Great Hearts Offers Classical Education Model in Virtual Academies

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Great Hearts is the largest classical charter school network in the United States, committed to the purpose and mission of cultivating the hearts and minds of students through the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. 

Great Hearts Academies launched in Arizona 20 years ago as a single public charter school. A group of families set out to start a private school for their children but decided to leverage the newly minted charter system that had been adopted by the state legislature in 1994. Nearly two decades later, Great Hearts schools, which aim to teach students how to think rather than what to think, serve over 20,000 students in 33 brick-and-mortar buildings across Arizona and Texas. Administrators use a broad curriculum that encompasses academics, but doesn’t focus solely on student achievement, a concept the school’s leaders believe is necessary yet insufficient.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – and in response to growing demand for more accessible education options – the organization recently launched its newest venture, Great Hearts Nova. This “virtual academy” consists of Great Hearts Online, a tuition-free, virtual charter school, and Great Hearts Microschools, a program that brings families together in person to design co-learning spaces. Through these innovative methods, Great Hearts Nova, still in its infancy after only 15 months in operation, hopes to deliver the rich curriculum of Great Hearts Academies, built around the classical liberal arts core.

“Great Hearts Online and Great Hearts Microschools present an opportunity to marry a timeless classical education model with new, future-facing forms,” said Kurtis Indorf, founder and president of Great Hearts Nova and the chief innovation officer for Great Hearts America. “Education and society are changing at unprecedented rates, and we must innovate and build not only for today, but also for a better tomorrow.”

Indorf, who first joined Great Hearts Texas as its executive director of instruction, led the charge to create a best-in-class online academy that utilized Great Heart’s values and curriculum. In a little over a year, Indorf raised funds, hired teachers and developed the technology infrastructure necessary to enroll 1,000 children in his online charter program. 

“The overwhelming demand, growth and interest in our offerings – not only within Arizona and Texas but also nationally – speak to the potential [of these models],” he said.

Great Hearts Online: School at Home

When families choose Great Hearts Online, their children do not simply gain access to digital educational resources. Instead, the whole family joins an at-home learning community that extends across the state and uses well-chosen technology and in-person gatherings to connect. Parents and guardians play an integral role in the education of their children, with the support of staff and other families. 

“Virtual learning has alleviated many of our frustrations without compromising what we love about homeschooling,” said parent Jonathan Hornock, whose children are enrolled in Great Hearts Online. “The educational community is phenomenal. Our kids’ teachers connected with our children and motivated them toward academic excellence in a way that we as parents could not. Our children also enjoyed the daily camaraderie of the online classroom experience. Simply put, our family thrives because we became part of a like-minded educational community not otherwise available in our town.”

“Most online programs are lonely, procedural places. Great Hearts Online is the antithesis to that current reality,” said Indorf. “We are creating an academically rich, relationally based school community. We value and cultivate a sense of wonder, depth of inquiry and love of learning in all classes. With Great Hearts Online we strive to serve more students, share the rich curriculum, deepen relationships with families and work together with parents to help scholars grow in their educational and moral formation.” 

The program employs more than 100 teachers and consists of small class sizes of 15 or fewer students in K-3. To help support its programs, Great Hearts Online sends hundreds of dollars in materials and equipment to families across Arizona and Texas. These resources allow students and families to engage in a truly hybrid educational model – part virtual with live instruction and part in-person, at home with siblings, parents and friends learning by doing – with computers closed. 

Great Hearts Microschools: Supporting Families Through Co-Learning

Another way the organization has adapted its model is through Great Hearts Microschools. These are small, tuition-based school communities serving between five and 120 students that provide “an intersection of homeschooling and private schooling, prioritizing exceptional academics with flexibility, family time and passions beyond school and home.” Great Hearts Microschools make use of the Great Hearts Online curriculum, and as these in-person, co-learning spaces grow, additional activities will include seminars on supplementary texts, science experiments and history reenactments, curriculum-aligned enrichment activities and clubs and sports.

“We’re grateful to partner with families and community to bring these new educational models to life,” said Indorf. “We are striving to become a living and breathing example of San Augustine’s wisdom: ‘ever ancient, ever new.’” 

Changing Education in America

Robert Pondiscio, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and prominent education influencer, has taken note of the success and accessibility of a model available to students statewide that offers the rigors of private school and is tuition-free. In an op-ed, he writes about how Great Hearts could change education in America, suggesting its online program could become a breakthrough private school model that’s affordable and attractive to middle-income families. It doesn’t take a great deal of foresight or imagination to envision a scenario in which Great Hearts could create something truly new: a high-quality, low-cost private school that taps into Americans’  rising discontent with traditional public schools and that offers a curriculum grounded in the timeless appeal of “the true, the good and the beautiful.”

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