KAUKAUNA — Not many seven and eight-year-olds greet a priest in Latin, but that’s the case in the Kaukauna Catholic School System’s (KCSS) second grade classroom. In addition to the greeting for Fr. Tom Pomeroy, pastor of Holy Cross Parish, the children also recited the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) for him during a recent visit. The students are learning Latin as part of the school’s new classical curriculum.
This school year is serving as one of transition to a classical education on the campus. The second grade class is fully classical as well as all religion classes in grades K-8. Next school year, grades K-4 will be fully integrated, and grades 5-8 will integrate history and literature.
“Some of the teachers have started transition to the classical model in all their subjects,” said Tracy Brockman, a KCSS parent, chair of the Board of Trustees and member of the classical education committee. “Each subsequent year, for the older grades, they will continue to add a couple subjects. Fifth grade will be fully integrated the year after next. Miss (Judy) Rogers, the third grade teacher, has been transitioning on her own. Our art teacher, Donna Eddy, also did extensive work on her own on classical elements.”
Classical Education is rooted in the traditions of Western civilization and based on the trivium, a model that seeks to tailor the subject matter to a child’s cognitive development. The trivium emphasizes concrete thinking in the grammar (grade school) stage and analytical thinking in the logic (middle school) stage. Classical high schools center on logic in the rhetoric stage.
Fr. Pomeroy considered the change to a classical curriculum about a year and a half ago. The school was graduating two classrooms of eighth grade students and bringing in only one classroom of kindergarten students in the fall.
“We needed to do something to save our school. That was a big part of our mentality,” he said. “I wanted to make it as Catholic as possible. I researched different models. My degree is in education from (UW) Madison. I read E.D. Hirsch and a number of other books. I realized that this classical model would be a uniquely Catholic way of doing education. Instead of educating the same as the public school, except with Mass on Thursday and religion, let’s create something totally different that’s uniquely Catholic.”
“One of the things that I think is lost in our society today is an appreciation for the change that Jesus brought about in our world,” said Julie Vajda, a first-year KCSS parent who serves on the classical education committee. “If you look at the world pre-Jesus, what he brought, the fundamental changes that he brought about, his mercy, his forgiveness, his presence in every individual that’s what this curriculum brings back to this generation. It’s very intentional. Your literature is in sync with what they are learning in history. It always talks about the Catholic element of it.”
Following his research on classical education, Fr. Pomeroy introduced the possibility to the board.
“They said, ‘That’s nice,’ It really didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, I had some of the parents coming up to me who were apparently discussing Common Core and discovered classical education online.”
The parents were supportive of the change, so contacts were made to gather information from schools that started as classical and those that had transitioned. Jill Estermann, a KCSS parent, board member and classical education committee member, explained that, based on the information gathered from other classical schools, the curriculum from Memoria Press was selected as well as the Faith and Life series for religion. Among the standards being used to develop the curriculum at KCSS are those from St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, MD.
Some faculty members were nervous about the move to a classical curriculum, said Fr. Pomeroy.
“We sent some teachers to Maryland for a conference there,” he said. “A lot of them have been reading classical information on their own. In preparation for this year, I gave some talks on how to teach virtues in the classroom. We have done a lot with virtues and additional prayer. Each grade was given different prayers to learn. We are also learning Liturgy of the Hours.”
“The response from the teachers has not been, ‘We have to do this?’ but “How are we going to do this, help us get the tools, help us know what is expected. They are such a dedicated group,, including our principal, Larry Konetzke.”
Estermann added that there was some fear on the part of some parents.
“This can be a bit scary for parents, because most of us are not classically educated, we are all learning as we progress, but the real proof is in our children,” she said. “We wanted Latin because it ties so strongly into English and all the romance languages that alone helps to increase ACT and SAT scores.”
“This is evangelizing to a whole generation of parents, many who grew up with watered down Catholicism never learning the beauty of our faith,” said Vajda. “It’s a way for the students to evangelize to their parents and teach this rich history.”
Fr. Pomeroy has been spending more time in the classroom. He no longer waits to be invited, but rather is assigned dates and topics to discuss.
“I have always liked teaching,” he said. “This year, I’ve talked about the proofs of God, defending the faith, how to pray and meditate, how to do mental prayer because we added Eucharistic adoration every Monday. I’ve done vocation talks for the middle schoolers, and a session on symbolism in the church.
Enrollment has increased from 193 in 2013-2014 to 212 for this school year, including 10 new families. Debbie Golden, a new KCSS parent who serves on the classical committee, said that many of the new families were not satisfied with Catholic education that resembled public education with a “sprinkling of God” on top.
“The classical education is the difference,” she said. “The curriculum isn’t the fabric. God is the fabric and the education is intertwined with God. This is a beautiful option for our children to have a higher level education and it will bring them closer to God.”
Lisa Ortner, the second grade teacher, invited her students to hold up their latest reading project, “Little House in the Big Woods,” a fourth grade level book. Ortner, who formerly taught 4K at the school, said that she and her students are “learning together” during this year of transition. Fr. Pomeroy praised the school’s first fully integrated classical class.
“I have never seen second graders so excited about learning as in this classroom,” he said.