Four first-year charter schools from all over the country opened their doors as members of Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative last year. This year, the BCSI staff continue to work with the schools to make sure they offer a good education to their students.
The four new schools are Ivywood Classical Academy in Plymouth, Michigan; Northwest Ohio Classical Academy in Toledo, Ohio; Treasure Coast Classical Academy in Stuart, Florida; and Treasure Valley Classical Academy in Fruitland, Idaho. Each of these joined BCSI in 2019 and continued to work with Hillsdale College as they began the 2019 – 2020 school year last fall.
BCSI is a program that seeks to promote classical education and support charter schools nationwide. According to its website, one of their primary goals is “that public-school students may be educated in the liberal arts and sciences and receive instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.”
Kathleen O’Toole, assistant provost for K‑12 education, said that all four schools are doing well in the midst of their first year.
“All the students are getting to know each other, the teachers are getting to know their students,” said O’Toole, who recently visited Treasure Coast Classical Academy.
BCSI leaders worked with school administrators to found the schools. For this, O’Toole said, they did four training sessions for each school board, as well as training for the principals. There is also a two-week training for teachers in the beginning of August where BCSI takes them through a “deep dive into the curriculum,” looking at how to teach in a classical school setting.
O’Toole said BCSI’s curriculum team also visits each school at some point. On the first day, they observe the teachers. For the next day or two, they give recommendations and feedback to the teachers and give them a chance to ask questions.
“A lot of the support we give brand new teachers is how to do specific techniques,” O’Toole said.
One such technique, for example, focuses on teaching bar modeling — a pictorial representation of math problems — from the Singapore Math curriculum. To instruct students in this method successfully, O’Toole said, teachers must be familiar with bar modeling before taking it to the classroom.
O’Toole said BCSI serves to support charter schools, especially ones that are just getting started. She said no matter the school, the first year is always difficult, especially when faculty, administrators, students, and families don’t know each other yet. Also, teachers in these contexts are often new to classical education, and BCSI helps them learn how to teach within the classical method.
“Putting together a school is a hard thing. It’s like starting a business except you’ve got hundreds of children coming to school for the first time,” she said. “We provide them some guidance. We help them work on classroom management and how to teach every subject.”
Treasure Coast Classical Academy
Janine Swearingin, principal at Treasure Coast Classical Academy in Florida, said the school held its first day of classes on Aug. 12 and opened with 535 students. After losing some, she said the school grew, and there are now 620 students. The school has a waiting list, but it is no longer accepting applicants for this year. TCCA is currently a K‑6 institution, and it will expand to 7th grade next year. The plan, Swearingin said, is to be a full K‑12 school by 2025.
She said before she joined, a group of founders in the Martin County area were interested in classical education and decided they wanted to form a partnership with BCSI.
One benefit this new school offers, Swearingin said, is that it provides more alternatives for parents looking to send their children to school.
“In this county, there are only two other charter schools,” she said. “One serves students on the autism spectrum, and one is a highly specialized program for high school students.”
This means that TCCA is the only charter school of choice for many parents in the area. She noted that about 20% of students are attending private schools. But based on TCCA’s current enrollment numbers, Swearingin said the classical model appeals to a large amount of the population in that county.
Swearingin praised the resources and help BCSI has offered them, saying there is an “overwhelming amount of support,” including materials for professional development. Last summer, the curriculum team trained the teachers in all subject areas, including Singapore Math, Access Literacy, and other foundations of education. They also focused on classroom management. She said BCSI team members have been accessible for teachers, whether by phone or by email.
Six weeks into the school year, Swearingin said, the BCSI team returned to observe the teachers in their classrooms.
“They provided some really practical feedback to help us implement and grow our program,” she said. “They expressed that they saw a lot of growth.”
Swearingin said she has weekly phone calls with the curriculum team, as well as quarterly calls with BCSI leaders. She also has been mentored by Robert Garrow, principal at Golden View Classical Academy in Golden, Colorado.
Treasure Valley Classical Academy
While Treasure Valley Classical Academy is in its first year, its building is not new, according to Clinta Condra, assistant principal. It’s a 90-year-old structure on the main street in Fruitland, Idaho, and it has mostly served as a school throughout its history. Condra said it was a site just waiting for TVCA to occupy it.
The school began as a grassroots effort, Condra said. Local people had an interest in opening a charter school, and after forming a school board, they were “trained, guided, and vetted by Hillsdale.” Around this time, Principal Steve Lambert was recruited. Three years later, the school opened its doors. It now has more than 300 students enrolled in grades K‑6th.
“There was a strong interest on the part of those who formed the board,” Condra said. “And even in a small town, there’s a large scale demand.”
Condra, like Swearingin, highlighted the training board members and teachers received from BCSI staff.
“Since the school year began, some of those same experts have been sent back for a couple of visits,” he said. “They field questions from teachers and offer advice and guidance.”
Condra said the school staff also plan to attend BCSI’s summer conferences on Hillsdale’s campus.
“Our teachers have all got their tickets. It’s generated a lot of hype,” he said. “I myself have been to a conference for administrators last summer. But this will be for teachers the first such conference, since we’re such a new school.”
It’s important that parents have multiple options for where to send their children to school, Condra said. He said because of the American approach to a free-market system, having a charter school like TVCA as an alternative to standard public schools allows local families to have a choice on where they want their children to receive an education.
Condra also emphasized that TVCA exists to form virtuous citizens and to prepare them to live well.
“We prepare students to become informed citizens and to pursue whatever kind of professional inclinations they might have. We are not simply a ‘college factory,’ although the rigor of our curriculum is such that students — by time they graduate — will be well prepared to succeed in college, if that’s the path they’d like to choose.”
TVCA focuses on literacy and numeracy, or mathematical literacy, which are foundations for other subjects, Condra said. For this first year, he said, as students come in from the local public schools, faculty have been paying attention to what exactly needs remediation in terms of learning and content.
“Where necessary, we’re setting aside rich parts of the curriculum, but they’re designed to be spiraled back into place in later years,” he said. “So maybe extra time will be set aside in a grade, and they’ll miss some literacy or medieval history. But they’ll get that in future grades at least once more.”
Ivywood Classical Academy
Since opening for the first time in September, Ivywood Classical Academy has about 130 students in grades K‑5th, according to Principal Stephanie Kooiker. Next year, they plan to add sixth grade. She said open enrollment began Feb. 25, and the school already received 70 applicants. Their projected enrollment for next year is 325.
Kooiker said that when their board president and his wife had their first child almost six years ago, they were looking into classical schools. At the time, Livingston Classical Academy was the only other BCSI school in Michigan, Kooiker said. They decided then that they wanted to open another BCSI institution in the state.
The BCSI team met with ICA’s teachers, as well as LCA’s, since they had many new hires, according to Kooiker.
“They came to us and provided on-site training for the entire staff in classical teaching practices,” she said. “They trained us on the whole curriculum, and they were there to answer questions.”
During this school year, BCSI staff came twice for two to three days. They observed all of the teachers, and on the last day, they met with them and went over any questions they had.
Kooiker said ICA differs from local public schools in that staff can tailor curriculum to the needs of students.
“Traditional public schools use the curriculum that is based off of the latest trend,” she said. “It’s mandated by the state through the district. As a charter school, we are our own district. We make decisions based on our students’ needs.”
Northwest Ohio Classical Academy
Northwest Ohio Classical Academy began their first year as a K‑8th institution. They have 208 students enrolled, according to Principal Phillip Schwenk. He said that before he came to the school, a couple of the original board members noticed a decided lack of classical education in the greater Toledo area. They wanted to open a new charter, based partly on a BCSI school in Savannah, Georgia.
Schwenk said the Hillsdale name carries a lot of weight in Toledo, since it’s only about an hour from the college campus.
He also said the program guide BCSI offers its affiliated schools is a major benefit to joining the initiative.
“As someone in education for 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “You get to watch kids engross themselves in that.”
When it comes to the method of classical education BCSI promotes, Schwenk said he appreciates “having a curriculum that really relishes in learning for the sake of learning,” particularly from the great books and literature. Everyone at NOCA, he said, are seeking to become not only learned but also virtuous.
Schwenk also emphasizes the community aspect that NOCA offers Toledo — the fact that students come from a variety of backgrounds and demographics.
“We have students coming from local public schools and local private schools, and there’s a significant homeschooling population here. They are all very different, and there’s obviously diversity in all those communities,” he said. “We’re coming around a common goal of the true and beautiful.”