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Growth in classical education a sign of great hope, say teachers


RC Diocese Of East Anglia Flickr

Tom Hoopes - published on 03/18/24

The only problem is finding staff for the explosive growth in this school system model.

How do you transform the culture? Start with education.

“If we are going to transform our culture we are going to have to talk about God as a fact, as a reason for changing one’s conduct — and we especially have to do it in a classroom,” said Dale Ahlquist, who founded the first Chesterton Academy. 

The Chesterton academies have spread across America and now the world — including Iraq and Sierre Leone — and they are just one example of a revolution in classical education. 

“It was a little spark and now it’s a wildfire,” Ahlquist said. “And we’re seeing cultural change from the ground up as a result.”

Other experts and practitioners described the same explosion of classical education at the Symposium on Transforming Culture in America at  Benedictine College on March 15-16.

The amazing growth of classical schools

Elisabeth Sullivan started her work with classical education in 2013 when 73 schools gathered at a national conference. Now 237 schools are associated with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education where she is executive director.

“The exploding number of schools we serve are reading the signs of the time and are looking for the antidote to our current crisis,” she said. Sullivan works with Chesterton academies and others. More than 3 out of 5 schools she works with are diocesan and parochial schools.

Ryan Topping, author of The Case for Catholic Education, described how revolutionary this is. “Modern and classical education have two different ends. State education’s end is the perfection of the state,” he said, “while classical education’s is the perfection of the human.”

Sullivan, Ahlquist, and Topping were the three keynote speakers at the Symposium, which featured 50 other speakers, made up of both practitioners and scholars.

Classical education focuses on the student

Dr. Alex Lessard of the Institute for Catholic School Leadership said the student is the focus of effective education — for good or ill. “Mao and Lenin said you have to get them young; once you’ve got them, it’s hard to get them back,” he said. 

Classical education, however, gives students back to their faith and families. Two thirds of classical schools last year reported an increase in engagement with both faith and family in a study by the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.

Teachers reported seeing this firsthand. Merritt Vaughn attended the Symposium after spending two years teaching underserved communities in the classically inspired Seton Fellows program. She saw the curriculum change students in the Bronx, N.Y., including leading hundreds who sought baptism.

 “The best part” of teaching in an authentically Catholic program, she said, “is seeing the kids you taught thriving in life. They know way more than I ever knew growing up.”

Teachers are themselves changed by authentically Catholic education

The same study that saw benefits for students showed more than 4 in 5 schools reporting better faculty engagement in the classical education model.

Vaughn called teaching in the program “the most life-changing experience I’ve ever had. … You are invested in your community and you live with them, and it is exciting to grow together.”

In the end, said Sullivan, “It’s not about the curriculum, it’s about the teacher. Illumine the mind in order to enflame the heart; sparking real joy in learning and in teaching.”

To describe what Catholic education is, Sullivan cites The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools written in 2006 by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, who served as the Vatican’s Secretary to the Congregation for Catholic Education. His five marks of authentic Catholic education described an education that is “authentically Catholic in content and methodology across the entire program of studies.”

Classical schools are growing so fast that the only problem is staffing them

Jake Tawney is the Chief Academic Officer of Great Hearts Academies, a classical charter school network in Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana. 

“The biggest problem facing classical schools is the teacher pipeline problem,” said Tawney in his featured presentation. “The second biggest problem — which is becoming the biggest problem — is the headmaster pipeline problem.”

That problem is the focus of presenter Krystyn Schmerbeck, the Director of Benedictine College’s master’s programs in classical education.

“The classroom is the greatest lever of change on earth,” she said. “We want to form teacher and school leaders who will transform students, so that families can experience the joy and wonder of classical education.”

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