A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran this headline: “Christian Schools Boom in a Revolt Against Curriculum and Pandemic Rules.”
The reporter had spotted an encouraging trend among Christian schools. The Association of Christian Schools International—the largest association of evangelical Christian schools—reported its median school grew K–12 enrollment by 12 percent between the 2019–20 and 2020–21 academic years. Some of that growth happened during the school year: between August and December of 2020, more than a third of ACSI schools saw enrollment jump.
The Association of Christian Schools International reported its median school grew K-12 enrollment by 12 percent.
In the Association for Classical Christian Schools (ACCS), about 80 percent of classical schools grew in 2020–21, while fewer than 10 percent declined.
“The bigger factor is startups,” ACCS president David Goodwin said. “We presently have 91 startups we’re working with, on a base of about 310 members. Normally, we have 30 or so at this time. A threefold increase in ‘normal’ is great. But even better, that’s almost a 25 percent increase in overall membership if all of the startups were to launch.”
One of those startups is my school, Rochester Classical Academy (RCA). We optimistically opened our doors in September 2019. We should’ve been too young to survive a disruption like COVID; instead, we’ve consistently added students.
Finding Classical Education
In July 2017, when my oldest child was almost 3, I came across the article “The Exponential Growth of Classical Christian Education” by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, published by The Gospel Coalition. Although I have a doctorate and at the time, I had been teaching at the college level for three years, I had never heard of classical Christian education, nor that it was growing—let alone at a significant rate.
After finishing the article, I felt a surge of electricity—the same way I feel when I begin a great book and I’m drawn into the author’s world before the end of the first page. I felt like I stumbled on a secret. I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to tell others. As I researched, I found the classical school movement compelling for several reasons.
- When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, my parents emphasized the need to be “well-rounded,” but at the time I read the article, I was hearing how specialized school was becoming at increasingly younger ages.
- The norm in school curriculum seemed to be constant experimentation, with little emphasis on tried-and-true methods.
- Many major figures of Western civilization seemed to have similar educational backgrounds, including an emphasis on Latin and Greek, a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and strong backgrounds in math and science—even if they were famous for contributions to other fields.
- I had often been skeptical of the desire to connect education to vocation as if it has no other purpose. “How will this class, or this skill, help Johnny or Sally be successful in the future?” was a sentiment I encountered a lot, perhaps more so because of my work at two liberal-arts colleges.
- As a father of three, I wondered if God cared about how I educated my children. I figured if he cared, I also ought to care.
I needed to answer the question “What is the purpose of education?” to my satisfaction, and then find a way to make that a reality for my family.
As it turns out, other people at my church were asking similar questions and receiving similarly unsatisfactory answers. We heard that the purpose of education is to get a job, that the process of education is to absorb facts and not to form particular kinds of people, and that schools should reflexively adopt the educational trends in the broader culture.
In the fall of 2017, I began spending a great deal of time on the phone with leaders of other classical schools, asking them how they came into being. I started to realize that the people who start such schools are not any different than the people I had been talking to in my community. They are faithful Christians, unsatisfied with the school options in their community, committed to learning about the classical Christian tradition, and eager to tell others what they have discovered.
By 2018, we had a group of committed parents. And in September 2019, Rochester Classical Academy held its first classes.
Like most schools, RCA attempted to move classes online in March 2020. We were not well-equipped to deliver education over the internet, but we had completed more than six months of the year and the classical model had already borne much fruit. Our teachers and students finished the year through email, a few Zoom check-ins, some prerecorded videos, and an overall approach that admittedly looked a lot like homeschool.
Despite that difficult season, we grew significantly in our second year, doubling the size of our school. We’d started with a preschool program that met twice a week with eight children and a combined kindergarten and first grade class with a total of six students (three in each grade).
We’d planned to add one grade to the school in each successive year, but we ended up adding students to each of the grades we offered, along with a new incoming class of Pre-K students. We didn’t lose any students over our COVID plan. We were able to meet in person, and we gained a family midyear after they realized that Zoom-based Pre-K wasn’t working for their 4-year-old.
We know parents are taking a chance on us. We’re a tiny startup. We can’t offer the technology or formal sports or extracurricular experiences students could receive at public school. But our parents are telling us that the academic excellence, intentional Christian formation, and supportive community that has grown up around the school are what their families have needed.
And some of the concerns that prompted us to start the school—increasing screen time, academic methods that are more experimental than proven, and politically motivated teaching trends—are all the more salient.
This year, our community continues to grow significantly. We still have people with widely disparate ideas on masking and vaccines, but they are unified by what our school offers.
At RCA, our students regularly recite the first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
That answer also works for the question I first asked myself in 2017: “What is the purpose of education?” Over the years, I’ve seen God bring to us families that want to glorify him by educating their children with both excellence and a Christian worldview that informs every subject.
I’ve seen 6- and 7-year-old children delight in visiting the local art museum so they can see the artifacts of ancient Egypt they’ve been learning about all year. I’ve seen young artists create paintings of remarkable beauty, knowing they strive for beauty because our Lord made the world beautiful. I’ve seen God soften the hearts of students, moving them to prefer one another, to forgive one another, and to love one another.
It is easy to be excited by incredible things happening at our school. It is also tempting to feel as though it was our doing. The truth is, the school exceeds my abilities and capacities daily. The only reason for our success is the Lord’s hand upon us.
We pray that our thoughts, words, and deeds are in keeping with God’s will so that through the school we can “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Matt. 22:37).