SCHOOL OF THOUGHT: Progressive Jackson academy offers classical education

By on January 14, 2014
(From left to right) Moira Hyde, Polly Friess and Lucia Pantalena. By Jake Nichols

(From left to right) Moira Hyde, Polly Friess and Lucia Pantalena. By Jake Nichols

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Pioneer Classical School has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The classical liberal arts school launched in 2011 with backing from local philanthropist Foster Friess. Friess’ son Steve and his wife Polly enrolled their two children and secured a location on Nethercott Lane off Teton Village Road. The school was originally classified a day care – an allowable use in the residential zone – but some neighbors contend the school is just that and should not be allowed under current LDRs.

Attorney David DeFazio has threatened to sue the county if the school is allowed to continue at the site. Polly Friess said she once thought of trying to get the county to rezone the property but has since decided to move the school. A new location has been identified, but Friess said she needs another week or so before she can disclose that information.

Meanwhile, lost in the controversy, is a unique education movement taking hold in Jackson Hole. Classical education is growing in popularity across the country. Pushback from the controversial No Child Left Behind Act and the unpopular PAWS testing in Wyoming has helped breathe life into a Middle Ages curricula and pedagogy that strives to impart on its students wisdom and eloquence. Students and parents alike seem to be thirsting for a school that will teach the whole child to not only take tests but take on life with a passion for Plato’s transcendentals: truth, beauty and goodness.

Friess’ Pioneer Classical School has now partnered with a Phoenix-based school system with a proven track record of modeling a successful classical education paired with a core knowledge program involving a rigid scope and sequence element. The new school will debut as a K-8 classical liberal arts private school with a new name: Jackson Hole Classical Academy. A permanent headmaster will be named shortly.

Pioneer Classical School 2013-14 class. A new location and headmaster will be announced next week. Courtesy Pioneer School

Pioneer Classical School 2013-14 class. A new location and headmaster will be announced next week. Courtesy Pioneer School

Planet JH sat down with headmistress Polly Friess and her two teachers, Lucia Pantalena and Moira Hyde. We got schooled.

Planet JH: Polly, you’ve really bought into the Great Hearts teaching model. What put you two together?
Polly Friess: It’s a beautiful story about how we got connected to Great Hearts. One of the things we thought was very important in founding the school is parents like to know what their child is learning in every grade, in every subject. E.D. Hirsch wrote a book about 44 years ago called Cultural Literacy. We base a lot on that in developing a core knowledge program.

That was one foundational part of the school: Core knowledge with scope and a sequence. The next part we really felt strongly about was a classical education. So [Pioneer board member] Maggie Valiente and I went searching for a school with both core knowledge and classical education. The only school we found doing it was Great Hearts Academy. We heard a lot of buzz about this new [Great Hearts] school that was forming in Scottsdale called Scottsdale Archway Academy. Robby Kuhlman was their headmaster. We wrote him an email saying, “We are starting a very small school in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, would you be willing to help us line up our curriculum?”

They said sure, we’ll help you. Robby invited us to his school and they actually helped us and we couldn’t believe it. We were so blown away by the program we came back and finally signed a confidentiality agreement with them and they stated they would be willing to advise us with our curriculum.

PJH: And when you needed even more help, they lent two of their teachers on sabbatical.
PF: Yes, and we were blown away. We just had to ask them why they were going out of their way to help us so much and they said, “It is our moral obligation to spread classical education across the nation. That’s our vision. Why wouldn’t we help you?” And the more we’ve learned about Great Hearts, the more we realize they truly are greathearted people.

PJH: Give an example of what’s different about your school, Polly.
PF: I really love your report cards [Nodding toward Pantalena and Hyde.]

Lucia Pantalena: We use narrative evaluations. So rather than bulleted points or a checklist that does not provide great insight, we are really digging deep and giving thoughtful explanations of children’s growth.

Moira Hyde: In areas like sense of wonder or depth of inquiry; how they learn. From the abstract to the more concrete things like how they behave in class and how they organize themselves. We cover the whole gamut. It’s quite invasive, really.

PJH: Are schools like this becoming popular out of a growing discontent with teach-to-test philosophies? Do parents really want their kids to be poetry-reciting chess champions that can play the flute and captain the volleyball team?
PF: Very much so. I think that’s an option we should be offering our kids. Maybe not every parent will want this but there are many who do. I can’t believe the number of emails I’ve got back just from sending out the press release. I’m really encouraged.

MH: When we say classical education what we mean is focusing on the trivium: Grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And those things being the basis of a well-rounded education. It’s also going back to basics in that you don’t need to have some fancy textbook to learn something and you don’t have to have access to the Internet to learn something. There are true, honest ways you can learn.

LP: Creativity is a buzzword in today’s education world. We are providing children a model of what is true, good and beautiful. By providing them those foundational skills in grammar, logic and rhetoric, they are able to be the most creative that they can be. As opposed to having them complete some sort of aimless writing task that may have the title of creative writing.

For example, instead of providing a child a bicycle and having them ride aimlessly through the woods, they won’t be sure what they are looking for yet. So providing them some fundamental skills and goals and knowing what to look for, in addition to how to ride the bike, they can do it in a beautiful way and excel.

PF: And we are creating students who can make their decisions based on moral principles because the core virtues are an incredibly important part of the school. In nine months of school they recite one per month and they have them all memorized. They live it and breathe it. Because, ultimately, if you educate the mind but you don’t teach them to the heart and the soul, they are just going to be smart but they are not going to do good.

PJH: Dr. Scoggin talks often about an unpopular notion right now: the death of relativism. If the idea that a black and white truth exists is bucking the trend, the notion of athletics as a competitive sport where there is a clear winner and a loser is radical in this day and age. Soccer moms like to know that everyone wins, everyone gets a ribbon.
MH: Going back to E.D. Hirsch and what it means to be culturally literate, I think of a good American citizen. In life, you don’t win at everything. Teaching children that they should be winning at everything or that it’s possible to win at everything does them a disservice in the long run. It will ultimately make them feel dissatisfied and also makes them think they are owed things that they didn’t earn. So at Great Hearts, even at a young age, we have contests where there are clear winners and losers, and more importantly we teach the virtues that go along with winning and losing like remaining humble about winning, and how to handle losing in an appropriate, moral way. It’s really important to learn that at a young age. I think there are many frustrated children today that would have benefitted from learning that when they were younger.

PJH: There’s been some confusion and scuttlebutt on the street. Is this a faith-based school?
PF: We believe that families and churches are responsible for spiritual instruction and we want to support it, not supplant it. We don’t use any Christian curriculum here. We don’t have a Bible study class or anything like that. We are not affiliated with any specific church but we are a Christian school because the whole classical tradition is based on the Western civilization, Judeo-Christian tradition. It just is. Christian families can feel welcome here as well as non-Christians.

I personally have talked with the Presbyterian Church, the LDS Church, River Crossing, First Baptist, Cornerstone, Community Bible, the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church. I still need to do the Episcopal Church.

A GREAT HEART Dr. Daniel Scoggin
Dr. Daniel Scoggin, founder and CEO of Great Hearts Academies, has been invited to speak about the Great Hearts Academy education philosophy and how it merges with the vision of Pioneer Classical School interim headmistress Polly Friess. Erik Twist, Headmaster of Great Hearts – Archway Classical Academy Veritas, will join Scoggin.

The information session will take place on January 22 and January 23. Scoggin will share his vision of a classical, liberal arts education and discuss the launch of the K-8 Jackson Hole Classical Academy (formerly the Pioneer Classical School). Families are invited on January 24 to attend private tours and engage in one-on-one discussions with Great Hearts’ leadership and Pioneer Classical School’s staff.

PJH: The “classical school” is an education model that is gaining traction throughout the country. Numerous designations exist, each tweaked to their own stylization. What is Great Hearts all about?

Daniel Scoggin: We’re very much a classical liberal arts academy. I think the niche we fit is we do it as a public school format. We have no tuition. We serve kids from all different backgrounds. We combine the rigorous academics of a classical education with a full-blown athletics program, extra-curricular activities, and a real close focus on character formation and virtue. We produce greathearted young men and women with a great sense of purpose who understand what it means to pursue truth and what virtue is.

PJH: And the demand seems to be there. At least in the Phoenix area.
DS: We have 20 schools here in Phoenix as of next fall. Right now we serve 7,600 kids. Next year we will serve 8,800. Eventually we will enroll about twelve to thirteen thousand kids here in Phoenix. We are also opening schools in San Antonio, Texas, beginning next year.

There is a long waiting list. I think what’s going on is that the more technological, the more specialized our culture becomes, people are just more and more hungry for philosophical meaning. They are hungry for the big picture and how all the parts fit together in the world. And that’s what a classical education purports to offer.

Usually it is the parents that are first attracted to the school. They see the Plato and Aristotle and Latin and Socratic teaching method. The kids are attracted to the uniforms, the structure, the athletics; and over time they become converts because they start to feel that change in themselves – that they are becoming more thoughtful and focused human beings.

PJH: Wait, students actually like the uniforms?
DS: They love structure. Of course, it’s a fine line. I think that’s one of the big crises of our culture, particularly for adolescents: that we don’t challenge them. We don’t expect enough out of them. Most kids want to be stretched. Now they complain about it, but deep down the human soul, the human dignity longs for high expectations; it longs for structure. My own kids go to the school and they sometimes complain about the uniforms or level of homework but beneath that I know they are proud doing something that is noble and difficult.

PJH: One of the hallmarks of Great Hearts is the pursuit of truth. Truth you are not afraid to define as absolute. It flies in the face of today’s relativism movement.
DS: We believe there are right and wrong answers to questions. There can be certainly significant disagreement on certain topics, which is fine, and we want debate in our schools. But is murder bad or is it good? Is it more noble to be faithful or unfaithful?

We believe that education loses some of its purpose if we don’t think there is an ultimate goal. That’s why we are pretty strong about saying there is truth to be found and it’s a lifelong quest. Sort of like Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. The quest is made all the more vital if we believe there are answers that can be found.

We are not preachy. We are not dogmatic at all. We have kids from all different backgrounds. But if you set up the school to believe that there are right answers that can be found if you work hard and search hard with good intent, it does invigorate the whole process.

PJH: Classical academies like yours aspire to turn out a more well-rounded graduate; one who learns how to learn rather than a student who memorizes for tests. Is that a fair assessment?
DS: Our goal is to produce a renaissance man and a renaissance woman. Someone who is very, very thoughtful; a deep thinker. I think there is all this anxiety in this country about competing with Asia or competing mathematically, for example, with the kids in Singapore or Hong Kong. And those are really good questions and we believe that we really do need to be internationally competitive as a country but ultimately what we talk about is what’s uniquely American: That ability to solve problems. That ability to think outside the box. American ingenuity is its greatest resource.

PJH: Many of these Plato-over-iPod schools eschew technology and poo-poo modern day devices as crutches. Does a Great Hearts kid have to smuggle his smart phone into the lunchroom to Tweet his friends?
DS: Our kids are so pounded with pop culture, you know? They are all so hardwired and cell phone wired. The average teenager right now sends and receives 1,800 text messages a month. The amount of visual media, screen culture consumption is off the charts. That’s OK, that’s the future. We’re not Luddites. We’re not trying to raise our kids in bubbles. But at the same time we want the schools to be a quiet, reflective space away from all the noise where they can actually engage real human face-to-face conversation. Where they can learn how to read and think clearly and solve problems both alone and with others.

We don’t use pop culture in the school. We don’t try to explain Shakespeare by talking about the latest movie. That’s dumbing down to the kid, saying you can’t understand Shakespeare for Shakespeare. You can only understand Shakespeare if it’s compared to Star Wars. That’s wrong.

PJH: Your reading list is sick. From Federalist No. 39 to Gorgias to Summa Theologica. Are you trying to impress parents or bludgeon your students to death?
DS: They read all those books unabridged. They discuss them in detail and write essays on them. And there’s really nothing new on the list. I think the last author we read, at least chronologically, is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He passed away just a few years ago. He was our only living author for a while. That’s not to say there’s not beautiful and great literature in the last 30 or 40 years; there is, but we try to read the classics because they’ve stood the test of time and not many high school kids read all of Plato’s Republic or the aspects of Aristotle. Certainly very few high school students read Descartes or Marx at the level that we do.

PJH: Colleges must love your kids.
DS: We are really pleased with our college admission. Our average SAT score is 1830 and ACT is 27.3. Most of our kids are getting scholarship money and 95 percent of our kids are going on to four-year colleges and universities. I think what colleges really like about our kids is that Great Hearts students know how to study hard on their own.

PJH: Will the Great Hearts model work here?
DS: We know it’s just right for Jackson Hole. It’s a great town and certainly a place that has a lot of people that really value education and value thoughtfulness and philosophy. I know Polly and Steve Friess have started a great initial seed program and they are interested in growing something more, and Great Hearts hopes to be part of that story.

Lucia Pantalena and Emma Fini.  Courtesy Pioneer School

Lucia Pantalena and Emma Fini. Courtesy Pioneer School


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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