By Ivey Schofield
A Bladen County preacher says he plans to open a private school because he worries traditional schools are contributing to the mental health crisis affecting children.
Kip Nance, a real estate agent and preacher at Living Water Worship Center in Bladenboro, told the Border Belt Independent that 14 families have applied and six have committed to attending Bladenboro Christian Academy next fall.
Nance said in early March that three children in his congregation had attempted suicide or thought about attempting suicide because they felt like they didn’t fit in at school. He says he blames the curriculum being taught in local public schools, and he says he is against critical race theory, or CRT, a scholarly framework that says systemic racism is and has been a part of society in the United States.
“We’re not against anyone understanding that people have to be treated equally,” Nance said, “but we’re feeling like it’s coming to a point of indoctrination.”
Superintendent Jason Atkinson said Bladen County Schools was neither teaching CRT nor indoctrinating children.
“It is simply not true,” he wrote in a statement to the Border Belt Independent on Monday. “As a district we are committed to fostering an environment of inclusion.”
As of last week, Bladenboro Christian Academy had not registered with the N.C. Department of Administration’s Division of Non-Public Education, which is required under state law. The agency, which oversees private schools, says new schools should file a “register of intent” 30 to 60 days before opening.
Nance said he has already completed the state-mandated fire inspection of the school site inside the Living Water Worship Center on Clyde King Drive. He said he also applied for nonprofit status, which he said he expects to receive in May.
The number of Bladen County students enrolled in private schools has increased, going from from 750 during the 2019-2020 school year to 828 in 2021-2022, according to state data.
Three private schools currently operate in the county: Community Baptist Academy in Bladenboro, Elizabethtown Christian Academy in Elizabethtown and Homestead Christian School in Dublin.
In recent years, especially since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has seen an increase in rates of youth anxiety and depression. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control reported that 44% of high school students persistently felt sad or hopeless in the last year.
Feeling connected at school plays a big role. About 14% of students who felt supported at school had seriously considered attempting suicide, compared to 26% who did not feel supported, according to the CDC.
But evidence does not suggest that public schools and their curriculum are the main driver of the mental health crisis, said Danielle Roubinov, director of the new Foundation of Hope Child and Adolescent Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I can certainly imagine there may be some students who have a hard time finding a friend group or feeling connected at school,” Roubinov said. “But to be honest I would be very hesitant to blame the school itself for that.”
Roubinov pointed to several possibilities that explain the rise in anxiety and depression among teenagers: financial issues at home, family members who have died of COVID-19, virtual learning during the pandemic, gun violence at schools, concerns about climate change and time spent on social media.
“There’s just so much variability when it comes to the youth mental health problem,” Roubinov said. “Rarely is it one particular thing you can point your finger at.”
Nance said he hopes Bladenboro Christian Academy will serve nine students the first year, and the school will employ one teacher. He plans to use the Christian-based Abeka Curriculum, which he said will give children a sense of purpose that he thinks is lacking in the public school system.
“What we would love to see is children with a moral fabric and base have an education to go to that is biblically based and become better people by having a relationship with Jesus Christ,” Nance said.
Tuition at Bladenboro Christian Academy will be about $345 a month, Nance said. He said he was considering replicating the school’s model in other campuses across the region.
“We’re going to start small as everyone does,” he said, “but we’re always doing future planning.”