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Rural school embraces classical education, Catholic identity
By Carl Bunderson
Credit: St. Anthony Catholic School in Sterling, Colo.
Credit: St. Anthony Catholic School in Sterling, Colo.

.- A Catholic grade school on Colorado's eastern plains is working to adopt a classical curriculum, in the hopes of revitalizing the school community and providing a well-rounded formation for its students.

“We decided we needed to re-explore our Catholic roots in education,” said Joseph Skerjanec, principal of St. Anthony Catholic School in Sterling, Colo.

“We've always distinguished ourselves by our faith, but also academically, we thought this was the best thing: to get back to the Catholic intellectual tradition,” he explained to CNA Jan. 30.

“The purpose of education ultimately is to get to heaven, and we feel this is the best route for us to do that.”

After serving the families of northeastern Colorado for 95 years, St. Anthony's nearly had to close this academic year, but was saved through a successful fundraising campaign.

Skerjanec, together with the faculty and the parish, realized that embracing a classical curriculum might help the school to continue to serve students into the future, by offering “virtue education … and exposing our kids to those people who we need to be modeling our lives after.”

Classical, or liberal arts, education is meant to help students learn how to think, giving them the tools of learning rather than merely teaching them “subjects.” The foundation of classical education is a set of three methods of learning subjects, called the trivium – grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Skerjanec noted that there is a trend of Catholic schools “moving toward classical education … I think you'll find a lot of schools doing this.”

He added that Andrew Seeley, a professor at Thomas Aquinas College in California and director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, has trained the school's staff in the methods of teaching classically.

“The students themselves love it, and I do too. It's been a wonderful experience, very rejuvenating … in a lot of ways it's not new; it's just rediscovering who we are.”

The principal explained that “we spend a lot of our teachers' meetings exploring writings, documents about it, then talking about how it can be implemented,” and “it's been very good for us.”

“It's slowly being implemented,” he noted. “We decided to start with social studies and literature, because that's where a lot of the 'meat' of classical education exists.”

St. Anthony's was introduced to classical education after the son of parish deacon Ron Michieli returned from a classical college and started leading groups in the community. This inspired Deacon Michieli to share the idea with St. Anthony's pastor and with Skerjanec.

“It just feels right,” Skerjanec reflected. “I spent 15 years in public education, and it just always felt like there was something else, something more; and when I finally realized that getting back to the Catholic intellectual tradition was where it was at, it was like a light bulb going off for me.”

Abbey Daly, a new teacher at the school who received a classical education at Wyoming Catholic College, said she has “discovered the importance of memorization” for her middle school classes at St. Anthony's, where she teaches literature, history, logic, Latin and grammar.

“That's been the most enjoyable thing for me: helping the kids in class memorize poetry, Latin forms, presidents, states,” she told CNA. Memorization is an important part of classical education, particularly for younger students, helping to develop intellectual virtues.

Daly explained the importance of classical education “not as a means of getting ahead in life, but as simply a way of being happy no matter what you do in life – farming, or driving a truck, or being a lawyer, whatever God is calling you to be. Latin, learning history this way, learning philosophy and logic, are helpful no matter what God is calling you to do.”

Skerjanec said the school has been explaining its new classical curriculum to parents and parishioners, and hopes to boost enrollment in future years, especially by reaching out to communities around Sterling.

St. Anthony's is the only Catholic school on Colorado's eastern plains among the three dioceses serving the area. The nearest Catholic school is in Greeley, more than 90 miles away.

“No matter where you live, you should have the opportunity to send your kids to a Catholic school, whether it's in a busy place like the Front Range, or out here on the plains with a rural setting,” the principal said.

St. Anthony's “doesn't turn anyone away,” he noted, adding that this is what makes the school's financial planning so important: “we don't want to turn anyone away. Anyone who wants a Catholic education should get one.”

He called it a “blessing” that “while we see so many Catholic schools closing, we're still here, and our community still supports us.”

To stay open for the 2014-15 academic year, St. Anthony's set a goal of raising $600,000 last year. The school ended up raising $1.1 million.

“It truly solidifies the point that our community supports us,” Skerjanec said. “They think it's important that we're here, and we just need to get the word out to regenerate that support; but we cannot thank our benefactors enough for what they've done for us.”

“People from all over have supported us … we're very, very blessed and very thankful, and very humbled by it.”

Tags: Catholic Schools, Catholic education


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