Few parents are going to want their children to waste their formative years in joyless, factory-style learning environments when superior alternatives exist. Faith-based schools that kindle wonder within children are multiplying. The good news is parents are embracing these options so enthusiastically, it’s difficult to build schools fast enough to meet the surging demand.
As I discussed in a previous article, classically minded colleges are enjoying historic levels of success. It’s revealing that the trend is just as strong, if not stronger, at the primary and secondary level. These classical K–12 alternatives are rapidly expanding while conventional schools struggle with chronic absenteeism, plunging achievement and an enrollment decline not seen since World War II.
Fifteen years ago, Tom Bengtson and Dale Ahlquist recognized the need for a high school in the Minneapolis suburbs that would use the Socratic method in a broad, liberal arts program designed to hone critical reasoning skills. The level of demand for the Chesterton Academy became so intense that they had little choice but to expand into the Chesterton Schools Network. Most of the network’s forty-four schools located across the United States and Canada were established in the last five years. That total is on track to climb to sixty later this year.
The Chesterton schools fill a void parents have observed in the education of their children. “One of the great scandals of modern public education is how much money is spent and wasted,” Ahlquist explained. “The COVID shutdown also exposed the fact that students were not learning anything because nothing was being taught.”
At the primary level, Maryland’s Divine Mercy Academy offers a traditional, Catholic education from kindergarten through to eighth grade. School founder Ali Ghaffari insisted parents be actively involved throughout the learning process. “We believe our role is to partner with parents to foster a love of truth, beauty, and goodness, and to form disciples of Jesus Christ, who are made free to realize their full potential by living joyfully in accordance with the truth, revealed by God, through nature and the Catholic Church,” he explained.
Many of these classically minded schools turn to the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE) for support in fulfilling their mission. That includes ongoing development opportunities for teachers. The group provides resources to more than 6,600 educators in primary and secondary schools across 102 dioceses.
ICLE data show both faculty morale and student engagement rose at more than 80 percent of the schools that reinvented themselves with a classical curriculum. That improvement accompanied a significant rise in the enrollment and academic success of students—in rich and poor neighborhoods alike. “There was little surprise to us in our recent survey that one of the most common words to come back to us, when leaders were describing their schools since the adoption of this ‘ever ancient, ever new’ philosophy of education, was ‘joy,’” ICLE President Michael Van Hecke said. “It is no wonder it is starting to spread by word of mouth, across the nation, and, increasingly, around the world.”
Sometimes that word spreads in a big way. David Goodwin co-authored a new book with Pete Hegseth exploring the underlying causes of the decline in conventional education. Battle for the American Mind topped the New York Times bestseller list in July as desperate parents sought answers to how things could be done better. Goodwin also serves as president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS), where membership increased from 335 schools to 465 in the past two years.
Such results aren’t merely a side effect of COVID. Public charter school enrollment was on the rise even before the pandemic. After it hit, however, the trends accelerated. The number of parents turning to homeschooling doubled, according to the Census Bureau.
The main reason that classical schools are thriving in the current environment is that parents aren’t interested in enrolling their children in grand social experiments. When they weigh the available options—“modern” schools that embrace the latest educational fads, and classical schools that rely on tried-and-true teaching methods that have worked for centuries—the choice is clear, and the numbers speak for themselves about what parents really want.
Jeremy Tate is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test (CLT), a humanities-focused alternative to the SAT and ACT tests.
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