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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Somerville School Committee approves evangelical private school

Vida Real Church, located in Somerville, Mass., is pictured.

The Somerville School Committee voted on April 25 to approve Real Life Learning Center’s application to establish a K–8 private school. The vote came after a months-long standoff between Somerville’s subcommittee on Education Programs and Instruction and Vida Real Church, the founders of RLLC, who say they were unfairly targeted based on their religious beliefs.

Vida Real, a local church composed largely of Hispanic immigrants, originally applied to the City of Somerville to establish RLLC in September 2021. Christian Cole, an administrative pastor at Vida Real who put together RLLC’s application, told the Daily that the School Subcommittee on Education Programsand Instruction repeatedly asked him to rework the application since it lacked necessary information. Despite the back-and-forth, the committee ultimately approved the school.

RLLC will be a private Christian school in Somerville. Documents submitted to the school committee by Vida Real suggest that RLLC will teach creationism and use methods of nouthetic counseling, which is based on conservative evangelical interpretations of the Bible in place of traditional emotional counseling with students. An RLLC handbookprovided to the committee said that students found “talking about or engaging in illicit acts … such as fornication [and] homosexuality … are subject to suspension or dismissal.”

During a meeting in March, the Subcommittee for Educational Programs formally recommended that the school committee reject RLLC’s application. Before voting to recommend rejection, Sara Dion, a member of the subcommittee, argued that RLLC’s educatorswould lack technical expertise and that the school failed to meet state law regarding emotional development.

During this meeting, Dion also cited a recent Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior study that found LGBTQ youth to be at higher risk of substance abuse, bullying and suicidal ideation and actions. Dion declined to comment on this article.

Following the subcommittee’s recommendation of a rejection, lawyers for Vida Real Church wrote a letter to the school committee accusing it of blocking Vida Real’s efforts to establish RLLC because of its religious views. The letter also criticized Dion by name, claiming she expressed “overt hostility against Vida Real based solely upon its religious beliefs.” First Liberty Institute Counsel Ryan Gardner and Massachusetts Family Institute President and General Counsel Andrew Beckwith signed the letter.

The First Liberty Institute and Massachusetts Family Institute are legal not-for-profit organizations working to protect religious liberty. The MFI opposes the LGBTQ rights movement, the legalization of marijuana and mandated sex education in public schools. The organization advocates for protecting “biblical principals” and argues that America was founded on “affirming the Judeo-Christian values” upon which the family is based. Beckwith told the Daily that MFI got involved after Vida Real reached out in February for advice in answering the committee’s questions.

In a statement provided to the Daily, Mary Skipper, superintendent of Somerville Public Schools and school committee secretary, and Andre Green, school committee chair, pushed back against the MFI letter’s characterization of the committee’s decision.

“The Somerville Public Schools does not discriminate on the basis of religion or any other protected class,” they wrote.

Once MFI became involved in the case, Beckwith said they “were concerned that the school committee members didn’t really know what they were doing, or were taking advantage of their position to pry into the inner workings of the church and school in a way that the law doesn't permit.”

According to Beckwith, many Christian parents are turning to private schools because they want “to have more influence over their children’s education because they see themselves rightfully as the primary educators of their children.” Beckwith also claimed that public schools nationally are “promoting transgenderism [and] diverse sexual practices … in a propagandistic type way, in kindergarten, first grade, [and] preschool.”

Under Massachusetts state law, a private school must be granted approval by the local school committee in order to operate. In order for a private school to gain approval, it must be equal in “thoroughness and efficiency… [to] the public schools in the same town.” School committees cannot reject applications on the basis of the school’s religious teachings.

Peter Sumners, the attorney representing the school committee in hearings, explained during a committee hearing that the “committee evaluates the overall proposal and determines whether or not the compulsory education that’s required by the law as being provided in a public school … but doesn’t give the school committee the right to dictate minute details about how that instruction is provided.”

Before voting to approve Vida Real’s application, several school committee members said that while they personally disagreed with RLLC’s policies, they had no legal choice but to approve the application. During the committee meeting on whether to approve RLLC’s application, Emily Ackman, a member of the committee, said “if we didn’t vote to approve, we would be sued and we would lose.”

Ellenor Barish, another committee member, echoed Ackman’s message at the meeting. “While I feel that some of the values expressed in this application run contrary to my own and to the values of Somerville Public Schools, it isn’t our task to evaluate the philosophy behind the proposed school or their teaching methods” Barish said. 

During the vote, all present members of the school committee voted to approve the application, with only Dion voting not to approve. 

Following the vote, the school committee passed a resolution to improve support for LGBTQ students at Somerville public schools and extend support to all youth in Somerville who seek it. The committee also passed a resolution calling for the state to revisit the guidelines for approving new private schools, calling the current criteria “vague and limiting.”

Since RLLC is a private school, it will not be subject to the oversight of the Somerville School Committee now that it has been approved, according to Skipper and Green.