By Curt Yeomans
Lauren Wiggins attended a big elementary and a large middle school in Clayton County, but she and her mother wanted something smaller when it came time for high school.
With the approval of her mother, Sharon, she enrolled at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School in Fairburn.
"Coming from a public school, you wouldn't think I'd prefer being around less students, but I like small class sizes," the young Riverdale resident said. "Everybody knows everybody else. No one feels left out here."
The change from bigger to smaller, and public to private, said Sharon Wiggins, is to give her daughter more opportunity to get help from teachers. "I think the details of what makes each student unique gets lost in the public schools," she said. "In a smaller setting, the true nature of the student, both the academic and the athletic, the spiritual and the emotion, are recognized."
The Wiggins family is an example of a trend by parents and students in Clayton and Henry counties who are opting for private schools, rather than attending one of the 59 public schools in Clayton, or the 45 in Henry. Fifty-five of the 220 students at Our Lady of Mercy are from Clayton and Henry counties.
Class size, religious freedom, discipline and academic offerings are the main reasons given for choosing an alternative to public schools. Sharon Wiggins, for example, said she wanted her daughter to get a Catholic-school education. Others said they wanted their children to get a "Christian" education.
Regardless of the reasons, a steady exodus from public schools seems to be underway.
Class size matters
When public schools talk of having teacher-student ratios of 1-to-24 in the first three grades, and 1-to-30 in the middle grades, they must compete with schools, like Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School and Mount Zion Christian Academy in Jonesboro, where the reported teacher-student ratio is 1-to-12.
Also, unlike public schools, student enrollment at the two private schools is limited in such a manner that it will not overflow, and thus cause a higher teacher-pupil ratio.
"You can't be ignored by teachers in a smaller class," Lauren Wiggins said. "In public school, I could sit in the back and not be noticed. Here, there are only seven people in my government class, so it's hard to not be noticed by the teacher."
"In private school, you can get more student-to-teacher attention. That's one of the advantages of smaller class sizes versus larger class sizes," added Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School junior, Joey Buchieri, of Stockbridge.
"It's the whole child," said Shane Walker, a Stockbridge resident whose daughter, Emma, also attends Our Lady of Mercy. "When you're looking for a school to send your child to, you look at what they can do to meet all of the needs of the child ... I mean they can take classes like [Advanced Placement] Physics or Algebra, but they can also take classes like art, dance and drama." he added.
Looking for religious expression
Bill Finn, a Stockbridge resident whose son, Geno, attends Our Lady of Mercy, said he went to a Catholic school when he was growing up, and wanted his son to have the same opportunity. "They are taking a class where they study other religions, like Islam and Judaism. I just don't think you could get an opportunity like that in a public school."
Danny Dorsel, the principal at Our Lady of Mercy, said 70 percent of the students at his school are Catholic, but "we don't care if you are Catholic or not. We want families who are interested in a Catholic education."
Private schools are not bound by the same state and national laws regarding religious instruction that public schools must obey. Prayers can start the day and discussions about religion and morality can flourish. Crosses can be displayed in the school building, or used in the school's logo, at places like Jonesboro-based Mount Zion Christian Academy, where 400 of the 430 students come from Clayton and Henry counties.
Robert Wilson, executive pastor of Christian education at Mount Zion Christian Academy, said there are two things his school's staff and faculty try to impart on their students - character and intelligence. The school requires students to perform at least three hours of community service, such as giving gifts to senior citizens on their birthdays or delivering stuffed animals to sick children at Easter.
"There is no greater example of character that has ever walked on this Earth than Jesus Christ," Wilson said. "A Christian environment allows them [the students] to develop into people who display good moral judgment .. They become the kind of people who treat others in the same manner they would want to be treated."
Nancy Buchieri, another Stockbridge resident, said she pulled her son, Joey, out of a Henry County public schools after the second-grade, because she wasn't happy with the school system. She put him in St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Hapeville because of the Catholic education it could provide.
"There's a family aspect there, that you don't get in public schools," she said.
Uniforms, extracurricular activities
Dressing for study is a big issue with some parents.
While several schools in Clayton County, such as E.W. Oliver Elementary School, and Rex Mill Middle School, have adopted school uniforms, it is not mandatory throughout either the Clayton or Henry school districts.
In private schools, however, the use of uniforms is more common. "Kids aren't looking to see what you're wearing, if everyone is wearing a uniform," said Principal Dorsel. The benefit of uniforms is they eliminate distractions and blind students to socio-economic status.
The one place where public and private education seem to mesh is extracurricular activities.
Geno Finn, a senior at Our Lady of Mercy and a member of its soccer team, said just about every student is involved in some form of extracurricular activity. "There's enough activities for everybody to do something," he said.
The students at Mount Zion Christian Academy, which is a mission of Mount Zion Baptist Church, also have opportunities to participate in mission trips, in which they can help build schools in Costa Rica, or help the poor and homeless in Arlington, Texas.
"I don't think there's really much difference between public and private schools in the aspect that extracurricular activities can build character," Pastor Wilson said. "Look at how Jonesboro High School's mock trial team won the national championship this year. That shows all of our schools, both public and private, can provide students with opportunities to build character."