More than 50 years ago, families and religious leaders in Harford County, incensed by a Supreme Court decision prohibiting school-sanctioned prayers, formed a school that continues to draw students from three states seeking a Christian education.
Harford Christian School was developed through the vision of the late Rev. Donald McKnight, pastor of the Reformation Bible Church in Darlington, and his supporters.
"That was one of the early mottoes of Harford Christian School – we've put prayer and Bible reading back in school," Pastor John McKnight, the son of Rev. McKnight and chairman of the school's board, said Saturday during a celebration of Harford Christian's 50th anniversary.
McKnight stood on a farm trailer that doubled as a stage, flanked by county and state elected officials, as he talked about the history of the school, which started in the fall of 1965 with a kindergarten class.
Harford Christian today is open to students in kindergarten through 12th grade; there are 280 students attending this year.
Students, alumni and their families descended on the campus Saturday for the school's inaugural Harford Heritage Festival and 50th anniversary celebration.
McKnight said a national movement to establish Christian schools, and later home schools, started in the 1960s as a response to "the official removal of anything that might nurture a God consciousness in the rising generations of this country."
McKnight was referring to the Supreme Court's 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision. The court ruled that prayers in schools led by teachers or administrators violated the Establishment Clause regarding freedom of religion in the First Amendment.
The school board chairman accepted congratulations and proclamations from state and local leaders, including County Executive Barry Glassman, County Council President Richard Slutzky, Councilman Chad Shrodes, state Del. Teresa Reilly and state Sen. Bob Cassilly.
"We're thankful to God for the elected officials who have been friends of this ministry and have enabled us, under the providence of God, to continue in the work which Harford Christian School and the faculty here does so very well," McKnight said.
The elected officials congratulated McKnight on the school's longevity and for providing an option for Christian education in the region.
"We are building a new generation of Christian soldiers that go forth to serve the Lord, and I am thankful that we have schools that still teach our Christian values and lift up the Lord in all the work that they do," Glassman said.
Not just a school, but a family
Harford Christian School started with a kindergarten class in the fall of 1965. It expanded to K-8 education, with about 80 students, for the 1966-1967 school year. It added a grade each year after that, and the first high school class graduated during the early '70s.
"It was off and rolling, and it's been rolling ever since," McKnight said after the ceremony.
His father, Rev. McKnight, was the founding pastor of the Reformation Bible Church. That church opened in 1952, and the Dublin campus today includes church and school buildings.
McKnight, the pastor of the church, said Harford Christian School has drawn students from six Maryland counties and Baltimore City, as well as southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Amanda Karschner, who graduated in 2004, looked at photos of students from each decade that were on display during the festival.
"I think with a small environment, you're able to get closer to your students," she said of the difference between the two schools. "It's easier to build relationships with them, to not only teach them but learn more about their personal lives and help them grow spiritually as well as academically."
Karschner does not have any children, but she said, if she did, she would "absolutely" send them to Harford Christian.
Lisa Holcomb, of Belcamp, attended HCS for elementary school during the 1970s and later transferred to Churchville Elementary School. She attended Southampton Middle School – then called Bel Air Middle School North – and graduated from C. Milton Wright High School in 1985.
Holcomb recognized her former Harford Christian classmates in the pictures, as well as nieces and a nephew who attended during the 1990s and 2000s.
"I always had a heart for this school," she said.
Holcomb said if she had children, she would "definitely" send them to HCS because of the small class sizes.
"I think you have more of a connection with the kids because the graduating classes are much smaller than the public schools," she said.
Sean Parkes, a 2005 graduate who lives in Cecil County, attended Harford Christian from kindergarten through 12th grade.
He is the son of the late Harley Parkes, a long-serving soccer coach and athletic director, and Patti Parkes, a long-serving vice principal who retired at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
"It has not just been a school," he said of Harford Christian. "It's been my family."
The athletic field was named in honor of Mr. Parkes, who died in 2013. Sean Parkes said the school community "was very helpful and very kind to my family" when his father was battling illness.
"I spent all my time here," Parkes said. "I've been on this campus my whole life."
His two older brothers are Harford Christian Graduates, too.
"It's prepared me for the real world," said Parkes, who is a communications specialist for the Delaware State Police.
Patti Parkes attended the festival Saturday. She and her late husband started working at the school in 1974.
"I can't stay away," she said. "I love this place."
She was a fourth-grade teacher, as well as a cheerleading and softball coach, in addition to serving as vice principal.
Enrollment, cost challenges
Parkes said enrollment has been as high as 700 students during the late 1970s and early '80s, with 10 to 12 school buses coming in and out each day.
She said enrollment has "lost some of its momentum" as the cost of a private school education rises. She said many students came from Aberdeen Proving Ground, but that source diminished as the Army post's workforce has been cut back.
"We still have a good group of kids here, and the work continues on," she said. "We're very thankful."
Principal Bryan Wilson, said he thinks "everybody in private education is struggling" to recruit students, based on the rising cost.
Tuition at Harford Christian starts at $6,500 a year for first through fourth grade, $7,150 for fifth through eighth grade and $7,700 for ninth through 12th grade, according to the HCS website.
Those rates are for the "first student" in families, and tuition is significantly lower for that student's younger siblings – families would pay $3,700 a year for a "fourth student" in the elementary grades, for example, according to the school website.
The fifth child, and younger, can attend for free.
"Our senior classes are as big as they've ever been," Wilson noted.
He said 40 seniors graduated in 2015, and 50 were in the Class of 2014. The average graduating class size is about 20.
Wilson graduated in 1981, and he is one of about 1,300 alumni. He has been principal for 18 years.
"The school families that we have are very involved," he said.
Brian Holbrook, of Pylesville, is an HCS graduate and parent of three daughters who are in the elementary grades.
His parents, Doug and Fran Holbrook, were involved in founding Reformation Bible Church in the 1950s. His wife works as the kindergarten secretary.
"I've been on campus since nine months before I was born," Holbrook, a 1989 graduate, said.
He sat and talked Saturday with two of his former teachers, Mike and Luann Watkins.
"After college, in looking back, he's still the greatest teacher I ever had," Holbrook said of Mike Watkins, who taught English and was the choir and music director.
"He's a great person," Holbrook continued.
He highlighted the sacrifices faculty members made during Harford Christian's early years, especially with salaries lower than those offered by the public school system.
McKnight also noted in his speech that some faculty members were volunteers.
"[They] were just so blessed to have the resources, as limited as they are compared to public schools," Holbrook said. "The faculty was still able to provide a great classroom environment."
He said the Rev. McKnight "would be so proud of where the ministry has come through 50 years if he were here today."
"He was just such a humble man and sacrificed so much to make sure this ministry was flourishing before he met his own needs," Holbrook said.