"When we started developing a new curriculum, we were trying to save our school," said Mary Pat Donoghue, St. Jerome's principal. "But now, in an era of growing malaise and cynicism, we're equipping young minds and hearts to save civilization itself."
Rania Rosborough, a doctor who sends three of her children to St. Jerome, said she was less-than thrilled with the instruction she got from public schools while growing up in Maryland. She and her husband wanted more for their kids.
"We liked its chronologic approach to history, the thorough treatment of grammar and training in Latin," she said. She liked how the school trains kindergartners about ancient Egypt, first-graders about ancient Greece and second-graders about the Roman Empire, onward through history.
"We feel a basic timeline of world history provides context for understanding current events," she said, "and a fractured presentation of history impedes its lessons."
Although the majority of classical schools are Christian and conservative, the ideas transfer to schools of all political leanings, said Jonathan Beeson, a Yale Divinity School graduate and former Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism and became the principal of St. Theresa Catholic School in Sugar Land, Texas.
"There's nothing in classical education inherently conservative or liberal," he said. "And we're not scared of memorization. Kids need content in their brains and they're wired to absorb it. You can't reflect on something if it's not in your brain in the first place."
At St. Theresa, students attend classes in buildings designed by ecclesiastical architect Duncan G. Stroik. The Doric columns, airy atrium and white-and-green terrazzo floors import Mediterranean classicism onto the Texas prairie.
"When I saw the plans for this building, I wanted to join this project because the priest here understood the aesthetics necessary for academic formation," Beeson said.
When his pre-K-through-fifth-grade school starts again in the fall, it will have 160 students. Second-graders learn Greek history with the help of children's versions of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." Latin lessons start in first grade.
"I hope they'll be reading Latin literature some day," he said. "That's the main goal. Kids who understand grammar have a better chance of being writers."
Educators couldn't point to independent studies on classical education's effectiveness. Each year, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools compares the SAT scores of classically educated students with national statistics. The class of 2012 averaged 621 in reading, 606 in writing and 597 in math, scores much higher than the national average. A 2011 survey of its member schools' alumni showed that 98.3% attended college. Of those students, 34.8% attended a Christian university. Their top secular picks were Georgia Tech, the University of Southern California and the U.S. Naval Academy.
"Most schools report that their graduates are very competitive, and many enter selective colleges," said Classical Academic Press' Perrin, who blogs out of insideclassicaled.com.
The idea is catching on with parents and educators alike. Some school systems have adopted classical models in public charter schools. Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, got into the act with Ridgeview Classical Schools, a K-12 charter school. It's ranked 103 in the country on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best high schools.
In the Phoenix area, there is Great Hearts Academies, a network of 16 public charter classical schools. The schools' stress that even their students' down time, like their after-school dances, must be classical in nature. One of the "philosophical pillars" on its site states: "We believe, with Plato, that the highest goal of education is to become good, intellectually and morally."
And Hillsdale College, a private, liberal arts institution in southern Michigan, is starting up classical charter schools around the country with funding from the Barney Family Foundation. It opened schools in Moriarty, New Mexico; and Lewisville, Texas; last fall. A third will open this fall in Savannah, Georgia, and four more are planned for Atlanta, Las Vegas, Columbus, Ohio; and Naples, Florida.
"A comment I constantly hear is 'I want my child to learn to think' and that is what we specialize in. Our children memorize reams of grammar, Scripture, history facts and chants; things people don't bother to do any more," said Seth Drown, dean of academic affairs for Augustine School in Tennessee, where enrollment has increased every year for the past decade. "What education needs to have is knowledge, skill and understanding. Most people think education is about the first one on that list. But knowledge is just the platform for the other two.
"Deep down, don't we all want meaning in life? It's when you step back and look at the big picture, that is when meaning gets attached to learning. And that is what we all desperately want."