Top: Stephen Sorensen investigates arc and distance as part of a science experiment using model catapults.
Middle: Third- and fourth-graders answer questions about the items they’ll need for a project on electricity and magnets.
Bottom: Art is part of the regular curriculum at Trinitas Classical School. Here, Kate Poortenga and Claire Seven try their hand at watercolors.
Eyes on the teacher, hands at the ready, the young students take a deep breath and begin to chant: "... Action verbs are fun to do. Now, it’s time to name a few. So, clap your hands and join our rhyme; Say those verbs in record time!"
"Faster!" the first- and second-graders beg teacher Susan Mehari
minutes later, after completing their repertoire of jingles about verbs, adverbs
and adjectives. There is an educational theory behind this chanting, and while
that theory might mean little to the enthusiastic students at this point, it
means a great deal to the parents who have chosen to send their children here.
Trinitas Classical School is a private, "intentionally
ecumenical" Christian school in Grand Rapids. Now in its first year, the school
was organized in just over a four-month period by a group of about 10 families
who were determined to see their children educated in the classical method and
in a joyful and creative environment, according to curriculum committee member
Between late April and August of 2006, the group chose a
curriculum, found classroom space in a northeast Grand Rapids church, hired four
teachers, including one headmaster, established a Web site, planned the school
budget and opened for the year with 95 percent of the needed funding in place.
Enrollment stands at 27; tuition is $5,000 per child for first- through eighth-graders and $3,000 for kindergarteners.
"We’ve been blessed with a group of people who are passionate
and who are fully involved," said Rob Lough, secretary of the school’s board of
trustees. "We need to continue that level of involvement and grow the core
group." Next on the parents’ agenda is to find a permanent facility and market
the school to more families.
Trinitas is swimming against the stream of Michigan’s private
education market. According to figures from the Michigan Department of
Education, there were 896 nonpublic schools in the state in 2005-2006, down 17
percent over the past 15 years. The number of students enrolled in nonpublic
schools declined by 12 percent during the same time period. Nationally,
according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were nearly 900
fewer private schools in the country in 2003 than in 2001, although the number
of private school students as a percent of all students remained steady at 10
"There’s no question the Michigan economy is hurting every
school in the state," said Glen Walstra, executive director of the Michigan
Association of Non-Public Schools. MANS advocates and provides services for
faith-based schools, including Catholic schools of the seven dioceses of
Michigan, the Michigan region of Christian Schools International, and the
Michigan District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Schools.
Many of those systems have closed schools in recent years,
consolidating programs in fewer buildings. In the Detroit area alone, 39
Catholic schools have closed since 2002. In some cases the population has
shifted to the suburbs, Walstra said, and in other cases parents have moved
their children to free charter schools or to other public districts through
"Almost anybody who’s been interested in opening a school in the
last 10 years has looked at the charter school route," said Richard C. Halsey,
executive director of the Association of Independent Michigan Schools, a diverse
group of schools ranging in size, location and educational methods. The number
of schools in his association dropped from 30 to 27 recently, due to two
closings and one merger. "The schools that have had the most difficulty are ones
with the lowest tuition," he said.
Faith-based schools always will have core groups of parents
willing to pay tuition for an education that rests on family, school and church, Walstra said. "That’s the three-legged stool, and those families won’t leave
unless they’re backed against a wall." But parents may have to take a larger
role in marketing their schools, and schools may have to adopt new approaches to the market, he said.
"The schools that are really successful are finding a niche
project," he said, like virtual learning or programs for special needs students.
At Trinitas, a significant part of the appeal is classical
education, a system of learning based on the Trivium, which is a Latin word for
"the three ways." In classical schools, children are guided through three phases
of education – the grammar stage, focused on absorbing facts and figures; the
logic stage, focused on analyzing that knowledge for truth; and the rhetoric
stage, focused on eloquently expressing and seeking out truth on higher levels.
Or, as Trinitas school literature describes the stages – "discovering,
discerning and desiring truth."
The stages are meant to take advantage of a child’s natural
development, headmaster Peter Marth explained. Young children are curious and
have a great capacity to take in and recall large amounts of information in all
subject areas, particularly with the help of stories, chants and songs. As they
grow, students develop the ability for abstract thought, which allows them not
just to remember information, but to analyze it, identifying cause and effect in
science and comparing and contrasting ideas in such subjects as history and
literature. So while younger students might read about the U.S. Constitution and
the history surrounding it, he said, fifth-graders would more likely read and
analyze the document itself and high-school students would develop and write
arguments concerning it.
"Classical education is structured around the natural abilities
of the child at every age," Marth said. "We don’t believe that excellence in
education is antithetical to a joy-filled school environment."
In addition to typical subjects like math, science, English and
history, Trinitas students study Latin and logic, and participate in fine arts
and physical education classes. The science program is inquiry-based, meaning
there is an emphasis on discovering scientific truths through hands-on
activities. Reading selections draw heavily on classical sources, which Marth
describes as "works worthy of admiration and imitation from every time and
place," from Aesop to Augustine to Beatrix Potter. "We want our children to read
well and to be well-read."
Classical schools also teach that there are objective standards
of purity, nobility and beauty against which ideas and actions should be
measured, Marth said. As graduates, students should be critical thinkers,
Poortenga added, having learned that "there are better and worse ways to discuss
and dialogue and come to a conclusion."
As an intentionally ecumenical Christian school, Trinitas’
schedule includes daily worship and a Bible curriculum that focuses on
commonalities among Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christian beliefs,
the leaders said.
The school also partners with home-school parents who want to
use classical education curriculum and methods. The school provides lesson plans
for some subjects and the home-school students are invited to visit the school
twice a week for Latin and other classes, as well as join in extracurricular
activities. Right now there are four such partners, but school officials expect
the number to grow.
Home-school students are the great unknown in the private school
market, according to federal education officials. While the number of
institutional private schools and students may be declining, the total number of
students educated outside the public school system may not.
Home-school enrollment is increasing nationwide, "not only among
conservative Christians but among a lot of people who are thoroughly secular,"
according to Jack Klenk, director of the Office of Non-Public Education in the
U.S. Department of Education. Exact figures are hard to determine, but advocacy
groups put the number at approximately two million children.
Klenk said the growing support for home-school programs, growing
availability of public school choice programs and cost of private school tuition
all have put pressure on private school enrollment.
"If you remove the economic barrier, then all these trends
change immediately," he said, pointing to Washington, D.C. as an example. The
D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, established by Congress as the nation’s
first federally funded voucher program in 2004, offers up to $7,500 in tuition
to low-income students who are admitted to religious and private schools. Of the
1,800 students now receiving scholarships, about 1,000 chose to attend Catholic
schools, Klenk said.
The Bush administration is proposing to broaden the Opportunity
Scholarship program and add a Promise Scholarship program to the No Child Left
Behind Act, up for reauthorization this year. Promise Scholarships would require
public schools that go into restructuring status to offer private school choice,
intensive tutoring or inter-district public school choice to low-income
students. Federal funds would follow the child to his or her new school,
supplemented by a federal scholarship of $2,500. The Opportunity Scholarship
program would support local efforts to enable students to attend a private
school through a locally designed scholarship program.
"Certainly the president and this administration have embraced
the federal role" in supporting choice in education, said Morgan Brown,
assistant deputy secretary for Innovation and Improvement in the Department of
Education. "We believe parents have a right to choose." However, the bulk of
education funding is at the state level, he pointed out.
Brown’s office also is encouraging private schools to become
Supplemental Education Service providers under the terms of No Child Left
Behind, which requires low-performing schools to offer extra academic help or
tutoring to low-income students. Some private schools already have demonstrated
the ability to raise achievement among low-income students, he said, and by
becoming SES providers they could receive federal education funds to use those
successful techniques with more students.
In addition to helping students from low-performing schools,
private schools also play a role in nurturing a wide variety of educational
methods, Halsey pointed out. Michigan’s Association of Independent Schools
counts as members schools that use a traditional college-preparatory approach,
the Waldorf method, Montessori method, a parent-cooperative system and more.
"Independent schools have been at the forefront of curricular
innovation in many ways, and many times they have been at the rear," he said.
"We’ve often been leaders in promoting ideas."