Session Recap: Friends, Romans, Countrymen: The Resurgence of Classical Education in America
During a 75-minute conversation about classical education, speakers managed to make mention of Steve Jobs, the Iliad, the Simpsons, and Letters from Birmingham Jail.
In one sense, the free-wheeling discussion about a love of learning and teaching kids how to think for themselves embodied what’s so appealing to parents about classical education and the Socratic style of teaching.
Moderated by the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio, the discussion on classical education’s current resurgence featured Jay Heiler of Great Hearts Academies, Mary Pat Donoghue of the Institute for Catholic Education, and Matt Post of the classical studies department at the University of Dallas.
“One of the things that kids seem to be doing a lot more of these days is grammar, logic, rhetoric—the pillars of classical education,” said Pondiscio.
“Given the opportunity, it seems that many parents are not merely going old school but oldest school, choosing for their children an approach to K-12 education that valorizes the search for truth, beauty, and the formation of character.”
Donoghue explained the introduction of classics into Catholic schools to the point where there are now up to 100 Catholic campuses in her network that tout themselves as classical or liberal arts. Heiler offered up Great Hearts’ exponential growth and demand as proof that classical education is indeed growing.
Post discussed the University’s newly-established residency program for aspiring classical teachers, and how it disrupts the traditional role of how teachers function in the classroom. Classical education requires teachers to facilitate open dialogue and be off the cuff rather than rely on standards-aligned curricular material.
In college classrooms today, professors tend to draw the line between kids coming in uneducated and the pessimistic view of the country’s direction.
“You see students coming in as freshmen and they don’t know how to read, they don’t know how to write, listen, speak. In short, they don’t know how to think and you see it getting worse.”
Education with Virtue
“I love liberal arts, what’s my future? Well, you’ll be a very good person,” Post said dryly.
“Without the foundational principle of classical education, you won’t have the same high level of thought, the same high level of ability to connect dots, to see patterns, to understand history, all of which go into sound leadership thinking, sound executive thinking. These things are all very much grounded in classical education.”
Post says there are problems when teachers aren’t adequately prepared to make lesson plans and have a full grasp of what they’re supposedly teaching. However, on a deeper level, what’s more problematic is when a teacher doesn’t buy into the reasons why the classics and teaching virtue are so important.
Donoghue remarked after going through a traditional teacher prep program, “I’ve seen from that experience and since, this effort to make something as mysterious and sublime as learning quantitative. We’re after a clinical approach so the classroom becomes a clinical place, and the teacher becomes a clinician.”
“Teachers often function as administrators of the material,” whereas the classical education model compels teachers to break that role.
Heiler hears constantly from Great Hearts parents the immediate character changes they see in their kids as a result of classical education.
Classical education attempts to instill learning to better oneself so students are asking themselves, “who am I and what’s my place in the world?” as opposed to taking in information for its own sake.
Adult priorities in higher education and the policy world:
Classical education isn’t top of mind in education reform and policy discussions when compared to other topics such as standards, testing, and technology in schools.
Ironically, the student-focused nature of classical education could serve as a reason for why it doesn’t merit attention in the policy world and higher education. According to Heiler, there is so much, “contrived activity” among adults in education policy at the expense of students.
The panel extended this line of thinking to higher education and a system that is built on the comfort level of professors and administrators as opposed to the best interests of students.
Role of Philanthropy
As for the role of donors in expanding classical education, Donoghue stressed tuition assistance in the Catholic school sphere. In terms of a school model emphasizing classical education on a network level, there aren’t any doing it on the scale and magnitude of Great Hearts. That being said, Great Hearts' growth would not have been possible without philanthropic support, specifically an early grant from the Walton Family Foundation as well as continued support from national and state-level partners.
Session Recap: Leveraging the Power of Philanthropy in Support of Rural Ingenuity
In many ways, rural Americans speak their own language. A simple phrase might actually mean something else entirely. During a breakout session on rural philanthropy during the 2017 Annual Meeting, Roger Quarles of the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation presented the following reference table for guidance:
“How do you get the attention of this group?” asked Quarles, after laying out each euphemism. “How do you tell them that their house is on fire for their children in this rapidly-changing?”
Albertson responded with a one-minute video clip entitled, “Don’t Fail Idaho” aired at the start of every school year, explaining the dire consequences for kids if rural schools don’t prepare kids for postsecondary life and are non-responsive to international competition. The ad was so provocative that lawmakers urged Albertson to take it down, claiming it portrays Idaho too negatively.
Overall, the breakout session highlighted the challenges of providing philanthropic support in rural areas.
The discussion featured three presentations by donors from three different parts of the country: Diane Kaplan of the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska, R.J. Valentino of the Grimm Family Education Foundation in Southern California, and Abel Wurmnest of the Anschutz Family Foundation in Colorado. Roger Quarles of the J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation in Idaho, moderated the conversation.
Panelists shared successful projects from each of their respective giving portfolios. For Kaplan and Rasmuson, success has come from promoting dental hygiene in remote areas of Alaska.
Dental Hygiene in Alaska
In Alaska, Kaplan stressed, “when we say rural, we mean rural.” “Eighty-six percent of [Alaska’s] municipalities cannot be reached by a road.”
“It’s a huge area with very little infrastructure,” with an area that spans from California to Florida.
To illustrate her point about a lack of dental hygiene in native communities, Kaplan spoke about the front row at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention seats tribal elders out of respect. As the common joke goes, “What has two teeth and 200 legs? The elder front row at the convention.”
Moreover, Kaplan described it as, ‘heartbreaking” when she would ask to take pictures of the native kids she visits in remote areas and they were too embarrassed to smile because of their teeth.
The Rasmuson-funded dental hygiene and preventive care in native communities has led to a precipitous drop in severe emergencies and painful experiences that regional hospitals would otherwise have to address. Oral health clinics have also served as a sustainable job creator for native peoples.
Rasmuson has since scaled the program for rural areas in states such as Minnesota, Washington State, and New Mexico.
“Because of our roots in agriculture and also because of our opportunity in these rural communities that are predominantly Hispanic, we were also only looking at opportunities to enhance the academic outcomes here but we really got focused on wellness,” said Valentino.
Grimmway Schools have “edible schoolyards” at all campuses, where students spend part of their day learning about wellness and nutrition. Campus-based “chefs” make healthy lunches daily, in part using food grown from these school gardens.
The benefits of Grimmway Schools go beyond wellness. Not only do elementary scholars eat healthily during the school day, they outperform on average their local counterparts by approximately 30 points on state assessments.
The Grimmway vision began with philanthropic backing in the form of operational support in the first five years, along with giving the school a line of credit for the first two. The Foundation has also garnered $25 million in bond financing to pay down debt of the first school, paving the way towards fiscal sustainability and school replication.
To help with fundraising, the Grimm Family Foundation has since established national partnerships with organizations such the Charter School Growth Fund, NewSchools Venture Fund, and the Walton Family Foundation. Partnerships with universities in the Los Angeles area are also in the works.
Rural Philanthropy Days
As Sue Anschutz, president and board chair of the Anschutz Family Foundation in Colorado, put it via video presentation, “People from rural Colorado hate coming to Denver. They would rather have a root canal.”
In rural Colorado, the ‘us versus them’ mindset between rural populations and Denver-based philanthropic organizations has been a tough mindset to overcome. In response, the Anschutz Family Foundation started “Rural Philanthropy Days,” as a way for urban-based grantmakers to engage with rural nonprofits and obtain a clearer sense of community needs.
Anschutz and other funders provide financial backing but really want to empower local steering committees to organize the event itself. Rural Philanthropy Days is a two-day conference held twice per year, and leaders just celebrated its 25th anniversary. During some years, the 250+ attendance might match that of the town population in which the conference takes place. Local nonprofits get to speak directly with philanthropic representatives and each entity gauges whether they’d be good matches to form partnerships.
The Talent Question
In terms of retaining talent in rural communities, it’s important to ask:
- What local industry needs exist and how can philanthropy generate those needs with local talent?
- What is the cost of importing talent versus what it would to take to provide local training and in turn create jobs?
Wurmnest added that broadband access is also critical to both the recruitment and retention of high-quality leaders, something with which many rural areas unfortunately struggle.
School site visit: Foundation for Blind Children
Donors visited the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC), a private school that has served both children and adults who are visually-impaired since 1952. The site visit featured classroom observation, along with a panel discussion with student and parent representative moderated by Marc Ashton, CEO of FBC. Donors also received insight into Arizona’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program.
At least 80 percent of FBC preK and elementary learners have developmental challenges in addition to being visually-impaired. Donors saw young children with severe disabilities often learning daily activities that most people take for granted, such as eating and expressing themselves. Witnessing this in action along with hearing parent testimonials proved to be incredibly emotional.
On top of classroom instruction for preK and elementary grades, FBC offers adult transition services for those who became visually-impaired later in life. Adolescents in the Phoenix area also receive college and career counseling. Donors were able to hear from some of the adults who are adjusting with the use of responsive technology and performing daily tasks such as food shopping and cooking.
Education Savings Accounts
Following observation, donors heard from a student and parent representative, both of whom benefitted from Arizona’s ESA program.
The ESA program works by parents choosing to opt out of their local district and opt into the ESA system that disburses per-pupil allocation directly to the parent to spend on services such as tuition, therapy, and other education resources. Soon, student eligibility will include all public school students, albeit subject to a funding and enrollment cap for the first couple of years. ESAs have proven especially useful for students with special needs who now have access to a customized education they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Matt Ladner of the Charles Koch Institute and expert on Arizona’s school choice landscape, labeled Arizona the country’s “canary in a coal mine.” School choice policies have become necessary due to the state’s prior fiscal challenges, combined with exploding Latino and retiree populations.
Cesar Yanez, a blind student who was able to utilize FBC’s services using an ESA and currently attends a prestigious private high school using an ESA, told donors his inspiring story. Because of the ESA’s grandfathering mechanism, Cesar’s younger siblings will also be ESA-eligible. Cesar is improving in math, plays the trumpet, and will be the first in his family to attend college.