Classical Schools Are Growing So Fast, the Biggest Problem Is Staffing Them

Fast growing classical schools are scrambling to find staff nationwide. That is one of the lessons scholars, teachers and administrators described at the Symposium on Transforming Culture in America at Benedictine College on March 15-16.

“The biggest problem facing classical schools is the teacher pipeline problem,” said Jake Tawney, the chief academic officer of Great Hearts Academies, a classical charter school network in Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana. “The second biggest problem — which is becoming the biggest problem — is the headmaster pipeline problem.”

Both problems are the focus of the work of Krystyn Schmerbeck, the Director of Benedictine College’s master’s programs in classical education which help graduate students who lack educational background become either classical school teachers or school leaders.

Why are they growing so fast? Because families are experiencing “the joy and wonder of classical education,” and spreading the word, she said.

Tawney and Schmerbeck spoke at the Symposium, a conference which featured 50 other speakers, including keynote presentations by Dale Ahlquist, Elisabeth Sullivan, and Ryan Toppings.

“It was a little spark and now it’s a wildfire,” said Dale Ahlquist.

When he founded the first Chesterton Academy, the plan was to strat just one school in Minnesota. But after sharing his model with others for 10 years, there are nearly 70 Chesterton academies spread across America and now the world — including Iraq and Sierra Leone — and they are just one example of a revolution in classical education.

“And we’re seeing cultural change from the ground up as a result,” Ahlquist said.

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.”

Classical education keeps the student as its first focus.

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 to seek 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.”

Benedictine College’s Krystyn Schmerbeck said “The classroom is the greatest lever of change on earth,” she said. “We want to form teacher and school leaders who will transform students.”

A version of this appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Catholic-Church-England-and-Wales-Flickr

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.