Discendo discimus–teachers and students go back to basics

How do you solve a problem like St. Charles Borromeo Academy? That’s the question that was on the mind of Principal Ann Lachowitzer three years ago, as she took over the helm of a school that had a long history in the community but flagging admissions. The school, which was originally founded in 1949 and once boasted enrollment numbering in the 900s, had fallen victim to a storm of disparate but relevant reasons for decreased attendance. The bottom line was looming–something had to change, or Borromeo Academy would have to close its doors due to lack of funding and attendance.

In a world of rapidly changing technology, increasingly competitive college standards, and always noisier home lives, the educators at St. Charles Borromeo decided to go back to basics–all the way back. The heart and soul of their rebirth lie within returning to the classical model of education, one focused on the Trivium–grammar, logic, and rhetoric. While this may seem like heady stuff for your average kindergartener, Lachowitzer sees results both in student receptivity and enrollment. 

Historia Vitae Magistra

History is life’s teacher 

Walk into a classroom at St. Charles Borromeo, and you’ll be struck by the calm environment, if such a thing is possible. That calm feeling is intentional. Colors are kept muted, and the environment in each room is intentionally focused on creating an incubator space. Instead of smart boards and iPads, kids write on whiteboards and in composition books. The classical model is decidedly and intentionally low tech. While some technology is used for special lessons, the overwhelming feeling is that paper is still king. 

Each age group has their curriculum that focuses on liberal arts including math, natural history (science), history, grammar, literature, Latin, music, and religious studies. Students learn to write in cursive from the beginnings of their education, a skill that has been scientifically proven to benefit working memory and the synchronicity of left and right brain functions. 

When I walked into a classroom on a balmy January day with Lachowitzer, students all rose and greeted her by name. She greeted them in Latin, and they responded in kind. In composition books, they kept track of lessons in history, science, and grammar. A quick look at a textbook reveals something more akin to a novel, with historical events told in story form, involving children instead of summarizing the facts and figures. And judging by the excitement in the students’ eyes, this sort of curriculum is working. 

“Kids learn best by hearing stories, parables if you will. That’s why Jesus used them in the Bible. They work,” says Lachowitzer. 

“We are training students to be learners. We want kids to think, to answer long questions. On our tests, we don’t do multiple choice. Instead, we do short answer or essay questions with a few true/false,” says Lachowitzer. 

Non Scholae, Sed Vitae Discimus

We learn not for school, but for life 

It’s not just the students that are enjoying a different approach to learning. The teachers at St. Charles Borromeo Academy are also revitalized. Sherri Asta has taught for nearly 20 years but says that the new approach has reignited her interests and pushed her to find new and inventive ways to bring her students into lessons. As we spoke, she was messaging a friend in Denmark to find primary sources for a unit on Vikings. Clearly, the classical model is pushing even the educators further than they’ve gone before. 

And it seems to be working. Since the announcement of the curriculum change, the school gained 40 students with more coming in all the time. Lachowitzer says that parents want to make sure they are prepared from high school, and cementing the basics is helping them to do just that. 

As part of the Diocese of St. Joseph, St. Charles Borromeo Academy is one of six elementary schools in the Northland. However, it is the only school that has chosen to pursue the classical model for its students. As the excitement for the model grows, Lachowitzer says that the commitment to personalized teaching will remain intact. 

“We won’t return to the days where 900 students walked through these halls. We want to keep small class sizes and turn out amazing scholars. I want to have a waiting list for each class. I want St. Charles Borromeo Academy to be a destination for those that value education and the fostering of valued citizens,” she says. 

As St. Charles Borromeo Academy continues to focus on the building blocks of education based in logic and reasoning, they seem to be doing just that. 

For more information about the classical model of education or St. Charles Borromeo Academy, visit StCharlesKCSchool.weconnect.com.