Bedford, New York, is not where one would expect to find a countercultural institution. Yet it is home to the Hawthorn School, a newly opened Catholic school with an innovative model that supporters of classical education could learn from.
Exiting the highway to enter this tony Westchester County locale, one finds a huge campus, home to the local public middle and high schools. The campus reflects the wealth of the community: according to state education department data, the Bedford school district spends $32,055 annually per student; U.S. census data indicate that the average family income in Bedford is over $304,000 per year. Bedford is also an extremely attractive place: across from the high school campus lies a large horse farm with numerous turnouts and paddocks. Old Post Road, crisscrossed repeatedly by equestrian trails, is lined with a low stone fence, behind which sit elegant older homes on large plots. Two private prep schools are located along the main road, as is the historic summer home of John Jay, America’s first chief justice.
Recently, I visited the Hawthorn School, located on Old Post Road. Its president, Joseph McCleary, was having his monthly coffee with a group of parents that morning. They did not come to learn about school events, fundraising, class schedules, or any of the day-to-day coordination that characterizes so many parent meetings. Rather, they came to hear about poetry. At the Hawthorn School, poetry is taught and celebrated in every grade and on every day of the school year, and McCleary was explaining why.
He began by describing a topic becoming more prominent in policy circles among those interested in education’s future: What is the purpose of schooling? He described the failed national attempt to raise standards through Common Core in the mid-2010s as well-intentioned but exclusively focused on a utilitarian notion of education—preparation for college and career. McCleary was more enamored of a vision proposed by G. K. Chesterton, who, in 1924, described education as “the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the next.” McCleary sees this idea as central to the Hawthorn School’s mission.
Common Core, he argued, de-emphasized literature in favor of training students to use language to construct a persuasive argument—to convince others of their own point of view. Poetry doesn’t fit into that project, as it is the “most maximalist approach to language . . . language at its most highly charged, most compressed and most vivid and vital.”
McCleary went on to debunk the most common mistruth about education: that it should be value-neutral. Some Common Core proponents disdained literature, he said, seeing it as shot through with value claims, and therefore not suitable for education. For McCleary and the Hawthorn School, “all education involves a valuing of some things as opposed to other things.” Ironically, he said, an education founded on a rich and classical poetic tradition would introduce students to a rich vocabulary and the nuances of words and meanings—helping them to develop the very skills that the utilitarians seem to value most. As an example, he recited Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Hawthorn’s students memorize those lines, as they do with every poem they learn, so that the words will stay with them all their lives. Yet their meaning may evolve as the students age and learn to consider them more deeply.
The approach is working. A parent reported to McCleary that her son walks around the house reciting poetry. Several parents present at the meeting voiced their approval, with reports of a first-grader reciting A Visit from Saint Nicholas to the family, and another telling of car rides filled with poetry recitations.
This 20-minute discussion with parents indicated that something was special about this new school. Memorization? Poetry? Passing on the soul of a culture? These practices and values have not been found in our schools of education for a long time. Hawthorn offers something vastly different—indeed, countercultural.
The Hawthorn School began with the experience of two people who had been teachers and students at the Heights School in Potomac, Maryland—an all-boys school serving grades three through 12, founded in 1969 by a group of men belonging to the Prelature of Opus Dei (“Work of God”). The first, Andrés I. Pérez-Benzo, was a 2009 graduate and valedictorian of the Heights School; the second, McCleary, was one of his teachers. It was Pérez-Benzo’s vision to start the Hawthorn School, and he enlisted his former teacher to be its founding president.
Asked about his motivation to found Hawthorn, Pérez-Benzo said: “The oldest schools in this country have been around for 300 years and have influenced generations of leaders who have put their mark on culture, politics, and business. To reverse the tide of a decadent culture, we need schools that will last centuries and educate students with excellence while providing them with a moral education, just as the Heights School has done for half a century.”
A parent with two sons in the Heights School praised its approach: “The school culture is just deeply optimistic and joyful. The faculty and staff believe that there is good—in the boys and in the world—and they are preparing the boys to bring a sense of optimism and purpose to their lives.”
The Hawthorn School sits in a building, composed of the same bricks forming the road boundaries in Bedford, that had been the parish school of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church. Each morning, students who choose to do so can walk a path through the woods to the back entrance of the church for morning mass. At the end of mass, the students kneeled and recited a prayer that I had never heard: the Anima Christi (“Soul of Christ”), dating from the fourteenth century. A parent told me that the prayer is widely used in Spain as a reflection on the Eucharist and is traditionally recited after communion.
In our interview, McCleary mentioned the influence of educational reformer E. D. Hirsch on his thinking about the mission and conduct of the school. “Hirsch coined the term ‘American scripture’ to indicate the collection of writings and ideas that proved so influential in the formation of American culture and ideals,” he said. In McCleary’s telling, Hirsch “maintained that if one wanted to fully participate in our society as an adult, one should be conversant with this ‘scripture,’ even if one were to disagree with it.” McCleary used the term stewardship to describe schools’ responsibility to preserve and pass on our cultural inheritance.
The Hawthorn School’s promotional materials reflect this vision. They tout “education in classic literature, poetry, art, and music” and promise “challenging academic content knowledge” and “advanced mathematics for capable students.” They offer “a well-mannered environment,” “a mentoring program to encourage good intellectual and moral habits,” and “opportunities for growth in the sacramental life of grace.”
The school’s humanities reading lists are impressive for their range and complexity. In early grades, students will read Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, and James Thurber’s The Great Willow, among other classics. In the middle grades, students will encounter The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Hobbit, Julius Caesar, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Upper-grade students will read Orthodoxy and other works by G. K. Chesterton, more from C. S. Lewis and Shakespeare, the Psalms, The Odyssey, and Frankenstein.
Like the Heights, Hawthorn describes its approach as based on “the teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva,” according to which “all of one’s life—one’s work, family life and the ordinary events of each day—are opportunities for growing in authentic humanity and drawing closer to God.” This is the school’s core mission, but it does not mean that the school will admit only Catholic students. Attendance at daily mass is voluntary; religious instruction is provided to Catholic students, but others can receive it, if their parents ask.
It takes a certain type of teacher to work for a newly founded school. One must be dedicated and willing to take risks. School startups have been revitalizing education in the public, charter, and private sectors for years, but they remain outliers in an industry characterized by stasis and job protection.
Hawthorn’s small staff shows the mark of true educational entrepreneurs. McCleary himself has participated in numerous startups. After his time at the Heights, he co-founded the Avalon School in Montgomery County, Maryland, an all-boys school with a mission resembling those of the Heights and Hawthorn. He then served as superintendent of a network of three charter schools in Massachusetts before starting a K–12 college-prep charter in Lowell, Massachusetts. He later re-energized the elementary and high school at St. Mary’s Parish in Manhasset, New York.
The core group of teachers whom he has recruited to Hawthorn includes a ten-year veteran of public schools, a former teacher at an independent, classical Catholic school in Norwalk, Connecticut, and another veteran of a Catholic elementary school in New Canaan, Connecticut. The teacher running the middle school boys’ gym class had previously taught at innovative charter schools in the Bronx, including South Bronx Classical. Yale graduate Kelly Andino, who teaches religion, art, and history at Hawthorn, told me that she was drawn to the school’s embrace of higher ideals, all grounded in a respect for childhood. Hawthorn is not her first startup: she had worked for a new, parent-created classical Catholic high school, Cardinal Kung, in Stamford, Connecticut, and she even helped start a school in Rwanda.
Today, Hawthorn is small, with only 40 students attending in its first year. But it has a solid mission statement, supported by a president and teachers with strong records of success. The school’s young head of admissions, Louis Galarowicz, a Penn graduate with a B.A. in philosophy and intellectual history, says that outreach for next year’s admissions is going well, and interest has been high—not surprising, given the continuing fallout from the Covid disruptions to even well-funded and admired district schools.
On its own, Hawthorn is a compelling story with a bright future, even if its circumstances may not be representative of other places nationwide. (Annual tuition for all grades is $18,000 per year.) Still, Hawthorn is a compelling example of a small-but-growing group of religious and charter schools that have adopted the classical-education approach. Another is Great Hearts Academies, in the southwestern U.S., which is now starting a religious school in addition to its charters and working with a network of homeschoolers to support their efforts. As more states embrace educational pluralism, the parental marketplace will reward the schools that uphold what matters most.