A fourth-grader raises her hand to answer a question at Christ the King School in Irondequoit, N.Y., in this 2011 photo. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier) (July 18, 2014)
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 schoolwhich is 100 years old and was formerly
known as Sacred Heart of Jesus Schoolwill 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,”
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,
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 subjectsas
opposed to standardsthen 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
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
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,
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
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
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
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 literatureget 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
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
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.
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 peoplewhich
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.”