Classical studies in public school: King's students help lead a new education movement


Veritas Preparatory Academy does not prepare students for college—it prepares them to die well.

“To die well, you need to learn how to actually live,” said Isaiah Contu-Owen, a TKC freshman and a graduate from Veritas Prep. “That’s what Mr. Twist used to tell us.”

Great Hearts students read A Wrinkle in Time, a Midsummer Night's Dream and Gulliver's Travels before sixth grade. Submitted photo.

A couple King’s alumni now teach at Great Hearts Academies, a group of classical charter schools in Arizona, one of which is Veritas Prep. Ray Davison ('13) plans to begin teaching at Veritas in the fall after graduation. Catherine Allen, another graduating senior, just returned from visiting Arizona to look into a teaching job as well.

Meanwhile, at one of the Great Hearts elementary schools, distinctly labelled “Archway,” King’s alumna Ali Lane (PPE) experiences astonishing, “humbling” moments with her special group of second graders.

“I frequently have 15 minutes of incredible discussion during class, talking about ‘great ideas’ with seven-year-olds—I’m always amazed that you can discuss topics like inflation and slavery with them,” she said.

The classical charter school movement is burgeoning west of the Mississippi, where state governments tend to be more lenient with new public education techniques and teachers are less unionized. Since 2005, Great Hearts Academies has grown to 16 schools around Phoenix, serving 6,500 students and expecting to serve around 7,300 next year, with 11,000 more students piling onto the waiting list. As with other publically-funded charter schools, Great Hearts accepts students by lottery, regardless of academic or economic variables.

Erik Twist, the headmaster of Archway Veritas, said Great Hearts wants to combine the rigor and the joy of good classical liberal arts education. “We believe children can go deeper than people believe they can. Rigor and joy are not mutually exclusive—in fact, you can’t have liberal arts without joy,” he said.

Twist added that while Great Hearts students score high on the SAT, the schools really exist to “habituate students toward the good and help them fall in love with beautiful things.”

The curriculum incorporates the traditional classical trivium: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, using books like Don Quixote and Little Women for K-fifth grade and The Aeneid and Paradise Lost for sixth-12th. It also incorporates the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and science, including math classes through Calculus II and science classes like Physics I and II, chemistry and biology.

Great Hearts tirelessly probes the country to select teachers—certified or not—that it believes are up to the task: teachers who are “intellectually, aesthetically and morally alive.”

When Davison spoke with Twist regarding a teaching job, Twist asked him, “We’re giving you time in front of malleable souls—are you going to use that time well?” Davison especially appreciates that Twist and the organization boldly use the term “soul.”

Erik Twist is the current headmaster of Archway Veritas. Submitted photo.

Allen first heard about Great Hearts in her History and Philosophy of Education class. Dr. Robert Jackson discovered the schools and “won’t stop talking about them,” she said. TKC’s connection to Great Hearts has been quickly developing; Great Hearts sends talent scouts to like-minded colleges--including King’s, Hillsdale College and St. John’s College--to ascertain interest and seek potential teachers.

“They sent talent scouts to King’s in the first couple years of our relations—that means they really like us,” Allen said.

Davison also heard about Great Hearts from Dr. Jackson, in his Education Policy class. Davison attended a classical Christian school his last three years of high school and is thrilled that Great Hearts is bringing classical education to the public school system.

He addressed concerns within the Christian classical education movement that the classical charter movement improperly diverts funds and is deeply flawed because it submits to secularization and denies the centrality of Christ.

“To that I respond generally that I think this new monasticism, what I’ve been terming it, is dangerous,” Davison said. “When you’re dealing with the canon of Western literature, it is completely structured around a Christian way of understanding things.” As Twist quoted, “All truth is God’s truth.”

Others have criticized the academies for only teaching the “dead white men,” Twist said. Some believe the talk of developing virtue is “clandestine religious stuff.” Twist denies this. Despite employing a large number of Christian teachers, Great Hearts promotes an Aristotelian, Platonic, philosophical realism about virtue and morality, rather than a religious one.

For instance, every classroom at Archway Veritas lists the school virtues (rather than “school values"), like courage and humility. “There is a strong sense that you will be a well-formed human being by the time you graduate from Veritas,” Davison said. Lane constantly reminds herself that everything she does as a teacher is helping to mold a person’s soul, instilling discipline, authority and “all the intangibles underneath particulars of moment.”

Submitted photo.

In Contu-Owen’s freshman year at Veritas Prep, they discussed the meaning of love in the literary and philosophical context, and after several hours, had developed a definition including the idea that it involves a relationship with someone whom you consider more important than yourself.

People also remain skeptical of charter schools in general, especially since in Arizona, charter schools comprise the best and worst schools. Lane said a nearby charter school follows the exact method Great Hearts explicitly avoids: teaching for tests.

Nevertheless, Great Hearts’ method of aiming for quality has also resulted in quantifiable success. Its students average 30 percent higher in academic achievement percentiles than the Arizona state average.

While the academy student bodies are limited by space, they are not limited by anything else. The special-education students learn in the classroom with the other students but take individualized tests separately, perhaps also receiving tutoring. Despite disagreeing with much of influential education philosopher John Dewey’s methods, Lane agrees with him that “whether one’s capacity for learning is like gallon jug or a half pint, each container should be filled with cream, not a watered-down version.”

The quality of education manifests itself when the students are invited to enjoy beautiful and enduring things. In 2012, Great Hearts hosted a symphony for the first time. During the concert, the conductor announced that the next composer would be a Baroque master named Vivaldi, whom the students had “probably never heard.” When the piece ended, two-thirds of the students stood up and erupted in applause.

“It dawned on us that they had just spent past months studying music theory and history, listening to tons and tons of Vivaldi,” Twist said. “Here they were, hearing Vivaldi live for first time, and it absolutely electrified them.”

Twist said the conventional wisdom holds that children can’t appreciate old art and knowledge and literature, requiring cartoons and pop culture references to maintain interest. “Yet by virtue of their humanity, they may not only understand beautiful, rich, deep things, but also be deeply excited by them.”