Education in Christ The Growth of Orthodox Schools
by Bryan Smith
The Orthodox Church has always viewed education as a thing much broader and much more comprehensive than mere schooling. Scripture tells us to raise our children in the nurture — paedeia — and admonition of the Lord. This concept of paedeia was explained by St. Gregory Nazianzus as bringing one’s self, through a study of the scripture, to conformity with Christ by means of imitation. Needless to say, this is not a task that any school could reasonably claim as its province. But schools can be structured in their content and in their methods to complement the broader project of Christian paedeia. It is just this hope that led Christians throughout the centuries to establish schools they deemed compatible with the proper formation of young people; and it is this same hope that is moving more and more Orthodox families and parishes to start their own schools today in America.
There are several Orthodox schools that have been operating in this country for some time now. Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas is in its thirty-sixth year of operation, with an enrollment of over six hundred students. The school is a Pre-K through 8 program associated with Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and blends a traditional curriculum with religion classes and chapel services. A priest from the cathedral is among the religion teachers, and older students have their chapel services at the cathedral itself. Valerie Greiner, Director of Communications and Parent Programs, describes the student population as about 10% Orthodox and says that students graduating from Annunciation attend the local public school, private college preparatory schools, while some have even gone off to Philips Exeter and Andover.
Theophany School was opened in 1997 by a group of Orthodox Christians in the Boston area and has focused for the last several years on building a reputable preschool. School officials report that “parents have consistently enrolled their children in the school, knowing that their children will receive high quality education while in the love and warmth of an Orthodox Christian environment.”
In its promotional literature, the school describes its program as “providing students with a highly literate environment, filled with letters, books, phonics, colors, and activities that model literacy through language, reading, and writing.” The school’s curriculum integrates subject areas into thematic units. A note on the school’s website says:
Parents of alumni return to tell us what an excellent preschool education their children received, and how well prepared their children have been for kindergarten, surpassing by far children from other preschools.
Today the school has twenty-nine students and is celebrating its tenth anniversary.
The last decade has revealed a growing determination on the part of many Orthodox Christians to provide alternatives to public schools, private secular preparatory schools, or private schools with various religious orientations. The result has been an emergence of Orthodox schools across the country that has caught many by surprise. A year ago, the Orthodox Independent Schools Project, under the Orthodox Christian Education Commission, ran a pilot project to provide accreditation standards for Orthodox schools. Word got around, and soon schools were contacting the office of Sonia Belcher of the O.C.E.C., requesting the standards. “We’re hearing from schools we didn’t even know existed,” she said. Also last year, a member of an Orthodox philanthropic organization expressed a similar experience. “We’ve heard from several new schools across the country, and they’re all describing a similar vision and philosophy.”
Many factors may account for this growing interest in starting Orthodox schools: deteriorating classroom conditions, the increased secularization of schools, the abandonment in many schools of any core content of works and knowledge that students are required to master. More profoundly, because of their bed-rock belief in Truth, many Orthodox parents and educators can become uneasy with the prevailing educational relativism, which says there are no wrong answers, treats all opinions as equal, asks students to “construct” their own knowledge, while ever encouraging them to “express their feelings.” Moreover, many parents have discovered, to their dismay, that self-esteem exercises, coupled with a lugubrious political curriculum, have crowded out basics like the memorization of math facts, mastery of English grammar and composition, and the transmission of such grounding factual content as the name of the first US President. In response, many parents, teachers, and members of the clergy have taken on the daunting project of founding their own schools.
An interesting development in the new Orthodox schools we are seeing across the country is that many are adapting an educational model to our time that has its roots in the schools of ancient Greece and Rome, as modified for Christianity in the time of the Cappadocian Fathers. Several call their schools “classical”, i.e., they promote grammar, logic, and rhetoric as the foundations of the curriculum; have Latin and Greek instruction; select their readings from the literary, philosophical, and theological classics; and teach students the art of questioning in Socratic seminars.
In 2000, St. Nicholas Orthodox School in Akron, Ohio opened its doors, offering a “faith-based classical curriculum.” The school’s published literature expresses the desire to “Provide a high-quality academic education to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox students in the Akron- Canton area, using the Classical model, modified to an Orthodox Christian worldview, which is Faith- and Salvation-history based.”
Further explaining the unique mission of an Orthodox classical school, Fr. John Cholcher wrote this:
The academic standards in any secular or Christian school should be the highest possible, and the students of a Classically-modeled program will master more subject matter facts and methods of analysis than most, if not all, students from a non-Classical program. The aim of a specifically Orthodox approach, though, is to contemplate created things, then go beyond them to the Creator, and ultimately to know God, the Holy Trinity…. To this end, Orthodox education possesses its own triple-way, to which the secular Classical model harmonizes quite well. The Orthodox way is purification, illumination, and union with God.
Students at St. Nicholas prayed daily and learned most of the Third and Ninth Hours by heart. The school’s first year showed admirable results, with students scoring in the top 10% of the nation on the Iowa Basic Skills Test. By 2003, a sister campus was begun in Akron, and Holy Trinity Orthodox Christian Academy was born. Although St. Nicholas is currently reorganizing, it has influenced several other schools who are currently using materials developed by its staff.
One such school is Agia Sophia Academy in Portland, Oregon, which is three years old with forty-eight students in grades PK through 6. It is a pan-Orthodox effort with families representing the Greek Archdiocese, the OCA, and the local Serbian Orthodox Church. Agia Sophia also describes its curriculum as “classical,” and uses Fr. Cholcher’s literature on its website. Head of school, Marina Schor, expresses a typically Orthodox response to classical learning. “We teach the classics because they’re lasting,” she says. She and the school community have been asking themselves how to make sure “the classical aspect is driven by Orthodoxy, and that we’re not just compartmentalizing.” She has found, however, that “classical and Orthodoxy blend nicely — I haven’t found any clashes.” The school’s emphasis on character formation and classical education is addressed at length on its website:
Plato, Aristotle, Solon, and Socrates agreed that the educated person has a good character, is thoughtful, kind and considerate, respectful, modest, unassuming, searching, and inquisitive. They believed that the ultimate purpose of education was to form “the good and beautiful person” (kalos k’agathos anthropos).
Early Church Fathers like St. Basil, St. Gregory, and St. John Chrysostom added that the purpose of education should be to develop the human being into a person possessing faith in a core of values and a persistent effort to apply them in everyday life until the icon of Christ is formed in him/her.
We came to the conclusion that we too should strive to likewise keep before our eyes those things of beauty, goodness, and excellence, such as will inspire us to truth, wisdom, and love of God. We also concluded that we should educate our children in that same tradition of the Orthodox Christian Faith and Hellenic (Classical) wisdom.
St. John of Damascus Academy in Goleta, California, is a K-8 program that began in 2001. Headmaster John Van Fossen explains the meaning of “classical” as a method providing “powerful tools for Christian education.” Referring to his school’s classical emphasis on the “three-fold way” of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, he says, “the Trivium takes into account the intellectual stages through which a child passes, and it gears instruction toward a child’s highest capacity for thought.” The school also promotes the study of Greek and Latin as “the foundational languages of the Church” — opening doors to “precision of thought, modern languages, great literature and the intricacy and depths of theology.” Referring to the trivium in the idiom of developmental stages, the school’s website offers this explanation: The Trivium, or three ways, refers to the three key stages of a child’s development — referred to as Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. It has been the basis of classical education for centuries. Instructional methods focus on the growing capacities of the children.”
The faculty and staff at St. John of Damascus believe that Grammar trains students in observation and memory, Logic channels their natural argumentativeness to good purpose by teaching students the art of arguing correctly, while Rhetoric teaches students to say what they have to say elegantly and persuasively — both orally and in writing. The school’s position on language instruction is explained as follows:
Since children’s minds are most open to new languages in their early years, the Academy begins instruction in the two fundamental languages of the Church, Greek and Latin, in the Kindergarten year. Besides being the principal languages of Scripture and early Church history and theology, the grammatical structure of English, as well as 80% of English vocabulary, find their roots in Greek and Latin. The precision and attention to detail required in reading both Greek and Latin provides excellent training for any other discipline and other foreign languages.
St. Peter’s Classical School in Fort Worth, Texas is another example of an Orthodox school that grounds its philosophy of education in “permanent things and eternal verities.” Established two years ago in the new educational facilities at St. Peter’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, the school has forty students divided into multi-grade levels ranging from Pre-K to 11. Students in the grammar school master the rudiments of literacy and numeracy while having their imaginations stocked with the words, images, and sounds of the greatest creative works of our culture. Students study Latin and Greek beginning in the lower grades, with the linguistic focus intensifying in middle school. The math program is competitive with other private schools, while the juniors’ recent verbal scores suggest its language arts program is far superior to most. The school’s classical aspect is described on its website:
The liberal arts are those tools and skills traditionally deemed necessary to free one’s mind from the base, the expedient, and the mediocre. They are intended to draw a student out of himself, allowing him to see truths that are timeless, unchanging, and not of his own making. For the students at St. Peter’s, this means mastering the forms of language by learning and using the highly inflected Greek and Latin languages. It means learning to sort sense from nonsense in the structure of arguments and fallacies in reasoning. It also means learning to use language in compelling ways by applying argument, arrangement, and style in both written and oral presentations. The remaining liberal arts are known as the mathematical arts and include in our program the modern mathematical studies as well as the axiomatic and deductive studies characteristic of Euclid’s Elements.
The “classical” content of our curriculum refers to those traditional works of literature, history, philosophy, and theology that embody perennial truths of the human soul and which remain compelling because they present these truths in memorable, or beautiful, ways. The classics provide the most thoughtful reflections on the meaning and potential of human life.
Yet at St. Peter’s, all of this is set beneath the vaults of the Orthodox faith. Students begin each day with prayer, scripture readings, and traditional hymns, and our school’s calendar takes into account important days and seasons in the life of the Church. Younger students learn Bible stories and memorize prayers and scripture verses, while older students read Christian classics, translate from the gospels, and learn to chant the hours.
The schools mentioned above are only a few of the Orthodox schools now teaching students their lessons in an environment of Orthodox spirituality and piety to all that is true, good, and beautiful. There are many more. We do not know them all — we do not all know each other. But this summer, St. Peter’s Classical School in Fort Worth, Texas will host a two-day conference on starting and maintaining Orthodox Schools. This conference is funded by the Virginia H. Farah Foundation, and will include talks from Fr. Anthony Scott of Stewardship Advocates, as well as Bishop BASIL, Dr. Vigen Guroian, and David Hicks. Topics will include philosophy of education, classical learning, accreditation, and professional development opportunities for Orthodox schools. (Registration and other conference information are available from St. Peter’s Classical School at 817-294-0124, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In many ways, Orthodoxy is now claiming its place in American culture as the treasure house of traditional Christian life and teaching. Education, as G. K. Chesterton said, is the transmission of the soul of one generation to the next. We hold something precious to pass on to another generation of American Christians. We have something true, unchanging, and life-giving to impart to a nation rich with goodwill but impoverished by materialism and narcissism. Schools are one way that we as a community of faith can leaven the lump of our society. We all hope to incline our students toward Christ, to prepare them to live well in this world, and to share our faith with a generation looking for stability in the shifting sands of the American cultural landscape. We at St. Peter’s invite everyone interested in Orthodox schools to join us this summer as we examine the principles that will keep us consistent with our faith, as well as the practical skills that will keep our lamps trimmed and burning.
Courtesy of the
April 2007 issue of The Word magazine.