Six years ago, Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was nearly 110 years old and on the verge of shutting down. Now, it’s quadrupled in size and is the only classical Catholic school in the Grand Rapids diocese — thanks in large part to the work of Hillsdale graduate Zach Good ‘08, the academy’s dean of faculty and curriculum.
“It is a pretty amazing story,” said Professor of Education Dan Coupland, who has helped advise Sacred Heart and has spoken there on occasion. “Zach was kind of the catalyst.”
Operating since 1904, the school had declined to an attendance of fewer than 70 students, a point where Father Robert Sirico, the pastor of the Sacred Heart parish, told the community he would have to close the school — or dramatically change it. He decided to make it a classical school, and that’s where Good entered the picture.
Back in Grand Rapids after teaching and developing curriculum at the Vanguard School for a few years in Colorado, Good said he “stumbled into” the Sacred Heart parish through a friend, and happened to come across a flier announcing Sacred Heart Academy’s new mission.
Though he hadn’t planned to teach after leaving Colorado, Good said he missed the classroom and approached the school’s interim principal to ask how he could help. The principal was “flabbergasted” but took him up on his offer, and Good joined the administration.
“The newly-appointed school board president and I took things from there,” Good said.
With 69 students in the fall of 2013, the school opened with more change than the classical structure: It also kicked off a two-day-a-week homeschool partnership program. For homeschooling families — many of whom opted to homeschool because the academy wasn’t good enough — “we answered their need and really brought life to a community that was on its way out,” Good said.
This year, the school has 317 students enrolled, said Samantha Surrell, Sacred Heart’s director of advancement. Preschool through eighth grade just five years ago, it acquired its first freshman class in 2015 — which, in the spring, will be the school’s first class of graduating seniors.
Hillsdale played a role in the school’s transformation, and not just through Good. “There are a lot of connections with Hillsdale,” Good said.
Good said he used the Hillsdale Academy curriculum during his initial curriculum audit and received advice and feedback from Coupland as he planned curriculum changes. Hillsdale professors have visited the school to lecture and help with professional development, including Provost David Whalen and Lecturer of Mathematics Jonathan Gregg.
Sacred Heart has also shown up at Hillsdale College job fairs to recruit teachers, Good said. The academy has approximately seven Hillsdale graduates working there currently. They’re not just teachers: The school’s librarian is a 1980 Hillsdale graduate, and a finance council member also graduated from the college, Good said. Several Hillsdale graduates also send their children to the school.
Cait Weighner, a junior at Hillsdale, participated in Sacred Heart Academy’s homeschool partnership program as a high school junior and senior and said she chose Hillsdale because of her experience at the academy.
“Getting to know the teachers who were Hillsdale graduates and hearing about the school, and honestly mostly the kind of people that they were,” she said, “I really admired the way they lived life.”
Coupland said the college and the academy share a vision for education that helps them work well together.
“It goes down to the very core of what the two institutions are trying to do,” Coupland said. “They’re not just trying to prepare employees. Yes, we want people to be good chemists and accountants, but we’re just as interested, or even more so, in the cultivation of the human being.”
Good agreed that Hillsdale and Sacred Heart share an emphasis on the liberal arts and the cultivation of the human being through education. They also both have similarly close-knit communities, he said.
“I think it’s the ideal of liberal education and the formation of the whole person. That’s something that you can see really clearly in the life of the college, what it is to live on campus and have that community,” Good said. “In a school that’s attached to a parish, we’re unusual in that we have preschool through 12th grade on campus, we have that familial feel and the idea that you’re investing yourself in a whole community that you also have at Hillsdale.”
Good said the school’s growth comes from several factors that make it unique: It’s one of only 60 or so Catholic classical schools in the nation, and one of even fewer that are diocesan.
Additionally, the school offers daily Mass, “which has been a huge draw,” he said.
Weighner said worshipping with both students and teachers was “really important.”
Surrell said the school’s warm and Christ-centered community makes it attractive.
“Our mission is to assist families and to cultivate culture, and we really live out our culture,” Surrell said. “Teachers love the books they teach, they love the faith and handing it on. We’re setting the bar high, but we’re doing it with love and in a Christ-centered environment.”
Coupland said Sacred Heart sets a good example of how a classical school can thrive, even as Catholic and classical education struggles nationally.
“In anything you need one or two institutions to blaze the trail,” he said. “Sacred Heart already has been an inspiration to other schools that yes, it can be done. I call it a model.”