Rising demand for optional religious ed at local charter school

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ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - The principal and administrators at Eagle College Prep charter school in St. Louis make it abundantly clear that there is most certainly a separation of church and state at this public elementary in the Tower Grove South neighborhood.

Basic religious instruction, offered on an optional basis before and after school, is proving very popular with families from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

"There still is separation," says Matt Hoehner, executive director of Educational Enterprises, a non-profit agency that runs the school and the religious education component.

"At Eagle College Prep, the free public charter school, there is no religious teaching. At all. It's in the Compass Program after school; that's the optional program for parents. If they want that extra, faith-based education, we offer that as well."

And Hoehner says about half of the 110 students in grades kindergarten through 3rd do opt in, regardless of their parent's religious background.

Eagle College Prep occupies the same building as King of Glory Lutheran grade school, which closed in 2011. The optional religious instruction before and after school, in the Compass Program, is Christian-based teaching with lessons from the Bible.

"It's like vacation Bible school," Hoehner says.

Also like a private school, Eagle College Prep requires students to wear a uniform (blue collared shirt, tan khakis) and commit to academic excellence. But unlike a private school, Eagle College Prep is a free public school that operates with an annual state funded budget of about $1.2 million.

"I think there's a place in St. Louis for St. Louis public schools and charter schools and private schools," says Suzanne Dezego, principal at Eagle College Prep. "Our goal is to be a high quality education. We want St. Louis public schools to do well for kids as well. There are plenty of kids who need different options. Different alternatives."

Both Dezego and Hoehner have their own children enrolled at the school.

"I'm a proponent of a good education for all students," Dezego says. "There are families that can afford that parochial education and who can afford that tuition. But those tuition costs are ever rising, just like education costs are ever rising."

Eagle College Prep will expand to 4th grade next year and, eventually, the school will be K through 8th grade.

There is a lottery system to determine the enrollment. Currently the demand is greater than the amount of available spots. Families not chosen in the lottery system are then put on a wait list.

You can learn more by visiting Eagle College Prep's website.

"Our goal is to have that high quality education," Dezego said. "And have people want to move back into the city for the quality of education."

Later this week on Today in St. Louis, we will profile a St. Louis Catholic school that is also in the process of becoming a free, state funded charter school.

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