On the latest episode of Giving Ventures, DonorsTrust Vice President and host Peter Lipsett talks with three nonprofit executives working to revive and expand classical education. His guests include Robert Jackson, executive director of Great Hearts Institute; Bob Luddy, founder of Thales Academy; and Dr. Kathleen O’Toole, director of the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College.
Classical Education About Studying ‘What Leads to a Flourishing Life’
Great Hearts Institute Executive Director Robert Jackson says Thomas Arnold, a 19th-century classical educator, describes the liberal arts as “the best that’s been said and thought” and that he would build on Arnold’s observation and add classical education includes study of the best discoveries and creations.
“Classical education represents a storehouse of the best thought; the best music and art; the best inventions; the best understanding of what leads to a flourishing life. And this is important for classical education does seek to fulfill us as human beings—intellectually and morally,” says Jackson.
The Great Hearts Institute is a nonprofit organization that supports educators, school leaders and families with an annual forum featuring trainings and research; a quarterly magazine titled “VIRTUE”; and regular scholarly articles and lectures by liberal-arts advisors, fellows and symposium presenters.
The nonprofit also houses Great Hearts Academies, an in-person and virtual network of public charter schools whose teachers use a classical curriculum when educating its more than 26,000 K-12 students in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Jackson says he hopes in four years to have 50,000 students.
Jackson says the number of schools nationwide that take a classical approach to education include about 250 charter public schools that serve 130,000 students; 600 private, mostly religious schools that serve about 130,000 students; and a variety of homeschool models comprising 450,000 school-age children.
“So, what we’re doing in these classical schools are providing those exemplars from the curriculum that highlights the best minds and the best lives that we have come to discover,” says Jackson, adding the importance of studying figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony, among others.
Cooking Up Success in the Classroom
Bob Luddy is founder and president of CaptiveAire, a premiere manufacturer of ventilation systems for commercial kitchens. The self-made multi-millionaire is cooking up success not only in the kitchen but in the classroom, too. Why? He noticed a lack of basic math skills in his employees and others.
“One thing I noticed early on in the formation of the company was a lack of skill development. In some extremes, individuals in the plant couldn’t read fractions,” says Luddy. “Then, as my children began to grow up, I observed their friends and many of them lacked the skills … to access the American way.”
Consequently, Luddy founded Thales Academy in 2007. Thales is a network of private, classical Pre-K-12 schools with 14 campuses and counting across North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Its boasts more than 6,200 students and, on its website, says its private schools are the most affordable in the region.
“I had the advantage of learning the classical curriculum in high school and college and it’s absolutely the best curriculum in terms of developing a depth and breadth of intellectual and moral understanding of the world. So, we adopted a classical curriculum—which teaches students to be good thinkers, good writers.”
Barney Schools ‘Tailored’ to Kids in a Specific Community
Dr. Kathleen O’Toole began her tenure at the Barney School Initiative in 2019 and was tasked with balancing the launch of dozens of classical charter schools and ensuring every school maintains high standards across the board by providing teacher conferences and training so that partner schools’ students receive the best education possible.
“Many, many groups apply to start Hillsdale schools and we evaluate those applications really thoroughly before agreeing to work with them. If we do agree to work with them, it’s based upon the prospects for classical education in that area but also that group’s ability to bring about a school that’s going to adhere to our best practices for governance, for leadership, for curriculum, for school culture; and for classical instruction,” says O’Toole.
The Barney School Charter Initiative is a program of Hillsdale College dedicated to reviving classical education across the country by helping to launch and support men and women operating K-12 public charter schools. The initiative was founded in 2010 and since has helped launched dozens of classical charter schools that serve nearly 15,000 students with an estimated 8,000 students on wait lists.
“The beautiful thing about our model is that it allows the people on the ground — the people who are close to these children, who are invested in their success, who know and love them best — to build something really beautiful and really tailored to those kids in that community and our job is to teach them what that ought to look like, and then they do it.”
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