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Great Hearts, Great Minds

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Great Hearts, Great Minds

An unusual charter school network, serving middle-class families, promotes a classical curriculum—and gets results. Autumn 2019
Education
Texas

When Mr. Metcalf’s seventh-graders at Chandler Preparatory Academy drift off task, he calls out, “Students, what are we here to do?” They answer: “We are here to learn to love what is beautiful.”

A drilled call-and-response is a common technique at charter schools, but this one is unique to Great Hearts Academies, America’s seventh-largest charter school network, with 30 classical schools in two states—Arizona and Texas—serving 18,000 students.

Founded and headquartered in Phoenix, Great Hearts has received less national attention than counterparts such as the Knowledge Is Power Prep (KIPP) schools and Success Academies, largely because it doesn’t share their mission of closing the achievement gap. Its north star is not social justice but human virtue. The hallways of its elementary schools are not lined with pennants from flagship universities and colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton but with paintings by artists whom even students at those prestigious universities may graduate without encountering, such as Vermeer, Botticelli, and Titian.

Great Hearts middle school students take three years of Latin, write lyric odes to Grecian urns, and read Herodotus and Plutarch. High school students learn geometry directly from Euclid’s Elements, become adept painters, and by graduation have read more than 200 works of literature, including 100 poems, and performed in 25 concerts and plays, including at least two full Shakespearean productions.

The school’s official mission statement: “To cultivate the minds and hearts of students through the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” John Paul Poppleton, headmaster of Arizona’s Chandler Prep, offers a slightly different version: “To strengthen minds and souls so that students aren’t just caught up in the soup of postmodernity.”

Judging by the seniors I spoke with, Great Hearts’ approach is working. “What really matters is the way my education has changed me,” says Meg Van Brunt, a senior at Veritas Prep in Phoenix. “A lot of teenagers are desire-driven, and they’re always asked to explain what they’re feeling. Here, they encourage us to follow a Socratic way of thinking. Start with your calculative faculties, then your spirited faculties—I sound like I’m regurgitating, but I’m not—and then desire is something that’s subject to those faculties.”

Students happily admit that their characters have been shaped by the books they’ve read. For Chandler Prep senior Robert Grahmann, the most important text was Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Despite the book’s “planned-out, scientific, sensible” nature, he regards it as an almost mystical work, partly because of Aristotle’s injunction that the young won’t understand it. “I’m certain I’ll read it again,” says Robert.

“Every book we’ve read, we’ve been encouraged to read again,” Meg observes. “I used to be like, ‘the author is just writing about the color of a character’s hair,’ but I have been converted. These authors really are as good as they say they are. I think there are about 50 layers to Dante. Dante . . . my gosh.”

These students have not only read Dante, Aristotle, Virgil, and Shakespeare; they have also spent 90 minutes a day, every school day, for four years discussing them in Great Hearts’ Humane Letters seminar. Ninth grade covers the American tradition, from the Declaration of Independence to Melville to Martin Luther King, Jr. Tenth grade is devoted to modern Europe, from John Locke to Shakespeare to Jane Austen. Eleventh grade covers Athens (e.g., Plato, Sophocles, and Thucydides) and Jerusalem (e.g., Genesis, Job, and Mark). Senior year provides a sweeping literary and philosophical survey from Rome to modernity, from Virgil and Augustine to Cervantes and Hegel.

For sophomores and seniors, the last book of the year is a Dostoyevsky novel. On the day I sat in on Chandler Prep’s tenth-grade seminar on Crime and Punishment, the central discussion questions were: “Does Raskolnikov feel sorry for murdering Alyona?” and “Does he believe in God? What role does his belief or disbelief play?” Almost as much time was spent in silent pondering as in speech.

“He knows that it was a bad thing, but doesn’t feel like it was bad enough to care about,” one student offered. “On page 416, he says: ‘Well, I killed the old woman—of course, it was a bad thing to do . . . well, but enough of that.’ ”

“He called her a ‘louse’ and compared himself to Napoleon for killing her,” said another student. “Then again, right after that, he called himself a louse.”

“So by that standard,” another student replied, “should he kill himself?”

“If another Napoleon could see him now, what would he think?” the teacher prompted. “That passage, what page was that one? I think it was 400s.”

“300s,” a student jumps in. “323.” He then reads the description of Raskolnikov’s moral judgment on the woman whom he would murder: “Three ways are open to her: to throw herself in the canal, to go to the madhouse, or . . . or, finally, to throw herself into a depravity that stupefies reason and petrifies the heart.”

“So are those the three options he has now?” the teacher asked.

Discussion the next day among the 13 seniors studying The Brothers Karamazov at Glendale Prep in Peoria, Arizona, proceeded at a brisker pace. After asking students to write a summary of Ivan Karamazov’s discussion with the devil, the teacher wrote on the blackboard: “What is the root of Ivan’s illness?”

One young woman ventured that Ivan’s brain fever was rooted in his nature: all intellect, little or no emotion. But two other students rebutted her, one by pointing to the fact that the devil tells Ivan that he was the brother most like his emotional father, and another by pointing to a passage where Ivan is described as “furious.” A student suggests that Ivan’s delirium was triggered by feelings of guilt for the tacit permission that he gave Smerdyakov to murder his father. Yet another student found a reference to Ivan’s illness that preceded this conversation. “It’s interesting because we haven’t gone to typical explanations,” the teacher observed. “If you’re feeling sick, we usually don’t say, ‘It must be because you’re dabbling in dangerous ideas.’ I think the book leads us away from natural explanations.”

By May of their senior year, these students have spent over 1,000 hours sitting across the table debating some of the world’s greatest works of literature and philosophy. As the conversation continued, several prospective parents slipped in to observe. Within minutes, they were smiling, clearly imagining their own children someday participating.

With Great Hearts’ 22 lower and upper schools in 11 locations spread widely across the Phoenix metro region, a classical education is within a 20-minute drive for almost every family in the area. Cofounder Dan Scoggin says that Great Hearts has made a conscious effort to place its schools “at the crossroads” between middle- and lower-income communities. But whereas Great Hearts academies are ethnically diverse, only 16 percent of Great Hearts students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches—substantially below the national average of 52 percent.

For some, Great Hearts’ middle-class clientele makes it morally suspect within a charter school movement primarily dedicated to serving disadvantaged students. The issue lay at the heart of the network’s failed attempt to expand to Nashville. Until 2012, Tennessee law stipulated that charter schools could serve only low-income students and students zoned to failing public schools. Great Hearts was the first charter network to test a new state law that opened enrollment to students regardless of background. It proposed launching five schools, the first in a middle-class community, where parents, dissatisfied with the quality of their public schools, had lobbied for Great Hearts.

The proposal sparked a local backlash that garnered national coverage, including a Wall Street Journal article, “Segregation Fear Sinks Charter School.” On the same day he voted in favor of opening two charter schools catering to low-income students, then–school board member Edward Kindall rejected Great Hearts. “I went to segregated schools,” he said, “and this gets us dangerously close to separate but unequal.”

Strictly speaking, such rhetoric is groundless. Charter schools admit students without regard to race or class. In practice, though, the first school would have drawn mostly middle-class students, a prospect that the Nashville school board could not tolerate. The Tennessee Department of Education overruled the board, ordering it to accept Great Hearts’ application or pay a $3.4 million penalty. The board chose to accept that cost.

For many education policymakers, charter schools are not meant to serve all. Rather, they are a means to provide low-income students in failing schools with an adequate alternative. In the eyes of social-justice reformers, a charter network that offers middle-class students an excellent education threatens the cause of equity.

“Great Hearts has tried to place its schools “at the crossroads” between middle- and lower-income communities.”

When I asked teachers at Veritas Prep whether they had moral qualms about their work, they were taken aback. “We’re open to everyone,” said eighth-grade algebra teacher Clifton Kiser. “We say, ‘This is who we are. This is what we have to offer,’ and then it falls to families to decide if they want this.”

“Our students leave here as people with very strong character,” said Kaitlin Monroe, an eighth-grade earth-science teacher. “If I were in a public school, I’d be asked to teach in a way that wasn’t oriented toward character formation. I think I’d have a moral struggle not teaching that way.”

Theresa Weiland, who teaches 11th- and 12th-grade calculus, said, “In order for our society to be one where Americans want to help their fellow citizens, we need to be educating our children the way we’re educating them here. . . . Can you imagine where we’d be a generation from now if more students were taught this way?” Chandler Prep’s headmaster Poppleton agrees. “What we’re doing is patriotic in the broadest sense: raising up the citizenry of this great nation to think philosophically and not be persuaded by a mob mentality,” he says.

Indeed, Great Hearts students seem refreshingly disconnected from contemporary political ideology. For many of today’s students, “justice” may be defined as whatever political opinion is trending on Twitter. But when I asked Chandler Prep senior Robert Grahmann to define the word, he replied, “I’ve been studying that for four years, and I still can’t give better than an ‘F-grade’ answer. Do you mean divine justice? Natural justice? Human justice? . . . This is a very American answer, but perhaps justice is doing what one desires but acting in accordance with virtue.”

I asked ninth-graders at Maryvale Prep, Great Hearts’ only Title I school, which serves predominantly low-income Hispanic students, about the most important thing that they had learned. Hermon Horte said that Great Hearts helped him understand the diversity of America. When pressed further, Hermon and his friends Elisa Jeremiah and Olivia Allen explained that the literature they read helped them understand different perspectives across time and space, from the hardscrabble midwestern immigrants represented in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia to the glitzy but empty New York aristocracy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

It was an answer that would appall a vicar of identity politics, for whom diversity means only skin color—or gender or sexual orientation. But Maryvale’s assistant headmaster, Tony Cruz, told me that, while some of his recent college-graduate friends have criticized Great Hearts’ curriculum for “marginalizing voices of color,” he has never heard that charge from his students—or their parents.

Jamin Metcalf, who teaches seventh-grade ancient history and ninth-grade Humane Letters at Chandler Prep, told me that his most satisfying moment as a teacher came when his freshmen were discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Metcalf said, “King . . . is quoting Aquinas and Luther and Jefferson and Lincoln, which he could not have done without studying them, and it clicked for my students: He is saying to his fellow pastors, ‘You all affirm these natural law theories, and now I’m acting on them.’ And my students said, ‘I think MLK would say today that the ideals of America are great but that he’s still longing for the full application of those ideals.’ ”

We are a cultural renewal organization,” says Great Hearts Arizona president Erik Twist. “We are not a huddled remnant on the defensive. We are absolutely an offensive organization.”

That wasn’t quite the original vision. Arizona’s first classical charter school, Tempe Preparatory Academy, was founded in 1996 by teachers who took their inspiration from a small network of private classical Christian schools in Indiana, the Trinity Schools, and had little ambition beyond the students whom it served. “Some of us,” Twist admits, “thought that anything beyond one school was too big.”

But in 2003, a group of teachers, parents, and board members decided to open a second school, Veritas Prep, with an ambition to form a broader network. When federally mandated standardized tests in reading and math came out that year, Veritas and Tempe ranked near the top statewide, leading to a waiting list in 2004 that was, cofounder Scoggin recalls, “embarrassingly long.”

Ever since, Great Hearts has tried—with mixed success—to fulfill parental demand in Phoenix and expand into other communities. Two years after its failure to expand to Nashville, Great Hearts launched two schools in San Antonio, even as it continued to expand its footprint in Phoenix. The rapid growth took a toll: San Antonio’s founding headmasters left to start their own schools, and the strain forced Great Hearts to launch a school in Phoenix without a headmaster.

Today, however, Twist and his colleagues feel that they’re on firmer footing than ever. No new schools are planned for Phoenix, which is well served. Great Hearts leaders are focusing on expanding in Texas and finding ways to lead a resurgence of classical education beyond their own schools.

Last year, Chief Academic Officer Rob Jackson launched the Great Hearts Institute, a foundation that pursues partnerships with higher education to build a pipeline of classical teachers and offer pedagogical and administrative support to other charter and private classical schools. Scoggin is considering a pilot of Great Hearts Family Centers that would provide webinars, model lessons, and one-on-one tutorials in classical education for home-schooling parents. If successful, this initiative could provide Great Hearts teachers—who make about $8,000 less than their public school counterparts—with another income stream, as well as some financial cushion for an expanding organization that operates on tight margins.

Great Hearts’ ability to grow will depend on local philanthropy. San Antonio philanthropists provided $6 million to help Great Hearts come to town; its six schools now serve about 3,500 students, and Great Hearts San Antonio expects to double enrollment within a few years. Philanthropists in Fort Worth have pledged $12 million to bring Great Hearts to their city, and Scoggin sees the potential to serve as many as 30,000 students in north Texas. If Great Hearts can find philanthropic backing in Florida, he hopes to serve 50,000 students there in the next decade.

Ninety-seven percent of Great Hearts’ 498-student 2019 graduating class will enroll directly in college; 80 percent earned merit-based scholarships, totaling $41 million. But the most remarkable thing about Great Hearts’ college-admissions culture is its lack of emphasis on elite universities. Kathryn LeTrent, a drama and poetry teacher at Glendale Prep, reflects: “We ask our students to reflect and write on the connection between virtue and happiness. If we emphasized that they needed to attend an elite college, that would be very hypocritical.”

“We’ve missed the mark a bit with education reform,” says Scoggin. “We definitely need charters dedicated to closing the achievement gap, but better serving the middle class is essential to the future of the movement. So many families want a better option but can’t afford private school. Unless we serve middle-income families, when it comes to politics and regulations, charters could face a tough future.”

Though Great Hearts is not on a mission to close the achievement gap, Scoggin and his colleagues hope that as it grows and the word spreads, their schools could become a vehicle for greater socioeconomic integration. The only way to bring students of all backgrounds together is to offer an education that appeals to all.

If Great Hearts continues to serve predominantly middle-class students, is that a bad thing? The answer depends on what one believes is the purpose of education. For anyone who believes in education as soul craft, nothing more promising is happening in American schooling than Great Hearts Academies. Its graduates are different, and they know it. After reminiscing about Veritas Prep’s “Iliadathon,” an overnight party where students take turns declaiming the entire Iliad, senior Anthony Jakubczuk said that he worries about finding a comparable intellectual community in college.

When I asked what it feels like to be part of such a counterculture, Meg Van Brunt said, “It feels beautiful!” Asked to define beauty, she offered, “We could start by calling it an attractive good.”

“That’s a good starting point,” Justine Marbach said, “because it could be both internal and external. But there’s also the idea that it involves a certain knowledge and that it’s a resource we’re striving for.” Justine continued by citing Aquinas’s opinion that we perceive beauty instinctually and that it speaks to the core of our nature.

“Oh, my gosh,” Anthony said, “Aquinas was a blur for me.” As the discussion turns to the relationship between beauty and goodness, Anthony offers a passage from Plato’s allegory of the cave, wherein goodness is the sun and truth is the light from the sun that shines on beautiful things.

“Is this always how your conversations go?” I ask.

“We were talking about Einstein before you got here,” said Meg.

“We make jokes about physics,” added Justine.

“On a Saturday night, we’re football guys, and we’ll be talking about Aristotle and what he meant when he said this,” Anthony said.

“We talk about Aristotle for fun,” Justine said. “I think that says it all.”

As one headmaster puts it, Great Hearts’ mission is “to strengthen minds and souls so that students aren’t just caught up in the soup of postmodernity.” (COURTESY OF GREAT HEARTS)

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