More Catholic schools are making the switch to classical curricula

Most schools today are geared toward college and career-readiness. These schools aren’t forming children to be saints, say classical education advocates.

Three years ago, Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan was a failing school. It was down to 69 students in the entire K-12 program, employed only six teachers, and was a financial “drain on the parish,” according to the school’s provost, Zach Good.

This fall, however, the school—which is 100 years old and was formerly known as Sacred Heart of Jesus School—will be approaching an enrollment of 300 students (with new families continuing to inquire about enrollment), and the financial situation has greatly improved, as have the school’s intellectual and spiritual cultures, said Good.

What changed in just three years? The administration, with the approval and ongoing support of the pastor and bishop, switched to a classical Catholic liberal arts curriculum. In fact, the administration has changed 90 percent of the school’s curriculum.

“Every year we freely embody our vision, it gets easier,” said Good. “There’s not much room for regret.” The vision to restore the school to the classical Catholic liberal arts tradition has become a reality thanks to a positive working relationship with the local homeschooling community, refusal of government funding and traditional teacher training, and the guidance of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, an organization dedicated to the renewal of Catholic education.

Sacred Heart Academy offers two programs to students. The first consists of a fulltime program through 10th grade, including a Montessori Pre-K program for three-to-six-year-olds. As part of this, the school offered their first full-time 9th grade year last year, and this fall, will offer it for 10th grade. The other program is a classical enrichment program for homeschoolers offered to part-time 2nd through 12th-grade students. In the classical enrichment program, students meet two times a week on campus, and complete the rest of their course work at home. Good said by the time the students in the classical enrichment program get to high school, the course work they are doing looks a lot like a college curriculum. Students in both programs take Latin, classical literature, mathematics, and sacred music, among other offerings. According to Good, the school is committed to both programs for the long haul.

The financial pressure the school has put on the parish has lessened, thanks not only to increased enrollment, but more successful fundraising. In past years, the annual auction typically raised around $30,000 for the school each year. Last year, the auction netted $215,000. “There has been a 10-fold increase in donations since the change has been made,” Good said. “It’s easier to ask when we have and articulate a substantial philosophy, and they can see the cultural change.”

One selling point of the curriculum Sacred Heart offers is that students are being more fully formed, said Good. Although he and the rest of the administration are skeptical of standardized test scores, he said state standardized test scores in reading, writing, and math have improved significantly at most grade levels. Two students earned perfect scores on the National Latin Exam, and other students have done well on Advanced Placement (AP) exams. “The students are better writers, more articulate speakers, deeper readers. Parents have remarked that dinner table conversations have improved,” Good said.

Many of the enrichment program’s graduates are discerning vocations to the religious life, and eighth grade students have scored as proficient or above average on the Assessment of Children/Youth Religious Education (ACRE), which measures students’ knowledge of the Catholic faith.

Mark Salisbury, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Marquette in Michigan, began implementing a classical curriculum for all nine diocesan schools in March of 2014, with approval from his bishop. Salisbury’s rural diocese has only implemented new language arts and religion curricula thus far, with plans in the works to offer Latin at all schools, which go to 8th grade, next year. 

Although he admits the rollout has not been as consistent as he would like, due to the fact that the schools have different personalities and, as a result, some have taken smaller steps than others, he is already seeing positive results. This year, in their annual survey of parents, the number of parents who said they were “highly satisfied” went up 7 percent, according to Salisbury, and he said he expects that percentage to go up next year. 

At Sacred Heart, Good took a lot of time dialoguing with parents about the changes, and as a result, the parents have been very supportive, he says. “It took a lot of education to parents to explain what we were doing,” he explained. “The uniform includes jacket and tie for students in middle and high school. ‘Why Latin for each student?’ There was a constant conversation with parents, and they have taken it very well.”

Both Salisbury and Good said feedback from teachers has also been positive. One of the school’s veteran teachers told Good, for example, that thanks to the changes that have been made, it was her best year of teaching yet. “We strive not to be ruled by anxiety. When students are doing work well-suited to them, and teachers are actually teaching their subjects—as opposed to standards—then education is driven by love and enjoyment, and not fear and anxiety.”

Good also recounted how one of his history teachers told him he was thrilled to be actually teaching history to students, rather than filling out paperwork. “What’s wrong with education?” Good asked. “If you could encapsulate it in one word, it would be anxiety.”

What is the classical Catholic liberal tradition? Why is it important?

According to the website for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, “Classical education believes that students should master the arts of language known as the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), because they are the tools of clear thinking and powerful expression…and classical education also tries to preserve the spirit of the Quadrivium, seeing in the mathematical and scientific disciplines first and foremost an opportunity to make an encounter with Truth accessible to the young mind and to form the specifically human power of reasoning.”

“The primary focus, then, is not on mere facts and skills to be acquired for college and career readiness,” the website continues. “Rather, Catholic liberal education respects the dignity of the young person. It connects children’s minds, hearts, and souls with the truths beyond the facts so that what they know will transform their lives.”

“The Church, from early on, embraced the best in Greek and Roman education,” Salisbury said. “The Catholic liberal arts model has worked for so long. It’s the Catholic Church’s consistent model for education.”

In the classical Catholic liberal tradition, Catholic education has Christ at the center, with an emphasis on seeing education through the lens of “the good, the true, and the beautiful, as a means to encounter God,” Salisbury said.

He added that the goal of Common Core is to make you college and career-ready. “There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t going to form you into being a saint,” said Salisbury.

The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education is not only educating Catholic school administrators and educators about the lasting beauty and depth of classical Catholic education, but also helps educators like Good and Salisbury “renew their schools through conferences, teacher development programs, in-service workshops, and consultations,” according to the website.

Dr. Andrew Seeley, executive director of the Institute, said that with classical education, one avoids the dangers of pluralism, relativism, and vocationalism. While relativism teaches students there is no such thing as objective truth, pluralism, which is related to it, is “the idea that every culture is equal,” said Seeley.  It’s the idea that “everyone should be educated in their own culture, [and] you can’t say one culture has any more to offer than any other does.”

Meanwhile, vocationalism dominates the entire K-12 mindset. “Students are in schools in order to get good grades, to get in good colleges, to get good jobs. The whole system is ordered to passing tests,” he said.

“With classical education, we are forming students so they can be excellent at whatever they do,” Seeley said.

The subjects studied during the course of the school day, including Latin, mathematics, sacred music, and classic literature, are chosen because of their universality, and the fact they point every human being toward knowing God and his Creation, according to Good.

Classical educators don’t want children to “work for a company, and be a cog,” Good said. “We don’t want to prepare them for death, taxes, and 40-hour work week. We want to prepare students for eternity.” 

The modern educational system has helped produce the cultural crisis we are in, Good said. “We can see from our political situation we have a lack of great men. Who today has the eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the holiness of Pope John Paul II?”

Why did Catholic schools turn away from classical education? “Catholic schools in this country never did much classical education except for the Jesuits,” Seeley said. “Most schools taught basics to poor immigrant families, a basic education so they could get a job and learn the faith. In the early 20th century, public schools actually offered more of a classical education than Catholic schools.”

Pressure from the sciences to form students so that they would take on jobs in a technocratic society, along with a need for standardization, led public school to lose its classical focus, which in turn, led the Catholic schools that were actually offering classical curricula to do so as well, Seeley said.

What societal disorders have we seen as a result of that? “One name is Trump, and the other is Clinton,” Seeley said.

Another problem is our excessive reliance upon established procedures, he said. We become dependent on whatever government or corporate office is setting the standards. As a result, “we’ve lost our social initiative,” he said.

No one in the schools is taught to question anything, and there is no common view or common ground to discuss the important issues our culture faces. “You can never suggest that that one thing is better than another,” Seeley said.

Cutting government and corporate ties

“The catalyst for our change was we did not have our own curriculum. We had schools using variations of state standards and trying to infuse Catholic teaching into it,” Salisbury said. He said the goal was to build something truly Catholic. “You can’t really teach a state standard curriculum and say your curriculum is meeting a Catholic mission.”

In the case of Good’s school, new pastoral leadership saw the school was not sustainable as it was. “The financial situation was a mess,” he said. As a result, they received permission from the bishop to close. But the pastor held a town hall meeting, and said if they were willing to make a radical change, and make it a classical school, they could keep it operational, according to Good. The school then went from being Sacred Heart of Jesus School to Sacred Heart Academy.

According to Good, as soon as the decision was made to re-found as a classical school, the administration ceased receiving any state and federal funding. The free lunch program was eliminated, as well as money for teacher professional development.

The lunch program was “not only not making money, but led to an enormous amount of paperwork,” Good said. “In the last five years, things like this have become more burdensome.” He said one school he knows of eliminated the school lunch program, and orders in every day, yet it is still cheaper than the government program.

He added that if not having a free lunch program becomes a difficulty for any students enrolled in the school, the school will make up for it. “We already have food in the kitchen to make sure no one goes without a lunch.”

Not receiving government money for teacher professional development appeared to pose the bigger problem for the school, especially since there was a need for significant investment in teacher training. As they began making changes, however, various people came out of the woodwork who wanted to provide professional development, often for free, he said.

Teacher certification and an education degree are not nearly as important as having knowledge in a particular field, Good said. “I can take a history major who has never had an education course, and over the summer give him a crash course in classroom management. I can’t take someone with a certification and teach him history. As we were hiring, we have at times needed to hire teachers without teaching certificates, in order to make the best decision,” Good said.

“This is something we had to work out with the diocese. The bishop and superintendent have championed what we did. We did have to make the case why we had to make the change,” Good added.

A significant investment in curricula needed to happen as well, but fortunately increased student enrollment made up for much of it. “The easiest and least expensive transition to make is to get good literature—get a classroom set of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Little House on the Prairie, Wind in the Willows,” Good said, adding that Latin is also a very affordable curriculum option for a school to incorporate.

Good and Salisbury have both had their teachers take advantage of professional development programs offered by the Institute of Catholic Liberal Education, which includes the Catholic classical schools conference, in-service workshops, webinar series, and a week at Aquinas College in Nashville, among other programs.

When it comes to traditional accreditation programs, Seeley said that many school administrators and educators are “frustrated by the time and energy they have to spend to show agencies with excessively bureaucratic demands that they are doing well, and would love to have an accrediting agency that had a healthier vision of education.”

As a result, he said some independent Catholic schools receive accreditation through the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS). NAPCIS was started to “preserve and promote Catholic education founded in obedience to the Pope and Magisterium,” according to the organization’s website.

Does classical education have a place in the modern world?

One criticism lodged against the classical education movement is that it does not prepare students for the 21st century’s technological, information economy. Seeley argues that our economy and society are changing at such a fast pace, schools that strive to offer the latest in technological education are generally teaching technology that’s already 10 years old. He said the most important skill you can give a child is the ability to learn new things, adding, “If there is any area where kids can be given tools to figure it out themselves, it’s technology. You don’t have to teach technology.” 

Good said he doesn’t want his students to focus on specialization to the detriment of their formation as human beings. “We want to prepare them for the cultural crisis we are in, and that means that some of them are going to be heroes and saints.”

He went on to say they have to prepare students for a two-fold vocation: a vocation to work in the world, as well as significant participation in the story of salvation history.

Along these lines, Sacred Heart made the decision to offer daily Mass for faculty, staff, and students. “This change has impacted the parish itself,” Good said. “Whereas the church used to typically have a few people at daily Mass on any given day, it now has around 400 students and family members at least twice each week. Kids experience the liturgical life of the church every day, and want a reverent, beautiful Mass on Sunday.”

The homeschooling movement has helped pave the way for brick-and-mortar classical schools, in many instances. Good, who initially pitched the idea of the classical enrichment program at the local homeschool co-op, credits the homeschooling families involved with the school as being an enormously positive cultural influence. “The homeschooling families know what classical education is and have been doing it for years,” he said, adding that the parents volunteer a lot of time and talent to the school. The school now has an Epiphany celebration, and celebrates feast days. “It was a culture that wasn’t there before. Parents are the primary educators. The school is primarily there to serve the families.”

What advice does he have for other schools wanting to change? “Start with literature, start with Latin, engage knowledgeable and passionate people—which in most cases, will mean homeschooling families.” 

According to Good, there are now more homeschooling students in the US than there are Catholic school students nationwide. “In 2012, the number of Catholic school students nationally had decreased 4 percent. Meanwhile, the number of homeschooling students had increased 8 percent. That trajectory is just increasing,” Good said.

He advises educators who want to start a classical curriculum at an existing school to see if there is a hunger there. “Start a book club on classical education, have a chat over coffee between principal and parents.”

Catholic educators across the country are expressing interest in changing over to a classical curriculum, according to Seeley, who said he has more requests for services than he has staff to fulfill the need. 

What fruits has Seeley seen come from the Institute? “Academic communities rejoicing in the truth. That’s what I find everywhere I go,” he said. “The joy the students and teachers have at the schools we work with.”

About Leslie Fain 15 Articles
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons.