There's a lot more to faith-based schools than morning prayers and religion classes.
"The notion of learning to live in the faith is a big thing," explains Alan Sears, professor of social studies education at the University of New Brunswick. For many schools, integrating faith-based principles into everyday life can range from fostering a respectful, tolerant environment to encouraging students to participate in community service projects.
Sears points out that a faith-based worldview extends far beyond religion class. "There are worldviews reflected in every subject, including math and science," he says. "There's an assumption that math is neutral. But many of the world problems [in secular schools] reflect a capitalist worldview, because they are about making money. None of them are about sharing it or giving it away."
Many faith-based schools, such as Northmount School in Toronto, Ontario, have substantial portions of the student body that don't adhere to that particular faith. Northmount's director of admissions Manfred von Vulte estimates that 30 per cent of Northmount students are non-Catholic. "We talk about how one leads a good life. That's applicable to everyone," he says. "We are not in the business of converting anyone. Our position is that we want our students to be the best adherents to whatever religion they observe."
For observant students, religion courses can help them gain a more comprehensive understanding of their faith. "There's just too much to teach in Sunday school or youth groups," says Sears. Northmount Grade 8 student Cahal is Catholic and appreciates being able to learn in a Catholic environment. "It's good to have religion in your everyday life," he says. "There's a chapel in the school, I like that." Northmount students attend mass twice a week, led by two retired priests. Von Vulte says that there's something in the sermons for everyone, not just Catholic students. "When they talk to the boys it's not so much about Catholic doctrine, it's more like be kind to your neighbour," he explains.
Sears says that while most faith-based schools do a great job of promoting tolerance and understanding of other viewpoints, some schools may provide a narrow education. "Some are too focused on the faith and they can teach people to be closed to other worldviews," he says. He recommends that parents check out the curriculum before they decide to enrol their children in any given school.
— Annette Bourdeau
A Faith-based Schools Q & A with Barbara Bierman
Combining solid academic programs with spiritual guidance, faith-based schools provide a balanced education.
Q: What are the unique features of a faith-based school?
A: All of the learning is influenced by faith, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Sikhism or something else. Also, because many people from different countries and backgrounds tend to associate with each other, these schools tend to be culture-based as well as faith-based. With all subject areas, schools infuse the faith perspective and the cultural background into everything students do.
Q: What are the benefits of a faith-based school?
A: For families where faith is a priority, the school becomes a partner in helping your child develop an intimate understanding of and connection to their faith. But what’s also important and valuable is that it’s not about indoctrination—different theories, world views and ideologies are introduced and framed next to the student’s belief system. It’s important to do this in a country as diverse as this one, so that kids learn to become free thinkers and respectful of other faiths.
Q: How do I know if a faith-based school is a good fit for my child?
A: Parents have to look for what best matches the environment in their home. That may be a cultural, religious or pedagogical decision. They should be asking themselves, How does my child learn best? What sort of schools match up to our faith system? Parents also need to consider the spectrum of different religious orders. For instance, Christianity has several denominations, so they need to look into that detail when considering faith-based schools.
- Barbara Bierman is Executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools
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