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.