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Hillsdale College alumni and their children who attend Sacred Heart. Zachary Good | Courtesy

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.”

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    there are only 60 – 70 kids in the school? so like 10 per grade? Is this what success looks like?

    • Gannon

      I’m not entirely sure that you fully read the article. The current student pop­u­lation is 317 (2018 – 2019) as is explicitly stated. Sec­ondly, how are you mea­suring success? Mere number can not lend full insight towards the devel­opment of the human person, an aim which the author indi­cates as the primary concern of both Hillsdale and SHA.

      • Jen­nifer Melfi

        you are right, I should have read more closely. I take your point though, I am focused on the wrong numbers. Hillsdale is more focused on getting the donation $ # as high as it can go… I suppose this is the same thing. We shouldn’t focus on enrollment, but solic­iting dona­tions from reli­gious people