A proposed charter school in the area that would provide a classical education with an emphasis on developing wisdom and virtue is an appealing prospect for the parents who attended a recent informational session. The event was organized by the board members of Heritage Classical Academy who hope to open their school in the fall of 2021.
“It’s what I learned when I was younger,” said parent Elizabeth Blizzard, who attended with her 8-month-old son.
Board member Kathryn van der Pol – the Leader of the Year in 2019 – said she was born with teacher blood. Long before she bought Liberty Hoepfl Garage with husband, Sybren, van der Pol taught Latin and history at St. Thomas Episcopal and later spent 17 years as a Latin and history teacher at St. John’s School, where she thought the education students received was top-notch.
So when van der Pol was listening to a radio program about Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative a few years back, she was more than intrigued.
The idea of a school that would provide a rigorous, classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, along with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue, was so inspiring to her that van der Pol traveled to visit some of the other charter schools around the country. Then she took a class that trained her to be a board member of such a school.
Through networking, she met Stuart D. Saunders, chairman of the board of SouthTrust Bank, who also felt a strong pull toward education with a grandmother, mother and sister all in the profession. When his grandmother died, Saunders’ family gave a scholarship in her name to teachers for several years. But they also were looking for a way to have a bigger impact.
“We believe in education, (so we wondered) what else can we do,” Saunders said.
For Saunders, who is the board chair of Heritage Classical Academy, the answer is a tuition-free, co-educational, public charter school that – if its charter application is approved by the Texas Education Agency – would open in the fall of 2021 with kindergarten and first graders. The school would then add a grade each year through eighth grade.
The school would be part of the Barney Charter School Initiative, using the classical education method with a traditional approach and an emphasis on reading, writing and critical thinking. There are 20 schools in the initiative so far.
At the Saturday session, Saunders talked about the poor accountability scores for many Houston ISD schools and said Heritage wanted to give area families another choice in education. Saunders said as a state charter, Heritage would be open to anyone who wanted to attend – space permitting – and would also be subject to the same accountability measures as public schools.
Critics of charter schools say they siphon money as well as gifted teachers and parent support from school districts – which may be forced to close their own schools in response.
A map showed proposed communities for the Heritage Classical Academy in zip codes 77018, 77055, 77088, 77091 and 77092, although Saunders clarified that they hoped to draw from outside that area as well. The board is looking for a physical location for the school and may rent space before committing to a permanent spot.
Chelsea Collins, who is the head of middle school at The Kincaid School, also is a Heritage board member. She told the gathering that she grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward and that a school like Heritage would have been a great opportunity for her and students like her.
“We have data, we have results,” Collins said, sharing test scores that showed Barney Charter School students excelling in reading compared to their public school peers, with more modest gains in math scores.
Collins said the goal for Heritage is to have all students reading by the start of their second semester in first grade. For math, the Singapore system of mathematics would be used.
Saunders said Heritage will get public funding if it is chartered. But in advance of that, the board is doing a friends-and-family seed capital campaign to make sure they can be up and running once the charter approval comes through.
Attendees responded with enthusiasm to the character-building part of the school’s mission.
“In our culture there needs to be more civil discourse,” van der Pol said. “(The curriculum) will help students become great critical thinkers (and) articulate what they believe in without name-calling and belittling others.”