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KATY, Texas—As she walked the halls of Aristoi Classical Academy on a recent October afternoon, headmaster Brenda Davidson greeted most of the students by name. She wound her way around classes meeting on the floor of the Alief Baptist Church gym, the students separated by temporary partitions that blocked the view but not the sound of the next-door lessons. In one history classroom, middle schoolers proudly displayed elaborate models of iconic American buildings: the White House, Monticello, the Washington Monument.
Aristoi looks like a small, Christian school that meets in a church building. The comparison does not surprise Davidson, who occasionally overhears parents saying Aristoi is just like a private Christian school—one they don’t have to pay for. Comments like that make her smile, and cringe. While she’s thrilled to hear parents praising the education their students get at Aristoi, she’s wary of anything that might get her in trouble with state regulators—because Aristoi is a public charter school, one of dozens across the country where leaders have adopted a classical curriculum in a push for educational excellence.
The school, located in Katy, about 29 miles west of downtown Houston, earned its charter in 1996, one of the first in Texas. Ten years later it was on the verge of failure. With enrollment whittled to 166 students, the school’s board decided to switch to a classical system. Students thrived. Word of the school’s success spread. This year, 792 students are enrolled, with several hundred more on the waiting list. Next year, the school will open a new campus with room for 1,128 students. Davidson expects to fill every seat.
Aristoi’s growth tracks with the explosion of classical education across the country, among Christian schools, homeschooling groups, and, increasingly, public school charters. Several charter groups, including Arizona-based Great Hearts and the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College, are expanding rapidly in charter-friendly states. Just like classical Christian schools, the charters aim to teach students to embrace truth, goodness, and beauty as virtuous citizens. But there’s one key difference: The logos they teach doesn’t have its foundation in the way, the truth, and the life of Christ.
Davidson, who spent most of her 32-year career as a teacher or administrator at regular private Christian schools, doesn’t see any contradiction in teaching a classical curriculum that doesn’t acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and the foundation of all things. “Our students get the whole truth, which doesn’t exclude the historical events and people pivotal in the founding of our country and Western civilization,” said Davidson, who has paintings of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hanging in her office and a copy of the popular devotional Jesus Calling sitting on her desk.
Teachers at Aristoi talk about Jesus as a historical figure and acknowledge that the Western tradition is steeped in Christianity. Students learn how large the faith of many of the Founding Fathers loomed as they struggled to get the American experiment right. Although Aristoi students would never be invited in an assembly to profess faith in Jesus, they learn to think and reason. Any who eventually acknowledge Christ as Savior won’t do so flippantly, Davidson said, but will have a true understanding of who God is—with the rhetorical tools to defend their belief.
Phil Kilgore, director of the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College in Michigan, also says a classical curriculum can work without being explicitly Christian: Students learn that objective truth and standards exist, and “pursuing truth can be done without exclusively doing it through revelation. Natural law, for example. We want to give students the opportunity to pursue those things, whether or not they have a doctrinal statement.”
Through a partnership with the Barney Family Foundation, Hillsdale launched its charter school initiative in 2010. The college provides curriculum materials, teacher training, and support to groups ready to open a charter school in any state where they are allowed. The initiative started with two schools in 2012 and has opened four, on average, every year since then. Kilgore expects that rate of growth to continue, but he doesn’t see classical charter schools as competitors for Christian schools: “The need is larger than all of us.”
Hillsdale, which is known for being one of the few U.S. universities to refuse all forms of government funding in order to maintain its independence, chose charters as the vehicle for its K-12 education initiative because it wanted to get involved in public schools, which serve 90 percent of American students. “We live in a republic where the sovereign is outside the government, it’s the people,” Kilgore said. “Those people who play the role of sovereign, they have to be educated.”
But what are they really learning at a secular classical school?
“Classical charter schools turn out students who believe truth can hang freely suspended in space. Or worse, that truth and faith are separable.” —Goodwin
David Goodwin, president of the Association for Classical Christian Schools, insists a classical education without Christ just creates a hole begging for an answer. Proponents of secular classical models might argue that’s the goal, allowing parents to fill the gaps at home and at church, but Goodwin is skeptical: “Classical charter schools turn out students who believe truth can hang freely suspended in space. Or worse, that truth and faith are separable.”
Classical education creates influential leaders, Goodwin said, but in a secular system, they’re still not taught to view the world rightly: “Now you have an idealistic education looking for truth, but the source of truth has been expunged. … Students are trying to ascertain truth on their own reasoning, and we all know where that leads.”
Because classical charter schools use a curriculum and language that sound so similar to what students hear in a classical Christian school, Goodwin thinks some parents might not realize what’s missing. Combine that with the offer of a free education, and Christian parents might find charters too tempting to pass up. LouAnn Webber, director of admissions at Memorial Lutheran School and vice president of Houston Area Independent Schools, said the city’s private school administrators worry about the rise of classical charters and the possibility parents will return to public education.
So far, that doesn’t appear to be happening. Memorial Lutheran is one of two well-established Houston schools that have offered a classical curriculum for years. Neither has seen a drop in enrollment, even as new classical Christian schools open all across the city.
The same is true in other parts of the state, where classical Christian schools are flourishing, said Keith Castello, headmaster of Covenant Christian Academy in Colleyville and president of the Texas Colloquium of Classical Christian Schools. He believes parents who want their children to have Christian education won’t be drawn back into a secular setting: They’ve already opted to forgo public education’s biggest draws—large extracurricular programs in arts and sports, benefits charters can’t provide.
If classical charters hope to make inroads with Christian parents, they likely have their best shot in Texas, one of the largest and most charter-friendly states in the country. Arizona-based Great Hearts opened its first Texas campus in San Antonio in 2014 and now has four Texas campuses, with plans for 14 more. Hillsdale has six of its 16 affiliates in the Lone Star State. A new group, Valor Public Schools, recently announced plans to open its own system of classical charters in Texas.
Charters “might not have the full-blown Christian model, but they will have the kind of academic opportunities [students] wouldn’t have otherwise.” —Howell
But classical Christian schools are growing at an equal or greater rate. Texas had 69 classical Christian schools as of last year. New campuses open every year, said Doreen Howell, who founded the Texas Colloquium and is considered the state’s foremost expert on classical Christian education. The fastest growers are hybrid and University-Model schools, where students attend class on campus several days a week and complete coursework at home on the other days. Four such schools operate within Aristoi’s attendance area in Katy, and two of the region’s largest, Logos Preparatory Academy in Sugar Land and Trinity Classical School of Houston, are within 23 miles.
Howell, who worked for 22 years at Regents School of Austin, one of the state’s largest classical Christian schools, agrees that a secular classical education suffers from serious structural issues: “If you have a slatted foundation instead of a solid foundation, you’re bound to have problems.” She also recognizes many families can’t afford private schooling. One year of elementary school at Regents costs $13,000. Even with scholarship opportunities, plenty of parents still can’t afford it, Howell said: Charters “might not have the full-blown Christian model, but they will have the kind of academic opportunities [students] wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Headmaster Davidson says that’s true at Aristoi, where 20 percent of students qualify for government-subsidized lunches. She expects her teachers at the public charter school to feel called to classical education and have a deep desire to prepare kids for life: “We offer teachers a mission field.” That call resonates with assistant headmaster Matthew Watson, who left a local Catholic school to join Aristoi’s staff two years ago. He believes the charter school offers a closer approximation of the Catholic educational inheritance than his former employer—and the opportunity to make that education free to parents was irresistible. Watson argues that the classical model flourished most in the early church, so “classical education is Christian education.”
But Goodwin warns the outcome of a classical education that doesn’t explicitly acknowledge Christ might not be what Christian teachers hope for: “If classical charters adopt the methods of classical education, but not the right ultimate purpose, they’re likely to educate clever devils.”