Dale Ahlquist is the most effective education reformer you’ve never heard of. His network of classical Catholic high schools, the Chesterton Schools Network, will open its 69th school next fall, thanks to the efforts of parents who revere his model and work pro bono to replicate it in their hometowns.

The network’s purpose is to offer students affordable access to a rigorous classical curriculum, which includes the Socratic method and is also faithful to Catholic Church teaching. The secret, Ahlquist says, is daily Mass—and G. K. Chesterton.

The first Chesterton Academy was never intended to be part of a network or movement. It was born of necessity. Ahlquist developed a curriculum in the mid-2000s when he grew ambivalent about the quality of Catholic education in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Two of his children had already graduated high school, but there was still hope for the other four, he figured. A convert to the Catholic faith, he developed a curriculum inspired by the man whose work had sparked his conversion: Chesterton, an English journalist and apologist of the Catholic literary revival. Ahlquist emphasized the classics, without concern for political correctness, and sought to ground academic pursuits in Catholic teaching. “The Incarnation informs all the truths that we teach,” he told me, from music to math.

In that spirit, the first Chesterton school opened in 2008. The first school, Chesterton Academy of the Twin Cities, now serves 175 children and sometimes has to turn families away. Today the schools operate across the U.S. and internationally. In the fall of 2024, Chesterton-linked schools will open in Columbus, Ohio, Sarasota, Florida, and nearly a dozen other locations.

The schools teach a curriculum that moves chronologically through history, with freshmen focusing on the ancient world, sophomores on the early medieval period, juniors on the high Middle Ages and Renaissance, and seniors on modernity. Within those categories, students learn four years of literature, history, philosophy, theology, Latin, math, science, music, and art, with additional coursework dedicated to drama and debate. The academic results are impressive: Ahlquist told me that college-admissions counselors routinely seek out Chesterton students, rather than the other way around, and that students are regularly admitted into top schools. This makes sense, as Chesterton students’ average ACT scores range between 27 and 28.4, well above the 2023 national ACT average range of between 17 and 24.

Inspired by the concept of localism, the Chesterton Schools Network, based in Minneapolis, helps its schools navigate the curriculum and provides continuing education and resource materials for marketing, hiring, teaching, and fundraising. Crucially, however, it leaves many decisions—like a school’s name or choice of “head of school”—to the discretion of the parents running the individual schools.

I spoke with parents working to open the Columbus, Ohio, location while they balanced full-time jobs and raised Catholic-sized families. Ashley McBride Taylor, who serves as president of the board of directors for the Columbus school, spoke with me as she navigated five children and a shopping cart though a suburban Target during the after-school rush hour. She told me about the all-consuming to-do list of tasks for opening a school, from raising funds to cover costs and subsidize tuition to hiring a head of school, finding a brick-and-mortar location, liaising with the Ohio Department of Education to pursue charter accreditation, and coordinating with the diocese and maintaining good relations with other Catholic schools in the area.

The board of directors behind the Columbus school, named the Chesterton Academy of St. Benedict, is working closely with the network’s consultants, as well as the closest Chesterton school, in Dayton. The Chesterton Academy of St. Benedict anticipates 20 students in its first year and is in the final stages of hiring a head of school. One immediate challenge is cost: the Columbus school estimates that educating students will cost $22,000 per matriculant per year. But it is committed to cutting that figure to $9,250, a goal that will require creativity.  

The Taylors hosted a luncheon in November, where a group of largely Gen X parents peppered Ahlquist with questions, listening reverently. Ahlquist, for his part, held court with ease and humor, reinforcing the popular perception among his supporters that meeting him is like meeting jolly Chesterton himself.

While the meeting put parents’ minds at ease, cost remains a significant issue. The school-choice landscape in Ohio, however, should help the Columbus school offset costs associated with fundraising for student financial aid, Taylor told me. In July 2023, Ohio passed EdChoice Expansion, updating a voucher program previously known as EdChoice. The expansion made vouchers for private school tuition available to families of all income levels, with award amounts varying based on income. The program had previously been limited to lower-income families with children attending poor-performing public schools.  

If the Chesterton Academy of St. Benedict can negotiate charter status with the Ohio Department of Education, it will be able to factor state funds into its fundraising plans not only in the form of the vouchers but also with additional grants, scholarships, and resources for disabled students. Other funds, Taylor hopes, will materialize through philanthropy, including a gala the group convened in January, as well as through coordination with the local Chesterton Society chapter and Catholic benefactor groups such as the Catholic Foundation and the Order of Malta.

Ahlquist spoke at the January gala, as guests sipped champagne and a live artist painted an image of the Columbus skyline that was auctioned later that night. He reiterated the core tenets of his educational vision: adherence to Catholic teaching, classical curricula, and affordability. Along the way, he emphasized the arts, as his inclusion of drawing, oil painting, drama, and choir lessons in the Chesterton curriculum suggests. The four years of formal theology and philosophy he mandates are based on coursework that his eldest son, currently a teacher at the Twin Cities school, helped develop. Students also read one of Chesterton’s major texts each year.

The result, Ahlquist maintains, is an atmosphere of joy. “Most schools, after you’ve gotten through the security system, it’s the echoing of prison cells,” Ahlquist explained. “When people walk through the halls at a Chesterton school, they hear laughter.”

Photo: David Leahy/DigitalVision via Getty Images


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