Kathleen Parker

Shirley has passed the career point where he worries what others will think. He is blunt when he describes how most Southern private schools organize their priorities:

"The typical Southern day school has high tuition, good athletics, a modicum of education and a small financial-aid budget."

Yearly tuition at Charleston Collegiate runs about $10,000 -- slightly more than the amount allocated per student in America's public schools. The school boasts a strong athletic program, in which 90 percent of students participate, but the arts are equally important. One hundred percent of students in the lower and middle schools -- and 80 percent of upper school students -- participate in the visual and performing arts.

Oh, and 100 percent go to college. SAT scores average 1,100, but school officials point out that English is a second language for many students. First languages include Spanish, Russian, Polish, Arabic and Chinese.

Clearly, not everyone can attend a private school -- and fewer can find one like Charleston Collegiate that has a seven-to-one student-faculty ratio -- but parents don't have to settle for less in public schools, says Shirley. In fact, he adds, the presence of good private schools tends to improve the quality of neighboring public schools.

Another value of private schools is that they can experiment and innovate. Whereas public schools are limited by bureaucratic principles of efficiency and held hostage to quantifiable outcomes, Charleston Collegiate emphasizes critical-thinking skills.

As any school, this one aches for money, but look what Shirley & Co. have managed without much. Charleston Collegiate's entire endowment is just $3,437. Three other area private schools have endowments ranging in the millions.

It's not how much money you have, apparently, but how you spend it. And it's not only what you teach, but how you teach it -- with affection and high expectations.

The Rev. Wright would love this school, if racial harmony is, indeed, what he prays for. Perhaps Shirley can invite him down for a visit.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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