St. Benedict Elementary is a Catholic classical school serving kindergarten through sixth grade, situated alongside the Charles River in Natick, Massachusetts. It has just concluded its fourth school year, since opening in the fall of 2013. As some First Things readers may know, opening and maintaining a private religious school in the 2010s can be extremely difficult. But in the crowded landscape of independent schools within the Greater Boston area, St. Benedict Elementary is thriving. The key, I believe, is this: Our school proudly adheres to a distinctive mission, educating children according to the teachings of the Catholic Church and the classical model of education.
In its first year, St. Benedict Elementary opened its doors in rented office spaces with just twenty-six students. In 2014, it moved to its permanent home, the beautiful and historic Harriet Beecher Stowe House, just across from the South Natick Waterfalls.
During its second year, St. Benedict’s launched a nationwide search for a headmaster. I was fortunate to be offered the position, and moved my family from Alabama to lead the school. By the time we opened our doors in the fall of our third year, we had sixty-five students and ten full-time teachers. In our fourth year, we welcomed eighty-one students, and we anticipate an enrollment of ninety in year five this fall. That will put St. Benedict Elementary near maximum capacity in our little schoolhouse, so we have begun to look for alternatives, in order to accommodate more students and expand our program.
As Catholic schools around the country close, St. Benedict’s growth is a counterexample. We are surrounded by some of the best-performing public schools in the country, yet some of our parents drive more than an hour to bring their children to St. Benedict. Our school and schools like it are thriving because they recognize their mission and embrace it. Some parents come specifically for the religious instruction, but others seek an alternative to the utility-focused aims that typify many high- and low-performing schools in the United States. A classical curriculum that imparts an appreciation of learning and cultivates intellectual and moral virtue appeals to these parents enough to make them forego a free, high-scoring public school.
Our children are exposed to the very best that Western Civilization has to offer. Fine art adorns the walls of our schoolhouse, great literature is read in the classrooms, and Gregorian chant is taught in music class. Our children are surrounded by the good, the true, and the beautiful every day. On a recent walk through our school, I stopped to hear the sixth graders reciting Socrates’s Apology in one room, while the third graders practiced chanting the Missa de Angelis. There is no moment in the day, no mundane duty or lesson, unworthy of becoming an opportunity to advance our singular goal: to form our children into scholars and saints.
Though the classical curriculum is a distinguishing marker for a classical school, the faith life of the school must be vibrant as well. A Catholic school must be unapologetically Catholic. All truth learned in every subject must be ordered towards the cardinal Truth—Jesus Christ. If Christ is not the center of the day, then the entire enterprise is lost. Learning should inspire children to contemplate the goodness of God’s creation. If it falls short of doing so, then it has abandoned the goal of Catholic education and ceases to be an institution devoted to the formation and evangelization of its students.
The rising demand we see in our application pool each year gives us confidence in our vision. We like to believe we are part of a renaissance of classical education, and that classical education provides an antidote to such modern epidemics as relativism, modernism, and materialism. Modern prejudices are combatted through the study of the great works of authors, musicians, artists, and thinkers that have stood the test of time—and have proved that history, tradition, and mastery of grammar and writing have real and inherent value. Thus do St. Benedict and schools like it persevere in their mission to promote intellectual growth and excellence in character.
Jay Boren is headmaster of St. Benedict Elementary in Natick, Massachusetts.