Classical Christian education looks to past, thrives today

Students stand in their classroom at the Classical School of Wichita, which opened in 2005.
Students stand in their classroom at the Classical School of Wichita, which opened in 2005. Courtesy photo

Jenna Mullinix is only 11, but she can already translate common phrases from Latin.

Sitting around the table at Red Lobster waiting on their meals several months ago, she and her younger siblings occupied the time by reciting an Orthodox hymn from memory. When she and her brother are outside at night, they can identify a half-dozen different constellations, the result of a homework assignment to find particular stars in the night sky.

“There’s deeper purpose behind that,” said Jay Mullinix, Jenna’s father. “It inculcates in these kids a sense of wonder at the universe and particularly the universe as created by God and ordered by God and reflective of his beauty. I love that.”

Jenna and her brother Gavin, who is about to turn 7, are among the rising number of children receiving a Christian classical education. They attend Christ the Savior Academy, one of Wichita’s classical Christian schools.

The model looks back to the education of America’s Founding Fathers, derived from classical Greece and the Middle Ages, and imbues it with a Christian worldview.

Even as the recession shut the doors of some Christian private schools, the number of students enrolled in classical Christian schools has continued to grow, according to the Association of Classical Christian Schools.

When the association was founded in 1993, it had 10 schools. By 2003-04, the number had risen to 153. It now includes 279 schools with about 43,000 students.

The association estimates there are about 100 schools that are not members, and probably more homeschooled students using the Christian classical model than those enrolled in day schools.

“They (parents) know they have other Christian school options, but when they look at what we do they say, ‘This is the education I wish I could have had,’ ” said David Goodwin, president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools.

Classical charter schools, which the association does not represent, also use the model from a secular perspective.

‘A challenge’

Wade Ortego, head of the Classical School of Wichita, says Christian classical education begins with a question: “If all these souls are fearfully and wonderfully made, what teaching style brings out the best that’s already in there?”

Classical education teaches students in three stages, the trivium: grammar (grades 1-4), logic (grades 5-8) and rhetoric (grades 9-12).

The grammar stage involves learning facts, diction and vocabulary, often through chants, songs and stories. Students learn the “grammar” or foundation of history, geography, language and more. The logic stage teaches students “to argue well,” often using Aristotelian logic. Some schools teach computer programming at this stage, Goodwin said, based on its logic structures.

In the rhetoric stage, students study speaking and writing well, often blending history, geography and literature.

And throughout the entire course of their education, classically educated students read, read and read.

Common texts include the classic “Pinocchio,” C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The City of God” by St. Augustine, 19th century novels like “Les Miserables” and “David Copperfield” and, of course, Virgil’s “Aeneid.”

Many classical students learn Latin, including at Wichita’s Christ the Savior Academy, Classical School of Wichita, Northfield School of the Liberal Arts and Faith Academy.

“I thought long and hard about what I wanted the school to become, and I wanted it to become a challenge,” said Becky Elder, head of Northfield and one of the school’s founders.

The good, the true, the beautiful

Classical Christian education operates off of the premise that “the good, the true and the beautiful”— a phrase derived from the philosophies of Plato — are objective qualities that exist separately from any individual’s opinion.

Because of that, an education must not only provide students with facts, but must also train them to be good citizens who recognize and pursue the good, the true and the beautiful.

“Yes, we want them to be gainfully employed, but we’re interested in not just the intellectual but their character, who they are as people,” said Jennifer Sebits, president of the board of Christ the Savior Academy.

Bridget Schneider says that classical education has shaped the characters of her daughters Amelia, 13, Sophia, 10, and Lydia, 8, who attend the Classical School of Wichita.

Amelia in particular is a voracious reader, Schneider said, but “loves to read good books, not just anything.”

“They’re taught to choose the best books and things they can really glean a lot of information out of, and they’re taught to analyze that information and question and debate that information,” Schneider said. “We’re challenging them every day to live a life of honor, to be somebody that can be trusted, to be somebody that can be compassionate for others, to look for the beauty around them in God’s creation and in other people.”

A growing movement

Although Christian classical schools look back to an ancient model of education, the movement is still young.

The Northfield School of the Liberal Arts opened in 1993 with 12 students. Now, it has between 60 and 65 students.

The Classical School of Wichita opened in 2006 with 90 students. Today it has about 315.

Christ the Savior Academy opened in 2012 with 18 students and adding a grade a year up to fifth grade. Next year it will have 55 to 60 students.

The newest of Wichita’s Christian classical schools is Faith Academy, which opened in 2015.

Goodwin says most of the schools in the Association of Classical Christian Schools started in the past 20 years.

In 2015, students in ACCS schools scored an average of 608 in reading, 588 in mathematics and 591 in writing on the SAT, according to the association. That’s compared with an average of 495 in reading, 511 in mathematics and 484 in writing among U.S. college-bound seniors during the same year, according to the College Board.

Many point to author Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” as playing a role in the resurgence of classical education.

“Is not the great defect of our education today … that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning,” Sayers wrote.

Christian Classical schools tend to cost less than the average private school. For the 2011-12 school year, private schools averaged a tuition of $10,940, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Goodwin says the average cost among his members is about $7,100 a year. In Wichita, the schools cost less: $4,000-$5,000 per year (Northfield), $4,500 per year (Christ the Savior), and $5,500-$6,050 per year (Classical School of Wichita).

The model appeals to a variety of Christian denominations. Groups represented include Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Orthodox Christians, Baptists and more.

“They (students) grow in their faith, they grow in their relationship with God, they grow in their appreciation and knowledge of things that are beautiful and things that are true,” said Father Benedict Armitage, head of Christ the Savior Academy.

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess