Chesterton Academy opened in September and is off to a very promising start. The school has received a lot of attention; yesterday Chuck Colson featured The Chesterton Academy in his Breakpoint broadcast.
Here are some of the things I was looking for in a high school for my children. These are some of the key features we have built into the Chesterton Academy.
First, I wanted a school that thoroughly integrates the Catholic faith into a college preparatory curriculum. A good high school should teach teenagers math, science, literature, the arts, history, etc., and good study habits so they can legitimately apply for acceptance to any of this country’s top tier colleges. A good school should teach these subjects in the context of faith. While it is good to learn how to count when you study math, it is also important to learn what you are counting, that is, God’s creation. While it is good to study stories in literature class, it is better to study those stories in context of the overarching story of man’s relationship with God.
Second, I wanted a school that manifests that faith in a concrete way, in addition to the curriculum. For a Catholic, daily Mass and a faculty pledge of fidelity to the Magisterium are obvious manifestations.
Third, I wanted a school that is meaningful and socially relevant. I want a school that will prepare students to make a difference in the world, not merely get along in the world. Attacks on human life pose the greatest social injustice of our time. The Chesterton Academy is intended to be a shining affirmation of human life. We are preparing students to build a culture of life.
And we are preparing our students to take their knowledge and faith out into the world. Our goal is not to create a separate subculture, but to change the culture of death into a culture of life.
And, fourth, I wanted a school that teaches entrepreneurship, resourcefulness and leadership. So often people think school is the place you go to prepare to get a job. Well, I’d like to prepare students to create a job. I want a school that teaches students they can create their own future; they don’t have to look to a big company or the government to give them a future. The Chesterton Academy is a lesson in itself, along those lines. It was started by a group of parents who identified a need and figured out how to make it happen. Nothing is guaranteed; we are not getting any government funding. People can make things happen, but they have to try. I want a school that will encourage people to try.
The Chesterton Academy operates in a very modest facility. I wish it had better, but the facility it has is sufficient. The no-frills environment of the school teaches an important lesson. We live in an area where there are ample community resources. They should be used. We don’t all need our own private facilities with the latest bells and whistles. Let’s use what’s available to us, and be creative about identifying those resources.
Perhaps the biggest trap we set for our teens in today’s world is unrealistic materialist expectations. Kids are so surrounded by opulence and wealth that they get a false idea about the importance of “stuff.” By conducting classes in a modest environment, we are trying to promote gratitude, which I believe can be an effective antidote to excessive want.
The modest facility also helps us to keep our tuition relatively low, which I believe is very important. Typical schools that include Catholicism in their curriculum average around $10,000 per year, per student. For a family of four or five, relatively closely-space children, this tuition rate presents a sizeable obstacle to Catholic high school education. At Chesterton Academy, the tuition is $5,500 per year. I acknowledge that is still a sizable about of money, but at least it creates a more affordable option.
Nearly all schools offer students various levels of financial aid if their family cannot afford the entire tuition bill. This is laudable, although I have never been comfortable providing the personal financial disclosures necessary to request such aid. Furthermore, I suspect it would be difficult for parents to work collaboratively on school policy issues when, despite assurances of privacy, decisionmakers know which families have paid less to attend the school.
Every high school offers parents a set of trade-offs to consider as they decide where to send their teens. Some schools offer excellent opportunities for sports and extracurricular activities, but no catechesis. Others offer great facilities and curriculum, but at high tuition costs. Others, like Chesterton Academy, offer great teaching and curriculum but fewer amenities in the areas of facility and extra curriculars.
If you ask an eighth-grader “where do you want to go to high school,” they will typically identify a school that is pleasing to the eye, or a school to which most of their friends are going. I think parents have to consider the decision much more seriously. You only get one opportunity to educate your teenager. What lasting message do you want them to get during those high school years? You can judge relatively easily what your kids will learn from the curriculum, but consider also what they will learn from the environment of the school.
Dale Ahlquist and I started talking about forming a new high school in spring of 2006. We hired a magnificent headmaster and he has put together a stellar faculty. Several people have made generous donations to get the school going. Nine families have come together to send their kids to the school this inaugural year. Tonight, we are hosting a parents’ meeting regarding new students for the 2009-2010 school year. There are a lot of people who want the kind of school described here.
I certainly will write more about the Chesterton Academy as this venture develops. In the meantime, check out the school’s web site.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
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