As parents look to private schools during the pandemic, some are finding that religious education may be the right choice for their families. Even for those who aren’t initially sure about sending their children to a school where religion is front and center, many are swayed by the strong sense of community these schools provide.

Kristan Genchi Kehoe never thought she’d send her two sons to a private Catholic school. “Even before we had kids, my husband and I used to bicker all the time about where we were going to send them to school,” the West Caldwell resident says. “He attended Catholic school his entire life and I was a product of the public school system.”

When it came time to send their oldest son to pre-K, the couple looked at many schools before opting for Saint Philip Preparatory School in Clifton. The deciding factor? “Top on our list was the high standard set by the school and the sense of community that made us feel as if our children were being cared for and nurtured while being educated in the Catholic tradition,” says Kehoe.

In New Jersey, 221,074 students attend private schools, according to the 2021 Private School Review, a comprehensive directory of private schools throughout the country. Of those, 45 percent are religiously affiliated, with Roman Catholic and Jewish schools being the most prevalent. While religious continuity plays a major role in why parents send their children to faith-based schools, there are other important factors that come into play, says Joseph McTighe, executive director at the Council for American Private Education (CAPE).

“Parents don’t choose schools in general, they choose them in particular,” McTighe says, adding that parents opt for faith-based schools for their academic rigor, well-rounded curriculum that includes religious instruction and smaller school community where students are likely to get more individual attention. Other reasons for choosing a faith-based school may have more to do with peer bonding, says William Jeynes, senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton and a professor at California State University in Long Beach. “There’s a much higher level of racial harmony since the faith in parochial school is a common bond.” Many religious schools also require students to wear a uniform, which takes away the pressure to wear the latest (and often expensive) clothes.

A meta-analysis of more than 90 studies conducted over a three-year period found that students from all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds performed better academically in parochial or faith-based schools than in traditional public or charter schools. Results of the analysis, led by Jeynes, were published in the Peabody Journal of Education in 2012. According to the studies, “students who go to religious schools scored at an academic level about 12 months ahead of their counterparts,” Jeynes says.

Despite small class sizes and consistent test scores, the number of private schools in NJ has decreased over the last year, and enrollment has gone down, too.

Many educators sing the praises of faith-based schools, but also acknowledge that enrollment has declined over the years, largely due to cost.

The average private school tuition is $9,593 for elementary schools and $18,768 for high schools, according to Private School Review. The cost of living has increased but salaries haven’t kept up, Jeynes points out.

“Faith-based schools offer scholarships to low-income families but there’s only so much money to go around,” Jeynes says. Parents should inquire about scholarships at religious schools to see if their kids meet any of the academic or athletic criteria the school may offer.

While the majority of religious schools in NJ are Catholic, there are also many private Protestant, Jewish and Islamic schools. Nouran Ali, a mother of three in Secaucus, went to Islamic schools from kindergarten through high school. Among the biggest benefits, she says, was that she felt accepted while being exposed to Arabic and Islamic culture every day.

“For me, it was my comfort zone,” says Ali, who graduated Al-Ghazaly School in Teaneck (now located in Wayne) in 2000 before attending Rutgers University on a full scholarship. Ali plans to send her children, three, four and seven months, to an Islamic school. “I want to give my kids a good education but at the same time I want them to have a strong Islamic foundation and to be able to give back to the community in a positive way.”

Klara Sussman, a mother of two from Randolph, attended a Jewish school growing up and now sends her three-year-old daughter to Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph. “If you asked me when I was 12 if I’d send my kids to a Jewish school, I would’ve said ‘Absolutely not!’” says Sussman, who also has a three-month-old infant. “But now that I’m older and wiser, I think it’s the best option for my kids.” Sussman says she loves the sense of religious bonding the school offers her older daughter.

Sussman adds that the school offers her kids a great sense of community and allows their faith to “be a part of them throughout their lives.”

–With additional reporting by Ronnie Koenig