Inspired Schooling

  • Education
  • 2002

Seeing that “factory-style” public schools were having poor results, teacher Dan Scoggin went looking for an alternative. He became convinced that an emphasis on character development, linked to a demanding great-books curriculum, would help students feel their human value and potential, which would translate into academic achievement. Scoggin became the leader of a group of Phoenix, Arizona, residents who were determined to bring better schools to their city. Their goals were bigger than just improved test scores. They wanted to produce students capable of appreciating “the true, the good, and the beautiful”—while also being 100 percent qualified to attend college and otherwise achieve and contribute.

Taking advantage of Arizona’s embrace of the charter-school concept, and a bevy of generous local donors, Scoggin’s team founded the first Great Hearts Academy in 2002 as a free public charter school located in the Phoenix suburbs. Great Hearts employs teachers who are trained specifically in their academic field, rather than graduates of teacher schools. They require their pupils to read primary sources rather than textbooks, and they use Socratic-style discussion rather than lectures, and expect every child, not just the natural scholars, to participate and learn. All of which is easier said than done, of course, particularly given that charter schools are allotted about one-quarter less funding per student than conventional public schools.

Local donors large and small—like the Quayle family, fourth-generation Arizonans who gave $1.5 million in 2012—stepped forward to make Great Hearts possible. Philanthropy also covered crucial costs for expanding the Great Hearts model after it had demonstrated its power (95 percent of students, even those from difficult inner-city neighborhoods, go straight to four-year colleges). By 2015 there were 22 Great Hearts Academies in the Phoenix area, with several more in the works. The first academy outside of Arizona opened in San Antonio in 2014 and a dozen more schools located across Texas began the process of opening in the following years. Even with all of this growth, thousands of students remain on waiting lists for these schools. The network is planning additional expansion with major philanthropic support.

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