Two families share their experiences
by Melodie M. Davis
Why pay for a private school for your children for elementary, middle or high school when there are so many excellent public schools in the Valley with abundant, well-trained teachers—and many with strong faith backgrounds? What’s more, these teachers have often graduated from noteworthy education programs at the four-year schools here: James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University and Bridgewater College.
Chad and Jill McGlaughlin are parents who switched their children from public to private schools recently, starting in the fall of 2015. Jill is the owner of Classic Kitchens in Harrisonburg and Chad is president of Classic Distribution, Inc. in Mt. Crawford. Their children are son Grady, a seventh grader at Eastern Mennonite Middle School and daughter Marley, in the fifth grade at Eastern Mennonite Elementary School.
At Marley’s previous school, she recalls the playground being fenced in and feeling like it was too small for everyone to play. “They kind of put you in a box there,” she observed. At Eastern Mennonite, she enjoys an expanded environment playing in the woods, on the basketball court and more. Plus she likes that students are not put in other boxes, such as a “smarter” or a more advanced group while other students are in a slower group. At her new school there is only one class of fifth graders, and at her former school there were four rooms of fifth graders. Marley feels like she knows all the children in the entire elementary school.
Grady notes while he doesn’t really know what the transition to middle school would have been like in public school, he has enjoyed the much more hands-on teaching style in many of his middle school classes including science, where teachers sometimes double up periods so they can explore things like fungus or trees through hikes in the nearby woods. “And instead of working alone in math, you are in partner groups,” Grady commented. He’s experiencing extra requirements, like each student has to learn an instrument in sixth grade. Grady chose to play the oboe and although he is not required to keep on playing after the sixth grade he has continued to play his instrument of choice.
The atmosphere in most private schools, because of smaller size, is more of a family atmosphere.
Jill added both children have struggles with dyslexia, and the move to private school was in part motivated by the desire for a more intimate class environment and individualized attention when needed. As parents, they have been very pleased with teachers who seem “really ready to listen and help children succeed in the classroom,” stated Jill. Plus the elementary school principal, Maria Archer, took a special interest in learning more about this common learning disability.
Overall, the McGlaughlins have been impressed with “the quality of the administration, great classes in history and science, and communication with parents,” said Jill. They teach about faith, but more with the goal of helping kids grow into being “good persons with good character, and good citizens,” she noted. Along these lines, Marley mentioned her peacebuilding class where children do practical peacemaking by helping around the school with a school garden, organizing a peace parade with a dove flag and origami paper birds for decorations. Eastern Mennonite also enjoys an ample diversity of students from different races, cultures, religions and social backgrounds.
At the elementary level, every Wednesday they have what is called “a gathering” where someone speaks or performs music, or artists talk about their work.
Grady enjoys the opportunity of learning outside the confines of a school building. “My cousin goes to a public middle school where they are lucky to have two field trips in a year; we have five or six, like a camping trip, exploring and studying parasites in creeks at Riven Rock,” he explained.
An additional feature Grady enjoys about his new middle school is every Tuesday morning, school starts thirty minutes later because teachers have a weekly meeting. Jill drives the children to school, so on Tuesdays, after they drop Marley off at her school, Grady and Jill enjoy special one-on-one time with bagels at a Mr. J’s Bagels shop.
At the seventh grade level, the children participate in wider community service days where they have helped do things like clean out a garden for winter and worked with students at Thomas Harrison Middle School to build a bike path for their school, which Dad Chad thought was notable.
For church, the McGlaughlins alternate between Keezletown United Methodist Church and Asbury UMC. At Eastern Mennonite school meetings or events where there is oftentimes singing, they always enjoy the beautiful voices of the gathered parents, faculty and children (many of them from Mennonite backgrounds where a cappella singing is still very common in most churches).
Chad admitted his son was not excited about transferring to his new school a year and a half ago. In fact he did not want to make the move. Adjusting to middle school is hard enough without having to find new friends at school.
But after a year at Eastern Mennonite Middle School, as they were driving somewhere, Grady told his dad, “I love my school.” It was sweet affirmation of the family’s decision.
In a different part of the county, Brian and Ashley Carr’s four children who are now 7, 9, 12 and 14 have gone to a private school ever since they began preschool, although the parents kind of stumbled into doing that. Brian and Ashley both went through Rockingham County public schools in the Bridgewater area (John Wayland, Wilbur Pence and Turner Ashby schools) and felt they got a fine education.
The Carrs live near Dayton where Brian is co-owner of Carr Masonry and Construction, and Ashley is a stay-at-home mother. At the point their oldest son Sam was ready to start pre-K, they felt it made sense for him to go to nearby Blue Ridge Christian School which has its elementary and middle school in Bridgewater.
Then when he was ready for kindergarten, continuing there seemed best and thus it went on up through elementary. Sam is now a freshman at the high school campus of BRCS in Dayton. One of the things Ashley loves about the school is the fact the middle schoolers still have many connections with the younger children (reading buddies, prayer buddies) and seem to know children at every grade level.
That’s also part of the atmosphere in most private schools where generally, the much smaller size compared to larger public schools lends more of a family or at least friendly atmosphere.
When asked what they like about their school, Jacob, 12 said the teachers at Blue Ridge are “kind and nice. They keep your interest and teach things in different ways.” Emma, 9, recently participated in “Math Olympics,” which is like a spelling bee for math—a subject that all of the Carr children enjoy and do well in. With a carpenter father, they sometimes put math into practice helping him; when they try to respond to this reporter’s question about how long their dining room table is in the large new home they moved into last August, one quickly grabs a measuring tape (that is too short) but add up their answer: 14 feet.
At Blue Ridge, the overall head of the school is Karen Shomo. It began in 1990 with 80 students enrolled from K through 7 and now the increasingly diverse 275 students can participate in numerous intramural and extracurricular sports like basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball and cross-country. In March they gear up for the schools’ own “March Madness” basketball teams and playoffs; there are ample music opportunities with classes held at the school in piano, guitar, choir and band. There is drama, with the fourth graders annually putting on C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which is becoming a beautiful shared tradition among all the Carr children, according to Ashley.
There are no school uniforms but they do observe a dress code where kids are to dress modestly and not wear shirts with messages; they are also encouraged to dress up on Wednesday, chapel day. (Young Daniel, age 7, donned a necktie just for fun for this interview. See photo on p. 7.) The school observes a grandparents’ day and a pastor appreciation day when pastors come from the 70-some churches represented at the school. They can choose a “worship band” class for high school and middle schoolers, where kids practice leading music for their respective church worship services. The Carr family participates in New Beginnings church near Dayton.
Scholarship help for tuition and expenses is available for low to middle income families (and fees are found on various school websites). A loyalty program gets your family a break for each year a student has been enrolled ($100 a year up to eight years) on tuition, in addition to a pastors’ discount program.
And yes, there is some misbehavior. When asked what kind, the Carr children mentioned kids talking when they’re not supposed to, and that offenders were assigned “lunchtime detention.”
“We trust each other,” said one of the children. “We don’t have locks on our lockers.” Then Emma deadpans, “Sure, you can take my homework, go ahead. There isn’t anything of much value in the lockers!”
As a mother, one of the things Ashley appreciates is the sense of family as part of a relatively small school. “The teachers are so invested, so committed to working with you on everything, and really concerned about character development as well. Academics are outstanding, but without character, what good are academics?” asks Ashley.
Good behavior is often very evident on field trips and children “reflect the light of Jesus wherever they go,” said Ashley. For instance, on trips to see the Shenandoah Caverns near Mt. Jackson, at the deepest part of the cave the tradition is for children, teachers and chaperones to sing the beloved hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” The beautiful tones and words echo in the cavernous space.
“I cry every single time,” smiled Ashley.
Melodie Davis is editor of Valley Living and grew up in northern Indiana where she went to a Christian high school for three years.
Christian schools in the Valley Living area (not a complete list)
• Redeemer Classical School, Keezletown, Pre-K through 8th grade, www.redeemerclassical.org
• Cornerstone Christian School, Broadway and Harrisonburg, preschool through middle school, www.ccsconnection.org
• Grace Christian School, Staunton, preschool to 12th grade, two campuses, www.gcswarriors.org
• Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, includes Eastern Mennonite Elementary School (EMES), Eastern Mennonite Middle School (EMMS) and Eastern Mennonite High School (EMHS), www.emhs.net
• Blue Ridge Christian School, Bridgewater and Dayton, preschool through high school, www.brcschool.org