RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here's a recipe for a successful American high school: Take four parts traditional values, two parts classical learning, and mix well in a community known for strong Christian values and high incomes. This educational concoction has worked well for the Classical Academy in Colorado Springs. NPR's Larry Abramson paid a visit as part of his series on innovative high schools.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Tom Clemmons knows a thing or two about what high schools still call Civics. His students expect that. They also expect moral advice in the form of his famous life lessons.
Mr. TOM CLEMMONS (Teacher, Classical Academy): Some of the best things in life are those you're going to have to wait for and work hard for. And I use the example of having to wait for a long time to find the right spouse.
ABRAMSON: Sound like Sunday School? Well, this is a public charter school, one that features traditional teaching and traditional values. Students are quick to tease Clemmons when he recounts how he waited for the right woman to marry him.
Mr. CLEMMONS: She was in college, and her dad wanted her to finish college. And I was already out of college, so I had to wait a couple of years, you know, to marry her.
ABRAMSON: But students here listen, even if they do it with a slight smirk. Clemmons used to teach across the street at the Air Force Academy. Now he and his family feel right at home in this charter school in the shadow of Pike's Peak.
Mr. CLEMMONS: We found a climate here at the Classical Academy, that it's not just one-sided. We found in public schools - which we've been a part of in the past as well - people who might have, you know, more conservative beliefs, perhaps, are really a vast minority, or looked down upon somehow.
ABRAMSON: The founding parents of the Classical Academy wanted to create a close-knit K through 12 program focused on strong values, as well as high academic standards. The route to those high standards is through an ancient series of steps known as the trivium. Students first learn the grammar of a subject, the basic knowledge, dates and events. Then they move on to the logic, delving deeper into subjects, and how to support their conclusions with facts. Finally, they reach the rhetoric stage, when they're supposed to think and argue on their own. It's not that easy to understand, but it appears to be having some effect. The Classical Academy regularly scores among the top 10 schools in the state.
(Soundbite of song, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall")
Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) It's a hard, it's hard…
ABRAMSON: Step into a classroom, and it's tough to discern exactly how instruction here is different than in other schools. The day I visited Wes Jolly's class, his approach to teaching to the impact of Bob Dylan's music on the 1960's looked pretty familiar.
Mr. WES JOLLY (Teacher, Classical Academy): Do you hear how this could be a song that would be adopted by the civil rights movement?
ABRAMSON: It's a bit odd to hear Dylan's music and watch the tumult of the '60s on a PBS documentary in a classroom full of well-groomed kids in khakis and white shirts, all of them following the school's dress and hair codes. I heard lots of students openly complain about the dress code, but they still follow it. Wes Jolly, another former military man, says that despite the focus on order, the school wants kids to question the rules.
Mr. JOLLY: We talked about the Students for a Democratic Society yesterday protesting about dress codes. And there's a dress code here. So that gets the students' attention, talking about, well, there was codes in colleges and there were people protesting against that? Well, then, maybe we should do the same thing.
ABRAMSON: In fact, founders of the school say the Classical Academy is meant to question behavior common in public schools: the cheating, the lack of respect for learning.
Unidentified Woman: This is our Titan team, and let me through the announcements real quick.
ABRAMSON: Classical Academy students gather twice a week in Titan teams, named after the school's mascot. It's a kind of homeroom meant to embrace kids who otherwise might get lost in a big school with 500 students. And it's a way of reinforcing school values. I asked one member of the team, Allison Miller, does she feel sheltered growing up in such a homogeneous environment where good behavior and studiousness are considered the norm?
Ms. ALLISON MILLER (Student, Classical Academy): I'm in this group where there's a bunch of kids from other schools, and they come and they tell me all these bad things that they did over the weekend, and such like - they also call me sheltered, but in my opinion, I think that they know about it, but we know what not to do.
ABRAMSON: The sense of shared values clearly binds the school together. Who's values are we talking about? Well, Russ Sojourner, principal of the junior high here, says students and families do not question certain basic truths.
Mr. RUSS SOJOURNER (Principal of Junior High School, Classical Academy): Justice is a good thing, and kids should know that. At the crux of it, mercy is a good thing, and kids should understand that. And honesty is a good thing.
ABRAMSON: That argument may be easier to make here in Colorado Springs, a center for some of the largest, most active Evangelical churches in the state. Leaders of the 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.
Ms. SIDNEY ANDERSON (Senior, Classical Academy): It's assumed - kind of. It's never really talked about up front, but it's definitely assumed that we're all, I would say, Christian, mostly. Yeah.
ABRAMSON: Sidney Anderson, a senior, was unwinding on a couch in the senior lounge, home to the school foosball table. Anderson says the school's focus on good behavior and traditional academics can lead to a kind of naivete. The bubble popped last year, she says, when administrators learned that some students were drinking at weekend parties.
Ms. ANDERSON: It was kind of like everybody had a secret life, and it suddenly came forth, like there was this huge, like, partying scandal with drugs, and it hit the administration really hard. Like, they were just like, what? At TCA?
Mr. CALEB O'LEARY (Student, Classical Academy): Oh, I was part of it. I was a big part of it.
ABRAMSON: That's Caleb O'Leary, sitting next to Sidney Anderson on a couch.
Mr. O'LEARY: It's not that the school's cracked down. It's that most of us have made life changes, I would say.
Ms. ANDERSON: It was just really shallow.
Mr. O'LEARY: Fusion changed lives at this school. I mean, Fusion.
ABRAMSON: Fusion. What is Fusion? What is Fusion?
Mr. O'LEARY: It was a spiritual retreat.
ABRAMSON: 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 this is another way for this community's values to shine through. TCA dealt with the partying as a family would, they say, through constructive meetings, without any expulsions. And principal Peter Hilts says the issue also proved that his student body is diverse.
Mr. PETER HILTS (Principal, Classical Academy): One of the nice things about our school is I think you have students that confound some of those stereotypes. They do have a certain appearance, but there isn't nearly as much of a monolithic perspective as people outside the community attribute to us.
ABRAMSON: Hilts says this is a public charter school. Religion plays no active role here. But, as at many charters, the Classical Academy clearly benefits from the fact that students all sign on to a common mission. There's no shortage of people who want to be part of that mission. Right now, there's a waiting list of 7,000 students. Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: As part of our series on innovative schools, Larry has visited a high school that teaches Henry David Thoreau in the Vermont Woods, and an experimental school in Minnesota which has neither classes nor teaches. Hear those stories and others in this series at npr.org.
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