DENVER — Like too many other Catholic schools, Our Lady of Lourdes experienced declining enrollment throughout the past decade. By 2008, enrollment at the pre-K to 8 school had fallen to just 100 — too low to remain open if the trend continued.
Suddenly, the picture has changed, and mere survival no longer reigns supreme, thanks to a recent switch to a classical-education curriculum.
Principal Rosemary Anderson credits classical education — known to some as “liberal-arts prep” — with upward enrollment and the school’s new enthusiasm.
“We needed to somehow differentiate ourselves from other schools in the area,” Anderson said. “We want to produce Catholic leaders, and the more we can produce the better.”
Anderson said she sought permission from Our Lady of Lourdes’ pastor, Msgr. Peter Quang Nguyen, to move in the direction of classical education, a curriculum that emphasizes the study of history, languages, philosophy, history, art, drama, music, literature and poetry over more modern educational strategies that emphasize vocational and contemporary subjects.
“Msgr. Quang liked the idea, so we presented it to the archdiocese, and they said, ‘Absolutely,’” Anderson told the Register. Bishop-designate James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., then Denver’s auxiliary bishop, credits his classical education in college for his conversion to Catholicism. He became a strong advocate of the curriculum change.
Anderson then consulted with St. Jerome’s Academy in Hyattsville, Md., which saw an enrollment surge after adopting a classical curriculum.
Like other schools that adopt this mode of instruction, Our Lady of Lourdes’ new curriculum is based on the trivium, a method of learning that focuses on the teaching of grammar, logic and rhetoric. On its website, the Denver school notes that students educated according to this method scored an average of 100 points higher on their SATs in 2011.
“The classical method of education not only provides academic rigor; it also instructs and prepares the students to become independent thinkers … and equips students to be leaders in the community with their ability to communicate logically with their peers and colleagues,” the school website states.
Our Lady of Lourdes’ new curriculum has caught the attention of many parents. A school with 100 students four years ago has 180 students today.
“It was all word of mouth,” Anderson said. “A lot of home-schooling families heard about it and realized it was very much in tune with what they were doing at home — creating a whole person with an integrated curriculum that is rich in Catholic tradition.”
Anderson is quick to point out that other Catholic schools have their own educational philosophies that may be just as effective as the new approach at Our Lady of Lourdes. But for schools that need to reinvent themselves, she recommends consideration of a classical teaching and learning model.
“I think a lot of Catholic education does some of this anyway,” Anderson said. “It integrates faith into all subjects and tries to develop a whole person. It’s not so much about content, but delivery of content.”
By that, Anderson means the curriculum at Our Lady of Lourdes is not a one-size-fits-all set of textbooks like those used in most contemporary public and private schools.
“Textbooks can be dry, so we’ve stepped back from them,” Anderson explained. “Instead of reading a snippet of the Declaration of Independence in a book, we’re going to read, learn and embrace the Declaration of Independence itself.”
Instead of studying books that reference Shakespeare, the children read Shakespeare. They learn Latin, which helps them understand the basis and meaning of other languages. They memorize classic poetry.
If they learn about the ride of Paul Revere, they learn it in such rich detail that it’s almost as if they experience the journey themselves.
“It’s not 90 minutes of a history lesson,” Anderson said. “Instead, our students are living it from primary sources. It’s organic, and the students are engaged.”
Everything is geared to instill in the students an appreciation for “truth, duty and goodness.”
“This is the first time, in nine years of teaching, that I have seen this much enthusiasm in the classroom,” she said.
Anderson and others interviewed by the Register believe classical education is catching on in religious and secular schools throughout the country. They believe it’s the future. Not for all, but for many.
Elisabeth Ryan Sullivan is a board member of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, a group that promotes the use of classical education in Catholic schools. Sullivan said that, nationwide, there are now about 40 to 60 independent schools teaching in the Catholic tradition that use the curriculum, including “a handful” of parochial schools like Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Jerome’s.
Over the last 15 years, there also has been a rapid increase in the utilization of classical education among non-Catholics, First Things noted in a recent article that Sullivan co-authored.
Said Sullivan, “It’s really catching on like wildfire.”
John Zmirak, editor of Choosing the Right College (CollegeGuide.org) and a Register blogger, argues that classical education is particularly effective, and perhaps “crucial,” for gifted students, children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, and artistic and musical children. It also should appeal to parents who may be worried about the soaring cost of private college tuition.
“A private college education is expensive,” Zmirak noted. “Some students are getting out of private liberal arts colleges with crushing debts of $30,000 and up. Many of them won’t earn that much in a year, so how can they have a wife and kids? If you can get them a classical education on the front end, then maybe you’re more comfortable sending them to a state university with much lower tuition, where they can get a degree geared toward a profession or trade.”
Zmirak said Catholic elementary and secondary schools would be wise to consider embracing the classical-education philosophy if they are trying to attract new students.
“The Church has long been in the business of preserving culture, sponsoring the arts and caring about higher matters — asserting the compatibility of faith and reason,” said Zmirak. “Classical education is a natural extension of that Catholic tradition.”
It’s hard to find anyone more enthusiastic about the potential merits of classical teaching and learning than Bob Schaffer, chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education. The father, devout Catholic and former congressman works as principal of the Liberty Common School, a public charter institution in Fort Collins, Colo., with a classical curriculum.
“Classical education is what Americans received until about 1920,” Schaffer said.
The standard approach to education began changing after the 1916 publication of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Along with other such reformers, Dewey wanted to move public education in the direction of pragmatism, as a means of coordinating public opinion around common beliefs, values, expert opinions and political agendas.
By contrast, advocates of classical education speak less of social and political agendas and more about the potential of creative individuals who have been immersed in traditional morality and history’s great accomplishments and artistic expressions.
The progressive reformers advocated teachers who were experts at coaching. Instead of math teachers who had mastered the subject, progressives wanted teachers who studied the craft of teaching while earning degrees in education.
“The debate has been: ‘Do we want a sage on the stage or a guide on the side?’ A classical education is more about having a sage on the stage, because the moral duty of one generation is to pass on knowledge and tradition to the next,” Schaffer said.
Furthermore, even in a public charter school, Schaffer said, a classical education involves reading the Bible and other religious literature that has formed societies and traditions throughout human history.
“In a modern public school, you would be apologetic about having kids read biblical parable,” Schaffer explained. “In a classical school, we may not teach religion, but we’ll read what Lincoln read so we can understand him better. We will understand the biblical basis of the Gettysburg Address.”
Schaffer said Catholic schools were among the last to abandon classical education. That’s because priests and nuns, who were classically educated, staffed the schools. As churches hired more laity into the schools, beginning in the 1950s, teachers began teaching for standardized tests, and the schools became more similar to their public counterparts.
However, some argue that such changes in Catholic schools may have contributed to their decline.
“The public schools were usually better funded,” Schaffer said. “So, with the Catholic schools becoming more similar to the public schools, parents began asking themselves why they were paying tuition when they could get the same thing at the public school, which also had a swimming pool.”
Schaffer believes any movement toward classical education in Catholic schools will pay off.
“Society is beginning to see the failures of the government-owned, unionized, bureaucratized, monopolized public schools, and they want something better,” Schaffer said. “More Catholics are realizing the problems with that system, and they are also realizing the hostility some of these schools have toward Christianity.”
Schaffer suggests the future welfare of the Church is linked to Catholic schools returning to a more classical format.
“If we don’t have Catholics educated well enough as children, the Church will be in chaos when they become adult leaders in the Church,” Schaffer said. “If Catholic schools are well positioned to deliver a classic liberal arts education, their students will be more competitive, and they will be better defenders of the faith.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.