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COLUMN ONE : Are Private Schools Better? : More parents are enrolling children in expensive academic institutions. Classes are smaller, but most students do not score much higher on standardized tests than pupils in public programs.

PRIVATE DECISIONS: Parents Weigh Perplexing Educational Options. First in a series. Next: Why parents choose private schools.


"Our parents want a good, solid education in a drug-free, safe school which has a biblical orientation and traditional values," said Supt. Melvin Larson, who also oversees a third campus in Harbor City. "That's what we advertise." Annual tuition is from $2,325 to $3,100.

Although the Redondo Beach elementary campus is predominantly white, the secondary campus nearby attracts a sizable number of minority students from other public schools in the area, including those in Inglewood and Hawthorne. The result is a well-integrated campus--35% African-American, 30% white, 20% Latino and 15% Asian-American--that appears free of the racial tensions that have split some of the nearby public high schools.

Several miles away, on a gritty stretch of West Slauson Avenue, black parents who want their youngsters to grow up being proud of their African-American heritage have found their answer in the Marcus Garvey School. The academically rigorous day begins for about 400 youngsters, ages 2 to 14, with a series of black pride anthems and poems.

The school cannot afford computers, art or music programs or science labs, and the campus's only playground is its parking lot. Bake sales and school dances provide a meager supplement to the school's average annual tuition of $3,936, which is billed by the week because, executive director Anyim Palmer says, some parents cannot pay for a full month at a time.

But that has not kept black families--including some who have tried other, more expensive schools--from enrolling their children in Palmer's program. Convinced by his years as a public school teacher and administrator that black children were being severely shortchanged, Palmer founded Marcus Garvey in 1975.

Discipline is strict, the school day long--classes are in session from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.--and the homework is plentiful and demanding.

"The students seem to relish the challenge," said Palmer, who valued his education in segregated schools in the South because "the teachers loved us and believed in us."

He frequently sends visitors into his school's small classrooms to watch the children display their progress. Preschoolers identify colors in English, Spanish and Swahili. First-graders prove their mastery of spelling and vocabulary lists that include anomaly, propinquity and shibboleth. Fifth-graders zip through the kind of complex algebra problems that have given many a high school student fits, and seventh- and eighth-graders hunker down over calculus texts.

Lack of fancy facilities also has not kept parents from enthusiastically supporting the Mission Hills Christian School in the Orange County community of Rancho Santa Margarita near Mission Viejo.

"We used to be known as 'the school in the shopping center,' " said Principal George Gay, because of the former location of the 13-year-old school. Now quartered in a business park while awaiting construction of a permanent campus nearby, the school lacks a library, computer lab and other amenities.

Still, enrollment has climbed steadily to 250 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Gay said parents are drawn by the biblical orientation of the academic program and by their desire to have their children reared "in proper values and standards and be held accountable for their behavior."

Schools that do have a lot of money often choose to spend it on keeping classes small and adding academic extras.

At Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, affiliated with a Reform Jewish temple on a stunningly beautiful campus near Bel-Air, class sizes range from 20 to 23. There are two full-time teachers in each of the primary grade classrooms--one to teach basic academic subjects and one to teach Hebrew and Jewish thought, culture and values.

There are additional teachers for science, math, the arts and a reading lab, said Metuka Benjamin, educational director for the temple, which also runs a middle school, a high school, parenting programs and a preschool.

The temple helps provide field trips, books and other classroom supplies and encourages students to embark on community service projects. Members also contribute resources--including a new 30-machine Macintosh computer lab from one couple, Edna and Mickey Weiss.

Considering the range of private schools, choosing wisely is not easy, especially with California's hands-off approach to academic regulation. The Legislature has historically been reluctant to impose state oversight. That is not unlike the practices of most other states, said private education consultant Charles J. O'Malley, who has conducted surveys on state regulations.

"Private schools are one of the last great unregulated industries in California," said William L. Rukeyser, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "It's very much a case of caveat emptor. "

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