Hundreds gathered at Temple Beth-El this week to learn more about the next big thing to hit the San Antonio charter school scene: Great Hearts Academies. The wildfire success of the Phoenix-based school has given birth to Great Hearts Texas, which will open its first campus at Temple Beth-El in the Fall 2014.
From Temple Beth-El in the Monte Vista neighborhood, they intend to expand into a five campus system in each sector of the city.
Open enrollment for Great Hearts Monte Vista is Oct. 30- Dec. 6. Parents are encouraged to take advantage of the ground floor entry point. If the K-12 Phoenix system is any indicator, once this train leaves the station, it will be hard to catch. Seven thousand students are enrolled in the 17 Phoenix campuses and 11,000 are on the waiting list.
The expansion of Great Hearts America into Texas is due to the state's favorable climate for "school choice." A climate made even friendlier by the efforts of State Senator Dan Patrick and proponents of education reform, including Victoria Branton Rico of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation.
Dr. Peter Bezanson, superintendent for Great Hearts Texas, thanked the Ewing Halsell Foundation, the San Antonio Area Foundation, and the George W. Brackenridge Foundation's Choose to Succeed initiative to bring high performing charters to San Antonio. He singled out the efforts of Rico, the driving force of the foundation's charter school support. Rico was in attendance at Temple Beth-El.
"If not for them, I'd be making this speech in North Texas right now," Bezanson said.
Bezanson reiterated something that Rico and Patrick emphasized at a press conference in March in support of Texas Senate Bill 2.
"The Goal of Great Hearts is to restore a standard of excellence in American public education." Bezanson said. "We're not about a critique of public education."
His statement echoed Rico's comments back in March, when she celebrated advances in bringing charters to the state.
"A few years ago, this policy was a dead-end," Rico said in March. She then credited the political turnaround to research efforts by MIT and Harvard showing the effectiveness of high performing charters. She and Patrick claimed that increased competition is good for public schools.
If this is true, then the level of competition brought about by Great Hearts could be revolutionary.
The success of the program in Phoenix is astounding. More so are the many stereotypes it seems to bypass. It's a tuition-free, nonreligious, school with a curriculum built around the great classics in literature.
Great Hearts has had success reaching across demographics. According to Bezanson, 8-80% of the Phoenix students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch, depending on the campus. In San Antonio, a dual language marketing campaign made it clear from day one that this is not an enclave for the children from privileged families.
Great Hearts does require family support. It's common for students to take home two hours of homework per night, often in subjects that don't seem immediately relevant, like Latin. And Aristotle. Students need parental buy-in to reinforce the value of the rigorous curriculum.
For many families, classical education is the only selling point they need, and such was definitely the case for the crowd gathered at Temple Beth-El.
When I was in middle school, my own parents drove us from New Braunfels to San Marcos everyday so that we could attend a classical school until they found a suitable alternative. I know families who have moved to Fredericksburg and Midland for the same. Admittedly, these families tend to be conservative, Christian families, drawn to the classical emphasis on wisdom as well as academics. They are families who often believe that the hope for civilization lies in a fidelity to the Judeo-Christian ethos and Greco-Roman law. And clearly they are the kind of families with some sort of mobility.
What about that majority of families who have never heard of classical education?
Dave Williams, executive director of Great Hearts Academies in San Antonio, and Peter Crawford, the newly announced headmaster of Great Hearts Monte Vista, are prepared for the challenges of bringing the liberal arts to the inner city. In Phoenix, parent education has been crucial. They recognize that personal relationships are key to convincing parents to actively support such a rigorous curriculum.
"A lot of times there's a student...who falls in love with the school, and that flip happens," Williams said.
The "flip" is when parents become advocates of their child's education, and the role that the liberal arts play in their personal growth.
Many parents are ultimately won over by the conversations happening around their own homes. Thoughtful, curious students are usually really pleasant to be around. Great Hearts uses Socratic dialogue to encourage students to approach learning humbly, whether from books or from their community.
"They know how to have a deep, meaningful conversation with their peers," said Williams.
Some might say that in a world of snarky Tweets and dysfunctional politics, that classically trained students provide a glimpse of bygone civility. Williams sees it as the future, the way forward for contemporary culture as "a model for a new civic discourse."
Indeed, character formation is as key as intellectual growth in the Great Hearts model. For many, the school's emphasis on the "soul" of the students, and the prevalence of words like "virtue," "truth," and other value-laden terminology, might raise questions about the religious affiliation of the school. The classical model maintains that the ends and goal of education revolve around wisdom and character, according to Williams, but such goals should not be limited to Christian communities.
Great Hearts Academies adheres to a strict diet when it comes to Core Knowledge and liberal arts curriculum.There is no doctrinal or political pedagogy. The schools apply the same literary criticism to the Iliad and to the Gospel of St. John, and instructors are discouraged from branching into personal beliefs, be they religious or political.
"From bell-to-bell its curriculum," said Williams.
Crawford further explained the classical approach to training young minds using examples from kindergarten and high school.
"We train students to be mathematical thinkers, not to be calculators," said Crawford, referring to kindergarteners.
Math training starts with manipulatives so that children can see the reality of adding, subtracting, shapes, etc. It moves into visual representations of real things (pictures of sheep, fruit, or whatever is being calculated), and finally into abstract symbols like numbers. Students are not taught an exclusive method of calculation, but are encouraged to derive the method from their understanding of mathematical reality.
Perhaps the most distinctive element of the Great Hearts curriculum is in high school when students begin the Humane Letters instruction, which Crawford calls "the most elegant and powerful course of study I have ever encountered." Students read Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Marx and many others. Every single student at Great Hearts reads the classics.
"We only do one thing," said Bezanson.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.