Why this Catholic school is going classical

St. Charles Catholic School in Spokane, Washingon adds its name to a growing list of Catholic schools across the country that hope to find renewal through an embrace of a classical liberal arts educational model.

St. Charles sits in a part of the Spokane metro area that is thick with Catholic schools. Four other parochial schools are within a ten minute drive from St. Charles. With so many Catholic schools in the area, the question for each school is, “what sets us apart?”

St. Charles’ decision to embrace a classical liberal arts model follows a track record of schools making the same transition. In Denver, Colorado, Our Lady of Lourdes School had only 104 students enrolled when it decided to switch to a classical curriculum. The following year, enrollment increased to 180 and the growth has continued. In the fall of 2018, Lourdes opened a second campus.

St. Charles’ move to classical was not a foregone conclusion; the school has had several changes of leadership over the last few years. In 2019, the school welcomed a new pastor and principal, Fr.  Esteban Soler and principal Heather Schlaich. As school leaders looked at the future of the school, they hoped to bring stability and growth to the school.  

Soler said he “has a heart” for classical liberal education and for the humanities. Growing up in Argentina, the priest was classically educated from 6th grade through high school. For Schlaich, the appeal of a classical liberal arts curriculum was multifaceted.

“In doing our research, we found it is an idea that is spreading nationwide,” she said. The emphasis on the arts also impressed Schlaich, whose background in music education.

“Knowing that we needed something new and exciting in our community, and knowing that there is a need to fill because there isn’t a Catholic elementary school that is classical in Spokane, we felt this is a niche we could fill,” she added.

The decision to fill a niche role with a classical curriculum is expected to help neighbouring Catholic schools. Rather than competing for the same pool of students, St. Charles hopes to bring new families into the Catholic school system.

“I’m hoping we meet that need and get more kids into Catholic school,” Schlaich said.

For those who are not familiar with it, the idea of classical education can seem mysterious.  But Schlaich said there is a simple way to define the underlying principle of classical liberal arts education: “I would describe it as an integration of subjects with the faith.”

Explaining further, Soler stressed the unity of the curriculum, all subjects are rooted in faith and in the Catholic vision that all truth comes from God.

“The curriculum is oriented to help the kids to grow in a coherent base, where everything is understood as a whole before they can go to different specifications.”

A classical education can seem old-fashioned to many, and in a way, it is. The roots of classical curriculum go right back to ancient Greece. The educational model continued to develop in Mediterranean and European countries. The curriculum is not stuck in the past though; technology is incorporated into the classroom on an as-needed basis and the curriculum meets current educational standards, school leaders told CNA.

What about Latin? The students at St. Charles will learn Latin, starting in kindergarten. The study of one or more of the classical languages, Greek or Latin, is a hallmark of classical schools. Soler will teach the students Latin himself, having an extensive background in Latin himself, studying the language for 10 years both in Argentina and in Rome.

Schlaich said that compared to a typical secular, modern school, the focus of a classical school is on “cultivating wisdom and virtue.” The school does this by “teaching the students Latin, exposing them to high quality literature, and focusing on appreciation of beauty, goodness, and truth.”

After the change was announced in the spring of 2020, those in the school community had many questions.  

“I have had a lot of positive feedback, [but] there is anxiety in some people, I would say, because it is a change, and there is anxiety with any change,” Soler noted.

Priest and principal met with families to explain the changes, and while many families are supportive, some have decided to move to neighbouring schools.

Heather Morrisson, a parent of St. Charles’ students said she is excited for the change in curriculum. “I love that we are integrating religion into every aspect of the curriculum and I like that we are encouraging critical thinking in the students.”

Schlaich said the response from teachers has also been enthusiastic.

“Our teachers are very loyal,” she said. “They are excited we are going to be digging deeper, looking at deeper meanings.”

Soler said he is looking forward to the adventure of undertaking this change.

“We will be the only Catholic school in the area – not in the state because we have St. Monica on Mercer Island, and there are other schools in the Seattle area looking to make the change – but we will be the only one in the area to make the change.”

Looking to the future, both Soler and Schlaich are hopeful about the transition.

“We are excited,” Fr.  Soler said. “It is a challenge, but overall, I think it will be good. I think it will attract families who are not served by Catholic schools now. The school is part of the life of the parish. The mission of the parish, like every Catholic parish, is to evangelise. I hope the school will help bring the students to a deeper knowledge of Christ.”