A Classical comeback: Lourdes adds south campus

Once on the verge of closing, Classical school to add a second campus

Roxanne King

When Rosemary Anderson arrived to Our Lady of Lourdes School in 2011, it had just 90 students and was on the brink of closing. Now at near capacity with 231 students and a long wait list, the K-8 school in Denver just announced it is opening a second location this fall.

What caused the shift? A switch to classical education and strong leadership.

“I was hired to bring in a change to revitalize the school,” the 33-year-old principal said, who since her December marriage now goes by Vander Weele. “The following year we began the three-year implementation process. The results of this project have been incredibly humbling.”

Lourdes’ south campus will open in the old St. Louis School in Englewood. St. Louis, which was in operation 87 years, closed in May 2016.

“It will be good to hear the voices of students echoing in the halls again,” said Father Bill Jungmann, St. Louis Church pastor. “On the Sunday it was announced, people were so excited they applauded.”

Mrs. Bigelow, an aide for 2nd – 5th grade at Our Lady of Lourdes, helps a student with a problem. The staff at Lourdes, under the leadership of Rosemary Vander Weele and Father Brian Larkin, is largely credited with having helped turn the school around over the past seven years. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

Those familiar with Lourdes, credit Vander Weele’s leadership with the school’s dramatic success.

“She’s cast a vision and has formed a team that also shares that vision and passion that is able then to see it happen, to realize it,” said former homeschooling mother Karin Middleton, who with her husband Tom has a 12-year-old at the school. Their 15-year-old highschooler graduated from Lourdes. “[Rosemary] would be very quick to say that she wouldn’t be able to do this without [pastor] Father Brian Larkin, [vice principal] Ryan O’Connor and the rest of the Lourdes team.”

Ben Akers, a dean and theology professor at the Augustine Institute who with his wife Heather have a first-grader at Lourdes—the eldest of their four children—agreed.

“Rosemary’s influence on the school is tremendous,” he said. “She turned around a school that was looking to close its doors and now they have to open their doors at another location. That’s a testament to her vision and bringing that vision into practice and communicating it to the teachers and parents and, really, just being a great leader.”

A belief in Vander Weele’s passion and ability to lead spurred former Denver auxiliary Bishop James Conley to broach hiring her in a last ditch effort to keep Lourdes from closing. The bishop, who now heads the Lincoln Diocese, shared the story at an educators conference last year.

“I know a teacher, she’s never had any experience as a principal, but she has a great heart and lots of energy and she has a great understanding of Catholic education,” he recalled telling those set to shutter Lourdes. “Why don’t you appoint her principal of the school? If she crashes, in a year it’s closed.”

…Parents are realizing more and more that our culture is moving against Christianity and it’s become of the utmost importance to provide our children with the best education they can have—one that understands reality with a Catholic Christian mind.” – Father Brian Larkin

Archbishop Charles Chaput, then prelate of Denver, agreed to take on the risk of a rookie principal being the first to implement the classical model—which uses a three-part process of grammar, logic and rhetoric to teach students how to learn and how to think—in a school of the archdiocese.

“The first year was up and down a little bit, then slowly things started to take off,” Bishop Conley said. “[Rosemary] did a lot of PR work herself, and word got around. Understanding of classical-style education gained interest … and here we are today.”

When Vander Weele took the reins at Lourdes, she was just 27, and was the youngest principal in the archdiocese.

A Denver native with several degrees and 14 years experience in local Catholic schools, Vander Weele asserts that Lourdes’ resurrection from near death is due to her team’s fidelity to the Lord and staying true to their mission at the school.

“It hasn’t been easy,” she said about switching to the new curriculum. “As a community, we’ve grown and learned about the richness of classical education.

“Father Brian is extremely supportive, as was Msgr. [Peter] Quang, who hired me. To walk arm and arm with them and lead together has been a tremendous blessing. Ryan O’Connor, the teachers and staff are just incredible. The success of this mission is due to them.”

The culture of Lourdes is one that embraces the Catholic faith and combines with a classical curriculum of education. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

Lourdes’ south campus will start by offering kindergarten through second grade for the 2018-2019 school year, with plans to add additional grades as need demands.

“It’s a continuation of the mission and brand here,” Vander Weele emphasized, explaining that administrators realized they needed to expand as current families alone filled grades K-2 at the Denver site for this fall, leaving no room for the 40 families on a waiting list.

“The demand,” she happily noted, “has been overwhelming.”

“We’re super excited to be able to serve more families,” said Father Larkin. “I think parents are realizing more and more that our culture is moving against Christianity and it’s become of the utmost importance to provide our children with the best education they can have—one that understands reality with a Catholic Christian mind.”

Parent Middleton concurred.

“This is a brilliant solution to make possible the Lourdes experience for more students that is actually retaining the Lourdes experience, as opposed to overcrowding classes and becoming something different,” she said.

To learn more about Our Lady of Lourdes, visit lourdesclassical.org.

COMING UP: Going crazy for classical education

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Going crazy for classical education

Bishop Machebeuf High School adds classical track, following trend

Therese Bussen

With Our Lady of Lourdes school’s wild success after implementing the classical education model, other Catholic schools are also taking the leap to try it out: Frassati Catholic Academy launches in August, and now, Bishop Machebeuf High School plans to open a classical track with the incoming freshman class this fall as well.

Deacon Marc Nestorick, principal of Bishop Machebeuf, said that after seeing its success in other schools, especially as it integrates so well with Catholicism, the high school wanted to follow suit.

“The classical track is something that the community has been discussing before I got here, and it complements the direction of where our school is going,” Nestorick said.

So far, five students are enrolled and they hope to enroll 15-20 when the doors are opened.


What’s so special about classical?

So what is it about the classical education model that works so well?

“I think integration makes a huge difference, the integration of faith with science and social studies…looking at it holistically is very appealing,” Nestorick said. “It’s focused on learning the truth, instead of how to get a job in the future. Learning is truly about coming to know and love God, and classical education really helps with that.”

Ryan O’Connor, assistant principal and theology teacher at Lourdes, believes that the growing trend of classical education in Denver is because this more holistic approach to learning produces tangible effects on the kids.

“One of the reasons I think the classical education trend is growing in Denver is we have a growing number of parents (and teachers/administrators) who are increasingly uncomfortable with the utilitarian approach to modern education (e.g., Common Core),” O’Connor said.  “They have a higher purpose in mind for their children, so they are naturally drawn to the original purpose of education, which is now called ‘classical.’”

“I think all the skills, reading, writing, thinking — a love for learning is the biggest thing, I think [in classical education]. It starts with the purpose of training human beings, not human-doings. It focuses on developing the human person,” O’Connor said.

There are many factors for the school’s success using the classical model, from the teachers that the school attracts who are on fire for their faith, to the structure of classical education itself and how it ignites a love for learning in students.

“It demands more of the teachers because [the curriculum] has to go through the mind of the teacher first…when teachers are on fire for Christ, it’s very contagious,” O’Connor said.

“The [students] enjoy the classes, it’s more discussion-based…when doing Socratic discussion…it’s just more effective, there’s more retention of information,” O’Connor continued. “Instead of saying, ‘Memorize it,’ we discuss it, and they remember it that way, and they behold the truth.”

Classical education, which has its roots in Greek and Roman learning methods and subjects, also aims to incorporate an appreciation for what the Greeks called “the Transcendentals”: truth, beauty and goodness. And the perfect integration of this philosophy is found in Catholicism.

“The Greek and Roman roots from classical education in fostering man’s natural aptitude for wisdom and integration…the only way that happens is through Jesus,” O’Connor said. “The Church’s vision for education is classical. The Catholic faith holds the framework for classical education, and truth, beauty and goodness is found in Jesus Christ.”

“Whether students come to behold a truth in math class, are inspired by heroic virtue in literature class, or are mesmerized by the order and beauty of nature in science class, these encounters with the Transcendentals are ultimately encounters with the person of Jesus Christ, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Incarnate,” O’Connor added.


Parents are seeing the difference

Orderly thinking, wonder, imagination, the joy – this is why it’s so successful with students — and their parents.

“My daughter is so much more aware…of developing a faith life that is based on Catholic doctrine…my own understanding has been strengthened by what she’s been doing in school,” said Joan VandenBurg, whose two children both attended Lourdes before the switch to the classical model. Her daughter, a fifth-grader, still attends.

“She’s a huge reader, and she loves Latin and talks about words all the time. She’s in the fifth grade and is reading Jane Austen and has the logic skills to understand [it],” VandenBurg said.

“When I look at her writing test compared to what my son had, who only had two years of the classical education [he was moved to a different school because of learning challenges]…her writing is much better. They do so much more scaffolding that supports [learning reading and writing],” VandenBurg said.

Liz Myers, whose son, Dominic, also attends Lourdes and is enrolled in Bishop Machebeuf’s classical track for next year, also spoke highly about the before-and-after effect.

Before attending Lourdes, Myers said, Dominic didn’t remember much of what he learned; but since the switch, she’s seen his “natural enthusiasm for learning” grow.

“I really like classical education because it’s all I can remember, and before [starting at Lourdes in 2011], I can’t remember anything [I learned],” Dominic said. “It’s not just a lecture…they let you be a part of it so that you can feel more accomplished.”

Accomplishment is one benefit, but ultimately, classical education teaches students how to grow in virtue.

“Virtue is the purpose of classical education, and of course, that’s in line with what the Church wants to do,” O’Connor said.

For more information on Bishop Machebeuf’s classical track, visit machebeuf.org/admissions/AdmissionsHome; for information and applications to Frassati Catholic Academy, visit gofrassati.org.