New Catholic high school opens doors in Kaukauna

St. Ignatius Chesterton Academy is part of classical education school system

Nathan Vande Hey is headmaster of St. Ignatius Catholic School in Kaukauna. The classical school expanded its admission to grades nine through 12. (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

KAUKAUNA — When Nathan Vande Hey interviewed for the position as headmaster of St. Ignatius Catholic School in Kaukauna in 2019, he shared his vision for the future of the classical grade school. “If we’re really going to do this right, we really should have a high school,” he said.

Considering that the 3K-8 school had only been open four years, the school board bought into his vision. “When we went through the strategic planning the first couple months that I was here, it came out very clearly that that’s what we really needed to do,” he said.

Before taking the position as headmaster at St. Ignatius, Vande Hey was a sixth-grade teacher in the Kaukauna public school system. “I had done tons of research on classical education,” he said. The intent was to start a charter classical high school in the public school system, but that never came to fruition. However, the information he’d gathered was instrumental as St. Ignatius pursued opening a high school.

“We did some homework and the Chesterton Academy aligned so well with what we’re already doing,” he said. “We want to be a place of joy in this school. We’re joyfully Catholic.”

The pandemic pushed the time frame back a bit, but this fall St. Ignatius Chesterton Academy is opening its doors and will welcome students in grades nine through 12 in the same building that houses St. Ignatius Catholic School.

On Aug. 18, Bishop David Ricken presided at a ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony for St. Ignatius Chesterton Academy. “I’ve long supported classical schools. The rich curriculum will help students find their place in Jesus’ mission,” he said. “I feel confident that St. Ignatius Chesterton Academy will foster intentional disciples of Christ.” 

Vande Hey explained the concept of their school system as a whole. “We are pursuing the good, the true and the beautiful because all those things direct us to God. We really focus on the basics,” he said. “Up to grade six, we focus on grammar, we teach Latin, and we teach Spanish as well. The logic phase is in our middle school area — we really give the kids some concrete tools to work with. Our kids know all 33 logical fallacies. It really helps you pursue the truth.”

The next phase of classical education is the school of rhetoric. “In about 10th grade, we give students concrete tools of how to speak and how to write. ‘How do we communicate the truth?’” he explained.

Promoting a culture of life is an integral part of the Chesterton Academy. “The church is pro-life. We’re not going to have a pro-life club — the school is pro-life. We really want to bring out what it means to live life fully,” said Vande Hey.

A Chesterton Academy is meant to be affordable. “If you’re going to be pro-life and have large families, how can you spend $10,000 a year per child on a high school? We want to accept everybody, regardless of economic status,” said Vande Hey, who is the father of 11. Two of his children will attend the classical high school this year.

Enrollment at St. Ignatius Catholic School has increased significantly since Vande Hey became headmaster. There are more than 225 students enrolled in the grade school and around 30 high schoolers, which is double what they anticipated for their inaugural year. They are drawing families from a widespread area, as far away as Winneconne, Stephensville, Neenah, Brillion, De Pere and Hilbert.

Students from any type of school setting — public or private — regardless of grade, can make the switch to St. Ignatius. “Chesterton Academy designed a program that, even if you had no classical education, you’ll be able to get started,” he said.

The academy offers a directed high school curriculum. “The freshman year is, ‘Where is God?’ so the kids read the Old Testament, they study (ancient civilizations), they read The Iliad and The Odyssey, and they study Aristotle in philosophy class, even astronomy. 

The other school year themes include:

Sophomore year: “Jesus is God.” They read St. Augustine and the New Testament.

Junior year: “What is God’s or Jesus’ impact on the world?”

Senior year: “What’s your place in the mission?” They end the year with “The Everlasting Man” by G.K. Chesterton.

Vande Hey said classical education “puts ideas together to see how things are connected, as opposed to putting everything in a silo.”

“We use the Socratic method. It’s been tried and true for 2,500 years because it works,” he said. “It allows people to explore and ask the big questions and it’s a safe environment for kids to challenge, to really make that idea their own. It’s kind of a lost art and we’re trying to reclaim that and use that here.”

Every student in the high school will participate in the arts, including debate, drama and music classes. Extracurricular sports are available, with plans for St. Ignatius Catholic High School to co-op with a local public high school to play sports that need a higher number of participants to form a team. 

While parents appreciate the idea of a classical education for their children, that’s not the primary reason for choosing St. Ignatius, said Vande Hey. “The Catholic identity was the No. 1 thing parents are looking for. They want a school where their child can grow in prayer and grow as a Catholic disciple. They want their children to encounter Jesus every day at school,” he said.

Students get exactly that. Upperclassmen attend daily Mass. On Mondays, all of the students have the opportunity to go to eucharistic adoration. The middle school students have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours every morning since the grade school opened.