Will More Catholic Schools Pivot From Common Core to Classical Education?

Amid the debate over Common Core, the classical-education movement is gaining traction among Catholics.

Students at the New England Classical Academy
Students at the New England Classical Academy (photo: Courtesy of Mario Enzler)

CLAREMONT, N.H. — When Mario and his wife, Julie, left Switzerland for New Hampshire, they faced a frustrating dilemma as parents: Where were they going to educate their five children? Julie, while she had a theology doctorate from the Angelicum, was not able to home school, and both she and Mario, a former Swiss Guard under Pope St. John Paul II, had no confidence in the education coming from the public schools or from New England Catholic schools that followed a similar curriculum with an added religion class.

Only one course of action remained: They decided to found their own school in the Catholic tradition that would give their children and others the kind of classical education that formed Mario as a boy in Milan.

Because New Hampshire had a moratorium on charter schools, Enzler started a nonprofit to support the school. He adopted the curriculum that is standard for classical education in Italy and rented the school building from a sympathetic pastor whose parish had to close its Catholic school.

The New England Classical Academy in Claremont began in 2009, with five students; today, Enzler said, more than 160 students are enrolled, and as proof of its enormous success, high-school seniors have been receiving scholarships to Ivy League universities. Many of the students come from parents who do not even have high-school diplomas but value the education their children receive.

“We’re a simple school in one of the poorest counties of New Hampshire, and we’re trying very hard to form the students and bring forward the thirst of knowledge that they have,” said Enzler, who is the academy’s headmaster. “We challenge and engage them using the Socratic method, so you read and then discuss. … Our goal is that our students leave the academy as free, wise and virtuous young men and women who will be prepared for college, any kind of career or home life that the Lord will indicate for them, but a life enriched with the richness of Western culture.”

The conviction that led the Enzlers to found the New England Classical Academy, where Latin is taught and spoken as a living language, has only grown, as the region’s public schools and Catholic schools adopted the Common Core State Standards.

“My wife and I said our children deserve more,” Enzler told the Register. What American education is doing, he noted, is feeding “data” to students, followed by tests, but it is not actually forming the whole person and nurturing the student’s love of knowledge. From his vantage point, Common Core is shutting down children’s joy of learning and discovering the beauty in their subjects.

“There is absolutely no need to teach math the way Common Core does. Math is beautiful and should not upset a child,” he said. “When a child is upset, learning shuts down. The child will learn only if he’s happy, and Common Core is not allowing the children to be happy.”

Diocese Picks Classical Education Over Common Core

The national ferment over Common Core has stirred many Catholic educators to take a new look at classical education. In the Diocese of Marquette, Mich., Catholic educators backed by their bishop decided to reject Common Core and looked at classical education as a return to the Catholic educational tradition once exemplified by the Jesuits.

“We’re building our own from-the-ground-up approach to Catholic liberal arts education, with the help of people across the country who have been doing this in schools successfully,” Mark Salisbury, the diocese’s superintendent, told the Register.

Bishop John Doerfler approved the classical curriculum foundations, and in an accompanying statement, he explained that the diocese’s Catholic schools would not “adopt or adapt” Common Core standards, even though they “respectfully understand” that other Catholic schools may discern differently. He said, “We do not believe that such actions would benefit the mission, Catholic identity or academic excellence of our schools.”

Since 2014, the entire system — nine different grade schools — has been transitioning to the classical-education model, where students will learn such skills as diagramming sentences and composition from reading and imitating the best works of Western culture. Other elements include learning Latin from the third grade onward, daily readings from the lives of the saints — a suggestion made by Benedict XVI — and reading through the entire Old Testament and New Testament narratives three times by eighth-grade graduation.

Salisbury said that data from surveys and tests is demonstrating the classical-education model makes Catholic schools a compelling alternative to the state’s best public schools. A survey of parents has shown that the schools’ scores on academic excellence and Catholic identity have increased significantly. The students have been taking nationally recognized Iowa Tests, and scores are increasing. The goal is to have students scoring in the 95th percentile.

As Salisbury said, “We feel this is an authentic Catholic education that is rooted in our history and really is the most excellent method of delivering our Catholic philosophy of education in Catholic schools.”


Catholic Schools Adopt Model

Other dioceses are discovering that allowing Catholic schools to switch to a classical-education model can save them, by bringing in not only parents who have misgivings over Common Core-influenced education, but also by recapturing parents who pulled their children out of Catholic schools in order to give their children a classical education at home.

Our Lady of Lourdes Classical School used to be a failing Catholic diocesan school before it hired Principal Rosemary Anderson in June 2011 and embraced the classical-education model. At that point, the school had been financially unsustainable for several years, and when enrollment had dipped below 90 students, the Archdiocese of Denver gave the school one year to either prove it could survive or close up shop.

A graduate of Denver’s Augustine Institute, Anderson had written her master’s thesis on why classical education was the key to a resurgence for Catholic schools. She presented a plan to the archdiocese to roll out classical education step-by-step over three years. The archdiocese agreed with one caveat: There had to be “significant growth” by the end of the first year.

Anderson delivered. When the new model was revealed, enrollment spiked to 130 that first year. As of this January, she said, the school has grown to 175 students from pre-K through eighth grade.

Teaching Latin and exploring the stories and people of history are the heart of students’ classical education, she said, and “when it’s presented as something alive, then they love it, and they excel.”

One positive aspect of the Common Core debate, Anderson said, it that it gets parents to think seriously about the kind of education they want for their children. While some school families enrolled over concerns with Common Core, “their biggest draw” comes from home-schooling families that want their children to have a classical education and the added social interaction, sports and drama.

“The moms have come in and been so overwhelmed with gratitude that there is somewhere that welcomes them and says, ‘Thanks for having 10 kids; we’ll find a way to make this work for you, because you’re the Church,’” she said.


In-Demand Product

Parents’ dissatisfaction with contemporary education has been driving the demand for a return to the classical tradition, according to Phillip Kilgore, director of Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter Schools Initiative. The Common Core debate, he added, is just increasing the demand.

“I speak with so many people from every corner of this land who are eager to do something about the problem of education,” he said.

Hillsdale decided to create the Barney Charter School Initiative, Kilgore said, because the Michigan college had been receiving a steady stream of inquiries from parents across the country who wanted their children to have a K-12 public education that would form the whole person with a “moral dimension.”

Kilgore explained the charter schools are defined by three pillars that Hillsdale sees as necessary for the health of the American republic: classical liberal arts and sciences, moral character and the promotion of civic virtue. They are in affluent as well as poor, urban neighborhoods, offering a quality education for students of all races, colors and creeds. These schools also allow parents to have local control over the education of their children, which is no longer possible in most massive public-school districts.

He added that this kind of classical education used to be the American standard at the turn of the 20th century and produced a highly literate society — until schools began to adopt the theories of John Dewey. Today, the U.S. public-education system produces a high number of high-school graduates who are functionally illiterate.

“What [Dewey] did was: He started to move education away from the idea that you’re going to fill young minds with knowledge and form them with the habits that make a virtuous, free people into the idea that school is an institution that has social-agenda purposes and less educative purposes,” Kilgore said.


Rising to the Challenge

Independent Catholic schools are rising to the unmet demand among parents for a Catholic classical education at a time when dioceses are closing schools due to falling enrollment.

St. John Bosco School in East Rochester, N.Y., began in 2008 at a time when the Diocese of Rochester had just closed 13 of its grade schools, according to Colleen Richards, St. John Bosco’s principal.

She said a number of families came together and decided to build an independent school with a Catholic identity that would offer a classical education aiming to form the whole person, with Jesus Christ at the center. Later in 2011, they improved their classical education plan by modeling it after St. Jerome’s Classical School in Hyattsville, Md., a diocesan school that had been on the brink of closure until it adopted a classical model in 2010.  

“They really felt that adopting the curricula of the public schools and adding a religion class was just not sufficient to achieve that purpose,” she said. “It had been done too often in the surrounding area, so St. John Bosco began with a classical curriculum from the start. They saw that curriculum as what would most fully support the mission of the Catholic school.”

“It has been a beautiful experience,” Richards said. The school has steadily increased students and later added a high school, known as the Chesterton Academy of Rochester. Together they have 135 students enrolled from pre-K to 12th grade.

She believes the movement is gaining steam among Catholics.

“Common Core has definitely pushed a lot of people to make more inquires,” she said.

The school helped the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education host the first Catholic Classical Schools Conference in 2013 at the Notre Dame Retreat House near Canandaigua, N.Y., in the scenic Finger Lakes.

This year’s annual conference will be in Philadelphia. Richards said it is providing a nexus for experienced teachers and students of the “Great Books” to learn from each other and collaborate. 

“I see that the ‘classical people’ really benefit from the exposure to those experienced teachers who know those things about classroom management and student motivation,” she said. “It’s a fantastic collaboration, and we’re blessed to be part of it.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.