals for the number of pages they will complete, and they grade their own tests. The room is neat and quiet: When students need to go to the bathroom or sharpen a pencil, they post a Christian flag to get the attention of the supervisor. If they have a question concerning their work, they signal with the American flag.
"They don't waste time holding their hands up," said Alan Edmondson, ACE supervisor at Fairfax Baptist, where the lower grades and some high school subjects are taught in traditional teacher-run classrooms.
The ACE workbooks are saturated with biblical references. Sixth-grade English students must identify the subject of the sentence "Jesus is the Messiah." Eleventh-grade history students must name three characteristics of communism. The answer: "atheistic, satanic and conspiratorial."
A central grading area is available to students to check their answers. In almost all cases, there is only one right answer. Many of the answers can be found in biblical verses. The works of Shakespeare and Dickens no longer appear among ACE-approved texts, though "Heidi," "Robinson Crusoe" and "The Swiss Family Robinson" do.
"We've come to the conclusion that there are enough Christian authors and character-building material that are more favorable than just the typical literature selections that government schools use," said Ronald Johnson, an ACE official.
Founded as a nonprofit venture, ACE was reincorporated as a for-profit concern in 1972. Beginning with a single school in Garland, Tex., and pasted-together workbooks purchased from another Texas publisher, the corporation by 1979 was grossing $1 million a month, according to papers filed in a lawsuit brought by one of the organization's original directors.
When the figures for 1984 are totaled, ACE officials believe, they will have brought in more than $22 million in revenue -- more than 25 percent of the current average revenue of the 10 largest textbook publishers in the country.
ACE's success lies in its ability to respond to men and women who are deeply suspicious of the values and standards of the public schools.
"Many people in the Christian community thoughout America felt like public education had denied God and negated the idea of the Christian faith," said a Kentucky teacher familiar with the ideas and people who spawned ACE. "Someone had to give a structure to that."
The someone, in ACE's case, was Howard. Described by a professor at Bob Jones University, where he received a doctorate, as a man who "could sell the horns off a billy goat," Howard migrated from the South Carolina campus of the conservative Christian university to Kentucky and then to Garland, a maze of asphalt where the pickup trucks far outnumber the trees, where Howard met a lawyer named Wyatt Lipscomb, and ACE was born.
According to a lawsuit Lipscomb filed against Howard and ACE in 1978, the two men sat down in Lipscomb's home in February 1970 "and shared their ideas and desires for the establishment of a Christian education program." In the suit, Lipscomb claimed credit for the "franchise" marketing approach that has been a key to ACE's success.
That fall, the first ACE-type school opened in the Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland, where Howard was a parishioner. Then an ACE school began in Arkansas. Then one in Kansas.
"He reached pastors through personal visits," said Walter Fremont, chairman of the Bob Jones education department. "Other pastors became his salesmen. Pastors who got schools going told other pastors, 'You could have a school in your church, too.' "
By 1974, there were 479 schools and a new curriculum, the second edition, completely written by ACE-trained authors. ACE was then asking pastors to use their materials exclusively, for "quality control," one former ACE official said.
By the end of last year, there were 4,140 schools, including schools in Canada, the Philippines and west Africa. A third edition of the curriculum, in full color, has just been published.
Howard, who was visiting ACE schools in a motor home in the early 1970s, was able to fly in an ACE-leased airplane five years later, organizing large, evangelistic pep rallies for "his" students and setting up annual state and national competitions in academics and sports.
But the phenomenon Howard created and rode to such success had its problems, including several lawsuits, the biggest filed by Howard's onetime associate Lipscomb, who claimed Howard had executed a most un-Christian power grab in 1977, designed to oust Lipscomb from the firm he helped create.
Lipscomb would not comment on the events without an "agreement" for compensation. Howard himself is on "retreat" with his wife at a ranch ACE has purchased in Colorado, and he could not be reached for comment.
When asked about the abilities of children who have been through an ACE program, Johnson points to a 1983 experiment in which 7,280 children from schools that had been using ACE for four years took McGraw-Hill's California Achievement Test. At all grade levels the ACE children scored above the national medians, Johnson said.
But those results have not stilled the criticism of ACE's unorthodox methodology. Even other evangelicals are skeptical.
"Public schools have had workbooks for 100 years -- they're not the complete picture," said Fremont of Bob Jones. ACE "is a short cut, and you can't rule out teachers. Teachers are the heart of education -- that's what learning's all about."
John Esty, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, called ACE "an abomination," adding: "We have an obligation not only to teach basics, but an obligation to help kids with complex reasoning."
But Laurel Simpson, a 15-year-old senior at Fairfax Baptist, has taken many subjects through ACE and was able to skip a year of study. She scored in the top 5 percent nationally on preliminary college entrance exams and said she had offers from 200 colleges, including MIT, before deciding to attend Bob Jones. In a traditional classroom, she said, "I lose my train of thought because the teacher has to go over and over it."
She added, however, that studying physics would be easier with a teacher