The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., combines traditional values and classical learning in a community known for strong Christian values and high incomes.
The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., combines traditional values and classical learning in a community known for strong Christian values and high incomes. Larry Abramson/NPR
Character education. "TCA" teachers regularly discuss character issues as they teach. They stress the role of values in making a strong community and try to weave these issues into their teaching.
Teaching the "Trivium." Instruction follows this classical path: students learn the "grammar" (basic facts) of a subject, proceed to the "logic" (supporting conclusions with facts), and only move to the "rhetoric" (arguing a point on their own) when they are ready.
High standards, traditional values. Academic expectations are high, but teachers are urged to respect family time and not assign too much homework. Parental involvement is highly valued.
The founding parents of The Classical Academy, a K-12 public charter school in Colorado Springs, Colo., wanted to create a close-knit program focused on strong values and high academic standards.
Sitting in the shadow of Pikes Peak, the school emphasizes traditional values and classical learning in an area with a large Christian community and high incomes.
When it comes to academics, the school, which has about 500 students, achieves high standards through an ancient series of steps known as "The Trivium."
The first step is learning the "grammar" of a subject: the basic knowledge, dates and events. The second step is "logic." Students delve deeper into subjects and learn how to support their conclusions with facts. Finally, they reach the "rhetoric" stage, in which they're expected to think and argue on their own.
The approach has apparently helped Classical Academy students score among the top 10 schools in the state in recent years.
Accompanying the teaching method at The Classical Academy is a strong emphasis on values. And the sense of shared values binds this school together.
Tom Clemmons teaches civics to seniors, and also doles out moral advice in the form of "life lessons."
During a recent discussion of Ronald Reagan's 1987 visit to the Berlin Wall, Clemmons changes the subject:
"Some of the best things in life are those you're going to have to wait for and work hard for," Clemmons says. "And I use the example of having to wait for a long time to find the right spouse."
Students are quick to tease Clemmons when he recounts how he waited for the right woman to marry him.
"She was in college, and her dad wanted her to finish college, and I was already out of college," he says. "So I had to wait a couple of years to marry her."
It might sound like Sunday school — and Clemmons' tale might spark a wave of eye-rolling at other schools — but here, students listen to Clemmons' life lessons, even if it's with a smirk.
Clemmons, who had previously taught at the Air Force Academy, says that he and his family find the climate at this charter school is not as "one sided" as it is in some public schools.
"We found in public schools people who might have more conservative beliefs are really a vast minority or looked down upon somehow," Clemmons says.
So whose values does the school emphasize? Russ Sojourner, principal of The Classical Academy Junior High, says students and families accept certain basic truths.
"Justice is a good thing, and kids should know that," Sojourner says. "At the crux of it [is that] mercy is a good thing, and kids should understand that. And honesty is a good thing."
Colorado Springs is famous as a mecca for some of the largest, most active evangelical churches in the state. Leaders of this school say they are open to all comers. But the school's reputation and its location mean that this affluent, largely white school attracts a steady supply of believers.
Senior Sidney Anderson was unwinding on a couch in the senior lounge, home to the school fussball table.
She says it's assumed that kids in this school are active Christians. Anderson says the school's focus on good behavior and traditional academics can lead to a kind of naivete on the part of school staff. That bubble was burst last year when administrators learned that some students were drinking at weekend parties.
"It was kind of like everybody had a secret life, and it suddenly came forth. There was this huge partying scandal with drugs, and it hit the administration really hard," she says.
Sitting next to Anderson on the couch is senior Caleb O'Leary. He admits he was a "big part" of that partying. He's cleaned up his act, but says it wasn't because administrators came down on him.
"It's not that the school's cracked down; most of us have made life changes. Fusion changed lives at this school," O'Leary says.
"Fusion" is a spiritual retreat conducted by an off-campus club that addressed the drinking problem. Administrators say they have nothing to do with such efforts.
But, they say, it is another way for this community's values to shine through. The school dealt with the partying as a family would, they say: through constructive meetings, without any expulsions.
Principal Peter Hilts says his students' clean-cut appearance actually hides the diversities of their attitudes and interests.
"One of the nice things about our school is that we have students that confound some of those stereotypes. They do have a certain appearance, but there isn't as much of a monolithic perspective as people outside of the community attribute to us."
Hilts says this is a public charter school — religion plays no active role. But as at many charters, school leaders know the academy's reputation will appeal to some, but not all. Right now, the appeal has led to a waiting list of 7,000 students.