The school network bucks the assumption that charter schools should exist to serve low-income students.
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 Arizona and Texas serving 18,000 students.
Founded and 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 copies of famous paintings by artists 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, study painting, 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.”
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.
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.”