HOUSTON — A student arrives at school with a 12-inch quartz crystal — undoubtedly a calculated element of his parents’ garden — certain it would make a fine piece of jewelry. After all, his science teacher encouraged him to bring in rocks to polish in the tumbler.
But it wasn't meant to be. “Do you know how much that probably cost?” science teacher Dr. Stuart Murphy asked with a laugh.
“On the other hand, it's a good sign when they come to you every morning with something to tell you,” Murphy said of his young students. “You know you're getting through to them.”
At the Cardinal Newman School in Houston, which currently houses grades pre-K to four, that's exactly what they're trying to do. Its method, however, is unusual.
To get an idea of the school's approach to learning, mix a shoestring budget, teachers who prefer student-driven activities to rigid textbook structures, kindergartners learning Latin, fourth-graders reading Plato and teachers who regularly patrol Asian grocery stores in search of classroom materials such as giant squids.
It might sound novel, but it's not. Music teacher Kemper Crabb likens the school to those common in the latter part of the 1800s.
“We have taken a step back because we see it as taking a step forward,” he said.
Administrators founded the school on principles considered fundamental 100 years ago. They cite classical content, human formation and patriotism as integral.
“We are trying to teach students from the roots up,” reads one letter from school officials. “Our goal is to build an exceptional school according to a style once universal in the Western world.”
Subject matter is divided historically by grade. Second-graders focus on Egypt, third-graders on Greece and fourth-graders on Rome. Classes integrate culture, history and geography. Many of their textbooks are reprinted versions of older books, and all students read original texts such as Aesop's fables and Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales of Greek mythology.
Also central to the school's mission is the study and practice of Catholicism.
Basilian Father Jack Whitley describes the spiritual mission as giving the 30 students a “real good firm basis in the faith and teaching them to be truly obedient to the Church, the magisterium and the Holy Father.”
As part of the human formation element, each month the school focuses on one virtue, such as order, courage, charity or sincerity.
Do your grade-schoolers know their Plato?
Founded by lay people, the independent school is in the process of obtaining the permission of the bishop to operate in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. Although only in its first year, the school next year will add at least six new teachers to accommodate the increased enrollment. By adding one grade per year, eventually the school will educate students up to the eighth grade while maintaining the 12 to 1 student to teacher ratio. Children as young as 3 are currently enrolled.
And they all study Latin. The youngest students concentrate on learning prayers and songs while older children go directly to original texts.
Parent Rudy Santa Cruz occasionally catches his 5-year-old son singing in Latin at home. He was first intrigued by the school's emphasis on Catholic knowledge and is now chairman of the fundraising gala, through which the school hopes to raise $100,000.
Tuition stands at $3,500 for one child and $3,000 for a second. Next year it could decrease, but teachers are still conscious of budget.
This restraint, though, encourages creativity. To outfit his science lab — which parent Kristine Perilla describes as one that “belongs in a high school” — Murphy scours the stalls of Chinese and Vietnamese markets for toads, squids and eels. Right now his classroom is home to a dead 24-inch squid, live crickets and mealworms, a giant toad and eggs in an incubator. One of his favorite purchases was a wooden dinosaur skeleton that cost $5 at Wal-Mart.
“Usually when you talk about grade-level science, you talk about general earth science and things like that,” said Perilla, whose two sons attend the school. “But they do real science in there.”
The best part about the science program, she said, “is that it's really not a program. He does what the kids want.”
Perilla had planned to home school her sons until a review of the school's curriculum changed her mind.
“A lot of the curriculum they were going to use was what I was going to use at home,” she said. “They had made some of the same decisions I had made in terms of good curriculum.”
She also liked the approach to religion. The school doesn't teach comparative religion, and Perilla's kindergartner is learning the rosary and prayers in Latin.
Father Whitley's involvement with Cardinal Newman School was originally minimal. A retired educator and principal who is now chief fundraiser for the Basilian Missions, he responded to an appeal for a priest to say Mass once each week at the school. That quickly became twice a week, then three times, and he was soon the school's official chaplain.
“I just felt it was what the Lord wanted me to do,” he said.
Sacraments remain parish-based, but Father Whitley makes sure to commemorate every first holy Communion with a special gift like a rosary. “I am dedicated and devoted to this school,” he said. “If you plant that seed deep and nourish it early in life, it will grow to fruition.”
Dana Wind is based in Raleigh, North Carolina.