Catholic Courier

Posted: August 5, 2013

Classical Catholic schools embrace the past

By Amy Kotlarz/Catholic Courier

One of the latest movements in Catholic education has nothing to do with standardized tests or the common-core standards.

Instead, a growing number of Catholic schools are offering classically based, liberal arts education that has elementary-school students learning Latin and pondering Plato. Proponents say enrollments at the several dozen independent and diocesan schools nationwide that have adopted classical education methods are small but increasing.

In fact, the first national conference devoted to Catholic classical education -- which took place at Canandaigua's Notre Dame Retreat Center July 11-14 -- drew 70 participants from 34 different schools and institutions, said Elisabeth Sullivan, one of the organizers. Sullivan noted the group included two superintendents from Catholic dioceses.

"After this conference, you would know that it is a movement," said Sullivan, who serves as director of communications for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the East Rochester-based St. John Bosco School, an independent school in the Catholic tradition founded in 2008. The school has just over 80 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Sullivan said the movement reflects a desire by families and educators to form young people into wise and virtuous adults who know and love God and appreciate that which is true, good and beautiful.

"So many of our Catholic schools have used textbooks and curricula that are used in the public schools," Sullivan said. "A lot of that reflects a different philosophy of education, so the classical model is very different."

Traditional classical liberal arts education consists of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. Students also study natural sciences, human sciences, philosophical sciences and theological sciences, with an emphasis on finding connections among all knowledge.

In classical education, there are two main forms of instruction: Socratic discussion methods and memorization/recitation. For instance, in lower grades, students parrot phonics rules, math facts, poems, stories and history lessons, and begin to discuss what each means. While technology is not emphasized at many classical schools, Latin is taught as a way to understand the building blocks of language. At St. John Bosco, for instance, students begin learning Latin in first grade.

Sullivan acknowledges that the goals and material may seem lofty, but she said well-trained and prepared teachers are the key to making the material engaging.

"Kids love it," Sullivan said. "They are excited to learn; because, when you understand this big framework of God’s creation, everything you learn fits into this big puzzle."

St. John Bosco is not the only local school that has adopted classical elements. Archangel School, an independent private school in the Catholic tradition in Irondequoit that has been operating for 20 years, uses a curriculum through Kolbe Academy that incorporates the classical framework, according to the school’s website.

Christopher Perrin, publisher and classical education consultant with Classical Academic Press in Camp Hill, Pa., said the number of classical schools nationwide has been growing, as have been the accolades for the achievements of their students and alumni.

"These schools are not focused on grades and standardized tests, but what’s ironic is that they do exceedingly well on them," Perrin said.

Perrin said classical education fell out of favor during the dawn of the 1900s, when educators, influenced by the industrial revolution and booming immigration, began to apply scientific principles of measurement, standardization and improvement to the classroom. He said assessments are useful as a way to compare schools against each other, but he noted their limits, such as the difficulty of quantifying the quality of one’s writing.

"I don’t think in any way that (standardized tests) should become the tail that wags the dog," Perrin said. "A lot of things that good schools do are not measurable."

He said good classical schools, for instance, surround their students with beautiful environments. Some fill halls with art. Other use tablecloths and silverware at meals, and in one school students end the week by singing a hymn a capella. He said a goal is to get students to love the beauty of learning, which he said translates into students who are motivated to learn.

The cultivation of a love of beauty and love of learning is something that classical schools hope can be shared with other schools, Sullivan said.

"It is true that historically classical education was for elites, but we don’t look at it that way, because we think that every child has a right to be immersed in truth and goodness and beauty," Sullivan said.

St. John Bosco parent Anne Flugel of Victor said one of the things she appreciates about St. John Bosco is the emphasis on each student being a child of God.

"They are in this rich Catholic culture, and then we expect them to go out in the world," said Flugel, who will have two daughters at St. John Bosco in the fall and who volunteers as a lunch monitor at the school. "Yet they are confident in who they are."