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Secular vs. Sectarian Schools



One way of categorizing kinds of schools is by whether they are secular (sometimes called non-sectarian) or sectarian. This article explains some of the key differences.

Types of Secular Schools

The word secular simply means "not related specifically to religion or to a particular religious group." The designation secular when used of schools includes a variety of types of schools:
  • Public Schools No public school in the United States has any religious affiliation. This statement includes public institutions of higher education, such as the land-grant institutions (which includes land-grant colleges and land-grant universities).
  • Charter Schools Charter schools are part of the public school system, and like other public schools, have no religious affiliation, although they may promote a variety of specialized academic disciplines
  • Some Private or Independent Schools  Private or Independent Schools serve a variety of purposes, some falling into the category of secular schools with others being sectarian.
  • Special Education Schools  Special Education schools such as schools for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, the blind, and students with a variety of learning disabilities and behavioral issues are generally secular.
  • Athletic Schools Schools that combine academics with athletics, such as schools for whitewater sports, downhill skiing, hockey, and other sports are generally secular.
  • Military Academies Military Academies may be either secular or sectarian, with some schools having a name like "Christian Military Academy."
  • Performing Arts Schools Performing arts schools, like other schools with specialized curricular content in dance, music, theatre, etc., tend to have that one facet as their distinguishing feature from secular public or private schools with a standard academic curriculum, and are likely to be secular.
  • Trade or Vocational Schools Like performing arts schools, trade or vocational schools tend to have their focus on training skills as their distinguishing feature from secular public or private schools with a standard academic curriculum, and are likely to be secular.   
  • Schools with a Special Curriculum The following schools have a specialized curriculum, but are secular:
  1. Coalition of Essential Schools
  2. Distance Learning Schools
  3. Learning Network Schools
  4. Montessori Schools
  5. Sudbury Valley School Model
  6. Waldorf Schools

These schools have the goal of carrying out the established philosophy and mission of the organization or approach they represent. This philosophy, rather than religious beliefs and values, is what shapes their approach.

Types of Sectarian Schools

A sectarian school is one that is associated with a particular faith or belief system and, in addition to teaching academic subjects, promulgates the faith or belief system with which it is associated and/or presents the material taught through the lens of this faith. The three main faith-associated schools are Christian schools, Jewish schools, which may be called Yeshivas, and Islamic schools, for which the school complex may be called Madrassah.

  • Christian Schools If you look at the course offering of a Christian school, you may find it to be very similar to a secular school in the departments of math, science, social studies, English, and foreign language. You will often find courses in the subject of  Religion, and you may also find Bible study. It is impossible to form a rule, but many Catholic schools have a saint's name included in the school name, while many Protestant schools have the word Christian or the name of the sect (e.g., Baptist). Be careful not to jump to conclusions, though: St. Lawrence University, for example, is a secular school that began as a Universalist Seminary located near the St. Lawrence River.
  • Yeshivas  The yeshiva system is divided into levels corresponding to elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students. Some yeshivas focus entirely on Jewish studies, but some combine Jewish studies and other academic areas like English, Math, Science, and History, sometimes called general studies. Included in Jewish studies are courses such as Jewish history, Hebrew, Tanakh, and Talmud.
  • Islamic Schools Islamic schools may or may not be attached to a mosque. They also may have specifications such as non-denominational, Sunni (traditional or Salafi), Shia (Jafari), or Sufi. Students may be instructed in standard secular subjects and additionally in Islamic Studies, Quran, and a choice of Arabic or Persian.

Sources Used for This Article

The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy--Yeshiva University High School for Boys
http://www.yuhsb.org/

St. Lawrence University
http://stlawu.edu/glance.html

Rice Memorial High School
http://ricehs.org/riceweb/aca_courses.asp

Salat-o-matic: Guide to Mosques and Islamic Schools
http://www.salatomatic.com/