TORONTO – Although Premier Dalton McGuinty has repeatedly stated his opposition to supporting non-Catholic faith-based schools, his education ministry must feel differently, as it recently came to light that Eden High, described as an “alternative Christian high school” on its web site, is fully funded by the ministry. According to Niagara District School Board Superintendent Linda Kartasinski, St. Catharines’ Eden High is a “regular public school” with about 780 students of diverse faiths, “including Jews and Moslems.”
However, she acknowledged that whether there actually are Jewish and Moslem students attending is “hard to tell. We don’t ask questions. We accept students from all faiths. Nobody is excluded.”
She said that the Bible classes are generic and focus on character-building themes such as honesty, integrity and loyalty. During regular school hours, “you couldn’t tell the difference between Eden High and any public school,” she said. “It’s the Ontario-based curriculum.”
However, Craig Danielson, the school’s spiritual life advisor, confirmed that students in Grade 10 and up must attend morning chapel services before starting the school day and Grade 9 students must attend a Life Quest Bible Program. Religious activities, which are mandatory, take place outside school hours.
“It’s never been a huge issue [with students of other faiths],” he continued. “Once they enroll, they know. It’s not a boundary school. It’s a choice. It’s a multi-faith school. It used to be very Mennonite when it was private.”
(Eden High was originally a Mennonite Brethren high school and became ‘Christian alternative’ in 1988 when it was included in the public school board.)
“We like students to consider things outside their own comfort zone regarding spirituality and faith,” Danielson said.
The Spiritual Life Department is funded by donations from parents, businesses and corporations. There are no tuition costs.
Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, said, “”We now learn that McGuinty’s flawed, discriminatory policy of funding only Catholic schools, is itself being applied inconsistently, even as the government tells us that it has been rigorusly implemented. The recent example of Eden High says differently. It speaks to the reality that faith-based schools are operating here in Ontario and will continue to demand their full and equal rights as the law ought to provide. It speaks of a government that cannot even enforce its own policies consistently. It also underscores the inherent injustice of an educational system that purports to extend privileges to some faith-based communities while excluding others.”
Patricia MacNeil, senior media relations coordinator for the Ontario Ministry of Education, explained that Eden High, once a private religious school, was having problems with high tuition rates and low enrollment in the late ’80s and “asked the Lincoln Board [now the Niagara Board] to oversee and take on Eden High as a publicly funded school. It actually is a publicly funded school, not a private religious school, run by the publicly funded education board,” she said. “It offers religious studies outside of instructional hours. It [religious instruction] is not part of the curriculum…. The point is that the school was admitted by the public education board.”
Still, the school admits that religious instruction is mandatory and that Eden High is a faith-based school.
Asked why the McGuinty government is unwilling to discuss similar arrangements with other faith-based schools, which have expressed their goal to be included in the public education system – as well as a willingness to follow provincial educational guidelines and have the ministry oversee the curriculum – MacNeil said: “That’s a political question. I can only tell you what our policies and programs are. Those decisions are made at the political level, not the [education] ministry level.” Whether other religious schools are willing to work out these details to be included, that’s “political speculation.”
In discussions with religious school administrators, many claim they already follow ministry guidelines and the parent body is committed to the public side of education.